At five o'clock in the morning in one of the world's most fertile hockey towns, the mother of a nine-year-old boy gently rouses him from sleep. Dawn is still hours distant as Sasha Ilutovich begins his 30-minute hike toward the arena, crunching along the deserted streets of the small Russian city of Voskresensk, whose name translates as Sundayville. He is passed only by a few belching buses and sputtering Zhiguli sedans. Waiting for Sasha at the rink are two dozen classmates in imported skates and sundry hockey sweaters- Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, St. Louis Blues and, in garish Tweety Bird yellow, the local pro club, Khimik (or Chemical). The boys will hustle and chirp through a 90-minute workout, then dress, eat breakfast and go out in the snow to play soccer. When school is in session, the morning skate is followed by classes and then more skating. The boys' dream, they say with smiles, is embodied in three letters: "En kha el." The NHL.
Voskresensk (population 121,000) is an industrial town on the Moscow River, two or three hours' drive southeast of the Kremlin, depending on the number of times a motorist must halt to pay "fines" for imaginary offenses to the underpaid traffic police. Sundayville is not a handsome place-the smokestacks of the chemical factory dominate a stolid Stalinist skyline—but something in the heavy-hanging atmosphere turns ordinary boys into hockey supermen.
Eight current NHL players are alumni of the Voskresensk hockey school, which was once one of the jewels of the Soviet Union's sports empire. Four of these players—Igor Larionov and Slava Kozlov of the Detroit Red Wings, Valeri Kamensky of the Colorado Avalanche and Valeri Zelepukin of the Edmonton Oilers (and formerly of the New Jersey Devils)—have their names chiseled onto the Stanley Cup. Canada's most cherished tureen has become a Russian icon.
Sasha Ilutovich and his 12-year-old brother, Misha, dream of following the 55 players who came up through the old Soviet system and have spent at least part of this season in the NHL. Their bedroom is wallpapered with hockey trading cards. Those of Larionov, Kozlov and the other Voskresensk idols are in the uppermost row. But while Russian schoolboys pursue their fantasy of glory and riches in North America, their country's hockey superstructure is falling apart in a tragicomedy of bankrupt teams, empty arenas, absentee superstars, ham-handed extortion and unsolved murders.
In Moscow, not even the most blatant inducements to male spectators—topless women and free beer—have been sufficient to fill the arenas where such fabled clubs as Central Red Army, Dynamo and Spartak play. With virtually every high-caliber sniper gone to the NHL, or to Scandinavia, Germany or the North American minor and junior leagues, attendance at Russian arenas has fallen to the hundreds.
A squabble within the Central Red Army sports hierarchy has turned so surreal that two teams now play under that name in the same league. One of them, coached by the grim and brilliant former Olympic mentor Viktor Tikhonov, is so depleted that this season it was relegated to the second tier. It's a far cry from the years when 30,000 people would crowd into the Dynamo Stadium to cheer their heroes, outdoors, at 20 below.
"They have ruined our hockey," Boris Mayorov, a former Olympian, complains at the headquarters of the Russian Hockey Federation, just outside Moscow's giant (and still un-renamed) Lenin Stadium. "I understand when the talented players leave for the NHL. We can't pay those crazy salaries. But I'm astounded when NHL teams invite players with absolutely no talent. Sometimes I have the impression that the NHL is going to take everyone in Russia."
Mayorov, the manager of the national team, glowers menacingly, as if his fury might bring the boys home. He was a left wing with the gold medal Soviet side in the 1964 and '68 Winter Games and a participant in those bone-chilling outdoor games at Dynamo. "Some of our players live for seven, eight or nine years in America, and they lose contact with Russia," he says. "Some don't even want to come home on vacation. They take out U.S. citizenship. The majority have green cards."
Down the hall from Mayorov's den of woe is the office once occupied by federation president Valentin Sych. In April 1997 Sych was being chauffeured to his country home near Moscow when a man leaped out of a parked car and opened fire with a machine gun. The hockey czar was killed instantly. A few months earlier, Vladimir Bogach, the equipment manager of the Central Red Army team, had been murdered in the same way as he left a Moscow tennis club. (Neither homicide has been solved.) Such Godfather-ish mayhem—along with reports that several Russian NHL stars have been victims of extortion attempts by the amorphous Russian "mob"—may explain the eagerness of some expatriates to sever their ties with the old country.
Yet while hockey languishes in Moscow, it flourishes in the hinterland, where teams such as Khimik Voskresensk, Torpedo Yaroslavl, Avangard Omsk and Mettalurg Magnitogorsk fill their 6,000-seat arenas for most games at two or three dollars per ticket. Then again, what else is there to do on a Saturday night in Omsk?