Russians ready for PA

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:50 AM ET

The last time Alexander Yakushev, Viktor Kuzkin and Valeri Vasiliev visited Winnipeg, their team of Soviets emerged from behind the Iron Curtain to play Team Canada to a 4-4 tie in Game 3 of the legendary Summit Series.

It was 1972, and the USSR, as it was called at the time, was in the process of waking up what we all assumed was the world's preeminent hockey nation.

Sure, we recovered to win the eight-game series on Paul Henderson's legendary goal, but Canadian hockey would never be the same.

Today, as the three Russians, along with countrymen from more recent eras, return for the start of the Canada-Russia Legends Classic Tour (Game 1 at the MTS Centre tonight, 7 p.m.), you can't help but be struck by how dramatically the sport's landscape has changed in both countries.

Strictly amateurs who had no chance of playing in the NHL in Yakushev's day, Russian players are now paid millions -- in both the NHL and the Russian Super League.

Movement afoot

There's even a movement afoot to establish a Russian players union.

You'll never guess who's at the forefront of it: none other than Alexander Kharlamov, son of the great Valeri Kharlamov, the late Russian star who had Team Canada so worried in the Summit Series that Flin Flon's own Bobby Clarke broke his ankle to get him off the ice.

Kharlamov, 30, downplays the incident now. But he doesn't downplay the importance of what he's trying to do in his homeland.

Trying to start a players association makes him the Alan Eagleson of Russia, I suppose -- aside from the fact he appears to have the players' best interests at heart.

"Everybody's ready for this," Kharlamov was saying yesterday. "It has to be done. They know I'm doing this. They're waiting for it. Other players are looking up to me."

Funny, because the same thing could be said of his dad back in the Russia of the 1970s, only for entirely different reasons.

One of the most revered sports figures in Russian history, Valeri Kharlamov was simply one of the best players to ever lace on a pair of blades.

If you watched the Summit Series, you'll remember his blinding speed and incredible moves. You might also remember he died at the age of 33, in a car crash, in 1981.

Drafted

Alexander never matched his father's on-ice talents. Drafted in the first round by the Washington Capitals in 1995, he spent a few years in the minors before going back to Russia, where he played up until last year.

Today he holds a job in the Russian Sports Ministry, headed up by another hockey great, former NHLer Vyacheslav Fetisov.

After the country's economic collapse a few years back, Russian hockey has rebounded, big-time, peaking during last season's NHL lockout. Increasingly, Russian players are returning home to teams backed by oil companies or car manufacturers.

Kharlamov, though, isn't sure where all the money is coming from.

"Nobody knows," he said. "Because tickets cost only two-and-a-half dollars, maybe three. That's all. You can't pay $1 million a year for a player."

The result is not all teams keep their promises.

"Where there's big money, we have big problems between owners and players," Kharlamov said. "We have a lot of players going to court, who have problems with contracts."

With his experience as a player and connections in government, Kharlamov thinks he can help.

His players union didn't quite get off the ground this season, but he's hopeful it will in 2006.

He figures his dad would be proud of his efforts, too.

And wouldn't that be a neat twist to the family legacy: future Russian players looking up to Alexander as the Kharlamov who had the most influence on their lives.


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