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Russia, hockey and dominance. Sound familiar?

It might not be the Red Army, but the Russians certainly will play a major part in this weekend's draft.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001


Fifty NHL scouts traveled to Moscow recently for a showcase scrimmage of Russian prospects. But as game time approached, the doors to the arena slammed closed.

No admittance, local officials said.

"Finally," Lightning head scout Jake Goertzen recalled, "there were a couple of guys who knew somebody and they'd let one or two (scouts) in, but the majority of us never did get in there."

It's all part of doing business in Russia, a hockey-rich country which jealously guards its talent, and whose size -- it is almost two times larger than Canada -- makes mining the rinks as difficult as mining gold.

"But you have to do it," Lightning general manager Rick Dudley said. "This is a country of 300-million people, and a large percentage of the male population plays hockey. If you can cover the entire country, you're seeing a large percentage of the hockey players in the world."

NHL teams have drafted 351 players from Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union, 31 more than runner-up Sweden among European nations.

Of the 123 European players drafted last year, 44 (35.8 percent) were from the former Soviet Union.

The Lightning selected five Russians with last year's 10 picks, including first-round choice Nikita Alexeev. And there is a good chance it will select Russian center Alexander Svitov with the third overall pick at this weekend's draft at National Car Rental Center in Sunrise.

The top of the draft is expected to be a Russian showcase. Including right wing Ilja Kovalchuk, the consensus No. 1 pick, and forward Stanislav Chistov, the top three selections may be Russian.

What sets Russian players apart? "Their skill," Dudley said. "They work so specifically on skill, and their skating is exceptional."

Its climate also allows for year-round training. Vestiges of the old Soviet system that created the feared Red Army team still are in place. And Dudley said today's players see hockey, and the NHL, as "a vehicle to get out of a repressed situation."

NHL scouts are willing to help, but it is easier said than done. Goertzen said travel to Siberian cities like Magnitogorsk, Chelyabinsk and Omsk, where Svitov and Chistov play, can be crude and include 30-hour train rides or 8-hour flights.

"Russia is the last frontier," Goertzen said. "People are still a little leery about taking those train rides or hopping on a plane that doesn't look that great."

Goertzen said he has watched games in places where he was the only NHL scout. "And we're going to get a player or two because we went there," he said. He wouldn't name the cities. "I can't do that because then everyone will know."

Information can be at a premium when scouts watch a local hero.

"People at hockey rinks don't necessarily want an NHL person there," Dudley said. "I guess they liken it to when they had the Red Army team, the Big Red Machine, and they were the power in hockey. Now most of the players who would have been on that team are in the National Hockey League, so I guess they do resent it a little bit."

"The fans will get on you," Goertzen said. " "You're here to steal our players.' It's just water off your back. You don't even look at them."

Lightning scout Karri Kettunen, who is based in Finland, but helps cover Russia, said it is not uncommon for game times and jersey numbers to be intentionally changed, and basic player information, like names and ages, to be unavailable.

"You can't find a player and nobody knows," Kettunen said.

In the smaller towns, no one speaks English. That's when Kettunen grabs Lightning scout and Russian native Yuri Yanchenkov.

"We go downstairs with Yuri and find out one way or another," Kettunen said. "We'll find some guy who's so nice he'll use a name. Sometimes Yuri will get an official. It's not so easy."

Watching a game can be a cultural shock. Goertzen said the teams' fan clubs are separated within arenas to avoid violence.

Once, Goertzen said, a fight broke out between rival fans in Moscow, and the brawl moved "like a wave" toward where he was sitting.

"I heard the rumble and I looked up and they were coming at us because they were being chased," he said. "It petered out as it got to us. It was pretty scary."

Then there was the time Dudley said 300 bomb-sniffing dogs combed through an arena in St. Petersburg to ensure the safety of Russian president Alexander Putin, who was to watch a game.

"He didn't get nearly the attention Alexei Yashin and his girlfriend got," Dudley said.

And not nearly as much as Dudley paid to the game.

NHL draft

Saturday and Sunday, National Car Rental Center, Sunrise. TV: ESPN2.

LIGHTNING PICKS: Rounds -- 1 (third overall), 2 (46), 4 (97), 5 (149), 7 (216, 220), 8 (257), 9 (259, 279).

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