Back in the USSR

Wife’s sister, my sister-in-law, has a vivid imagination, and a great sense of empathy, both character eemraits that make her a caring and a popular person. What it also does is create false memories, because when she hears a good story – and she loves a good story – she gets so into it that when she tells the story later on to somebody else, she may tell it in first-person, thinking that whatever happened, had happened to her.

Of course, it doesn’t happen with every story, and with everyone, it’s often when Wife, her sister, tells her something that their experiences get intertwined. It’s sort of like meeting a celebrity on the street, and saying good morning to her, because you think it’s another one of your friends, when it is, in fact, one of the Friends.

I was there.

That happened to me when I walked inside the Sunshine Cinema in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to see “Red Army”, a documentary film about the Soviet national hockey team.

The Sunshine Cinema has been there since 1917, and flourished until 1945, when it closed and was turned into a warehouse. At the same time, across the world, Anatoli Tarasov was busy putting together the CSKA Moscow hockey department, one that would feed the Red Army team its star players.

In the movie, Vyacheslav Fetisov tells his story about standing in line for a whole day, eight hours, for his hockey school audition, and then not at all as long for the thanks-but-no-thanks in his first year.

I had read about the auditions in one of my dearest possessions, Valeri Kharlamov’s autobiography, that I got for Christmas when was eleven years old. I’ve read the book a hundred times, and even today, go back to it for certain words of wisdom.

Tarasov gives them a pep talk, he laughs, he yells, he wonders why they’re not smiling because, after all, “You’re playing hockey!”

It was that Soviet national team, albeit a generation before the one depicted in “Red Army” that I looked up to as a kid. When Valeri wrote you should never complain on the ice, I vowed never to do it on the ice. When Valeri wrote that Tarasov made him walk around squeezing a tennis ball to gain arm strength, I started to walk around with a tennis ball.

Except, it wasn’t just me. It was me and Dad.

Dad had been something of an athlete in his teens, and had even played hockey. In fact, one of my earliest sensory memories is from Dad’s game. I remember how we parked the car by the side of the road, walked in the snow to the rink where I then got to sit in an actual dressing room, surrounded by actual (beer league) hockey players, and I can still smell his hockey gloves.

And I like it.

Fetisov was determined to get into the CSKA hockey school, just as determined as Vladislav Tretyak had been, in his pursuit of a real goalie’s equipment, only available at the hockey school. Fetisov’s parents saved money and pulled some strings to get “Slava” hockey equipment, and then he went to work on his own, practicing his skating, day in, day out, several hours a day, all winter long.

The next year, he made the cut, and Tarasov took him under his wings.

Kharlamov was our favorite and my idol, Tarasov became Dad’s idol. One summer, he sat by our kitchen counter for weeks, with his back to the door, facing the street, with all kinds of papers, and books and leaflets and pamphlets, putting together a hockey guidebook for each player on our team, basing his philosophy on that of Tarasov’s.

And this is where I get into the Sister-in-law land.

On the screen, Tarasov gets on his knees on the ice to talk to the kids – and then gets helped up by two of his assistants. Tarasov gives them a pep talk, he laughs, he yells, he wonders why they’re not smiling because, after all, “You’re playing hockey!”

I watch him do his “boogie-woogie” dance to show the players how to move in a creative way, and I see the national team players run up a wall to work on their foot speed, and I’m not sure if that was me or the Soviet kids he was talking to, and whether it was perhaps me running up the wall because a couple of years after Dad had put together his manual, Tarasov visited our hometown, and we did get to meet him, and we did run up the wall. Well, not we, I did, and not a wall, but a trunk of a birch tree.

So when the players run up the wall on screen, I’m counting their steps and I can hear Tarasov yell in the background, but now it’s in the back of my head, and he’s yelling the players on my team, in Russian, that everyone must get at least three steps up the trunk of the tree.

I watch the Soviet players on the screen, and I count their steps. They all get three steps in.

In one scene, in which Fetisov is back at Tarasov’s dacha, the old master makes Fetisov carry a young boy on his shoulders, and I’m wondering if that’s Tarasov’s grandson, my Facebook friend – or is it me?

I see a glimpse of Kharlamov on a rowing machine, and then, suddenly, there’s Wayne Gretzky on the screen, and we’re in 1981.


That was the summer we moved from Helsinki to Joensuu, two years before Tarasov’s visit to Joensuu, two years before he made us do somersaults even though none of us knew how to do one. I guess he went soft on us and let us do it on grass instead of the parking lot where he had made a couple of my teammates do rolls as a punishment for climbing over the face instead using the door.

That was the summer of the Canada Cup, just weeks after Valeri Kharlamov had died in a car accident. Gretzky was my new hero, the young superstar who bridged the old hockey world, with tough Canadians playing without helmets – like Guy Lafleur, whom I had never seen play before the Canada Cup final – and the new world of fast-paced hockey.

Wayne Gretzky led the tournament in scoring, but he didn’t register a point in the final, which the Soviets won 8-1, led by Fetisov, Sergei Makarov, and my favorite Vladimir Krutov, who I had seen at the World Juniors in Helsinki. Krutov scored the Soviets’ sixth goal, when he faked a slap shot and when Lafleur hesitated and stopped, skated easily around him.

Present-day Makarov wasn’t in the “Red Army”, neither was centerman Igor Larionov. Krutov was. His sad eyes – they always looked sad – were begging the camera to turn away because he didn’t really want to talk about the past. Or the future, and then my eyes turned sad because I knew Krutov wasn’t going to have a future. He died in June 2012.

He’d probably done the interview as a favor to Fetisov, just like he backed him up when Fetisov was trying to get to the NHL.

I’d seen Krutov and Larionov at the Vancouver Canucks training camp in 1990. I stood behind the plexiglass behind the net and watched them circle the ice. It was a year after they’d left the Soviet Union, and were trying to make a career in the NHL. Or at least Larionov was. The look on Krutov’s red face had turned from sad to troubled, and he was cut from the team in November.

The Canada Cup 1981 final game wasn’t shown live in Finland, and the delayed broadcast had been aired so early in the morning that Dad had taped it on our VCR and I watched it later that morning. Somewhere in the basement, I still have that VHS tape with a blue and white label “Kanada Cup 1981” on it.

Fetisov and Larionov won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997, sixteen years after the Canada Cup. Fetisov says he wanted to hoist the Cup together with Larionov and they do, and they take it back all the way to Moscow.

The Soviet Union was gone, and Tarasov, who’d been born in Russia – not Soviet Union – outlasted CCCP, but was also gone, having died in 1995.

As I walked out of the theatre, I cursed myself for not taking my new hockey sweater with me. The day before, a friend of mine had given me a white sweater with “CCCP” on the front, and “17 and “Харламов” in the back, a present so nice I never could have even imagined owning one. Literally. Back in the day, there weren’t any replica sweaters available to me, and certainly not that one. There was only one CCCP number 17, and Kharlamov was wearing it.

I looked at the others who had seen the film with me and I counted each one. I saw sixteen people. I was number 17.

It made me smile.

Sunshine.PS. It’s a marvelous movie. You should see it.


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