The top stars of the day, this is the equivalent of the Espositos and Orrs,
Busicks, Howes, all the top guys. And basically the government has just left
them for dead, and, pathetically, they show up at the arena drunk, very drunk
just to get through the cold winters. Nobody knows where they live and it was
sad. I mean we had one guy, Vikolaf, one of the legends of CSKA, double gold
medal winner, had one of his fingers bitten off before one of the games by a
bear that was making a between-periods promotion for us and he was drunk, he
just kept pushing the bear saying: Ploho medved. Bad bear, bad bear. And the
next thing his finger was gone. And there's no treatment for the players.
There really should be, again, part of the NHL progra--there should be a
veterans legends program to take care of all the great stars of Russia that the
Soviet government denied any dollars to . . .
How did you manage to transform the environment of Russian hockey from that
drab thing we remembered, to the glitz?
Well it was actually quite easy, because no one had tried it before. So there
was no benchmark. We really had free rein to do everything. [Central Red Army Coach] Viktor Tikhonov
at the beginning was very reticent to let us try out some of the promotions.
And he took about a month until they let us actually do what we wanted to do.
What did you want to do?
Well, the opening night we wanted to have a woman come down on a rope, to start
the game, give the puck to the referee. And I remember Viktor Tikhonov said to
me, 'I'll only let you do it if you're the guy on the rope.' And I said okay,
I'll do it, I know how to climb. He said--'Good, 'cause I'll be up there with
a pair of scissors cutting you down.' So he had a good sense of humor, and I
think that the cultural difference was big problem at first, but after a while
they started to get a kick out of the insanity.
Tell me about the insanity, what kind of gimmicks did you come up
Well at the very beginning we had an empty building, so we had to fill it
quickly. And everybody loves beer, around the world, so we had a few free beer
nights from our big sponsor, Iron City Beer. We had strippers, we had all the
normal things that attract men. As soon as the building was full, we started
to gear up towards families. And that's when we could go to Disney, after we
had the families. So we got rid of some of the real crazy stuff, and then we
started to market very professionally, we would give premiums every night to
the fans. We had car giveaways from Chrysler. We had trips to the United
States to see the Stanley Cup finals courtesy of Delta Airlines. Every sponsor
got in on it, and these were real big prizes. And even on the off nights we
had free shaving cream and razors from Gillette. Even that was enough to draw
fans. . .
And what went wrong?
We did it too well. And the criminal element started to come to our games,
started to enjoy our games, started to evict our corporate sponsors out of
their super boxes. And we had a real high class problem, we had too much
interest, not enough super boxes. Our partners, Viktor Tikhonov and Valery
Gushin were afraid to confront the mafia. . .
The mafia, these were like hoods?
These were guys with the sawed off shotguns down their long coats, and smoking
away just like you'd imagine in movies, and this was sort of good news that we
were attracting the money. Unfortunately, it was a rough crowd. My suggestion
was--'Hey, let's build them their own super boxes, let's talk to them, and I'm
sure they'd have no trouble paying the twenty-three thousand dollars for the
season. ' And the comment that I got from my partners was--'You go ask them for
the money, 'cause if you do, you're gonna be hanging from the rafters by your
thumbs. . . '
When did you first become convinced of the reality of the danger of violence
Personally, I had my heart skip a few beats at the end of the second season
when one of the Mafia partners, with our Russian partners, came up to me and
offered me a job with his company.--suggesting that I leave the Pittsburgh
Penguins and work for them, that there was no need for the Americans anymore as
long as I was there. And I asked him how much they'd pay me, uh, through a
translator of course, and he didn't speak a word of English. And then finally,
when I told him it wasn't enough money, he started to laugh. . . And he said
well, we'll kill you for 6, 500 dollars. I said 6, 500 dollars for me? You
shouldn't be paying more than three grand. He laughed, tweaked his neck, which
means let's drink in Russian, and then started speaking perfect English to me
for the rest of the night. Never saw him again.
Kill you for 6,500 bucks.
You mentioned the fact that seeing the mafia at the hockey game. How did
you know you were seeing mafia, they didn't wear jerseys?
I think the guns were a tip off...
Long sawed-off shotguns, down their side of their coats. They travelled in
groups, and beautifully dressed businessmen -- beautifully dressed with
security forces. They'd come in with the limousines with the dark windows,
disobeying our parking rules, disobeying our smoking rules, disobeying
everything. And, basically, our partners said, Just back off, don't get
involved here, we'll take care of this. And, again, we had no way of knowing
if they were getting paid by the Mafia, or if they too were afraid. This is
How far did they go in terms of taking over the corporate boxes side of it.
What happened there?
Well, basically we couldn't build the superboxes fast enough. We only had
about eight to start, and we started selling them quickly to multinational
corporations, to Ernst and Young, to Delta, to Philip Morris, to Coca Cola, all
the major concerns that were sponsors. And they quickly got thrown out of
their boxes, which I thought was a good problem, until I realised we couldn't
even build the boxes for them. Our partners couldn't get it done quickly
enough and, therefore, we were basically reneging on our sponsorship deals. And
that's when I realised if we can't honor our commitments to our multinational
sponsors, because of the Mafia's influence in taking over their prime seating,
we're in trouble.
So they just walk into the box --
Took it --
Point a gun, somebody would say, "Get out."
They said this is our box, yeah, get out. That was it. We've had situations
where we had Nike coming in from Germany and from Beaverton, and two in the
morning I was paying a painter to spraypaint the Nike logo into the ice as part
of their sponsorship deal. At eight in the morning it had been cut out of the
ice by our partners. And I said, what are you doing? That's $100 000 to us,
which you get $50,000. He said no one asked us for permission. This was when
we knew we had a problem . . .
What about the killings, and how close were they to the hockey scene?
Well, it was frightening, in about a six month period, a player was killed on
our team, Alexander Osache, who was a San Jose Sharks pick. The team assistant
coach, Vladimir Bouvich, was killed. And our team photographer Felix Oliviov,
were all killed. Two of them gunned down Mafia-style, five bullets to the
head in front of their wives. The player, we're still not sure how he died.
He died in his room, in his apartment . . .
When did you learn this fact of life about doing business in Russia?
Well it was always there. I think any time you have a new capitalist
structure, there's always the chance for criminal elements. I mean, look at
the the twenties in Chicago, with Prohibition, and this is the "Wild East."
There's lawlessness, I've seen kiosk owners dragged out of their kiosks at high
noon and beaten by four guys . . . because they didn't pay their twenty percent
to the mafia. Most mafias, as you know, the traditional image of a mafia is
that they control certain industries. Construction, carting, the fish
industry, contracting. However, in Russia, they don't really make anything.
They just take everything. And they wanted twenty percent of everybody's
action. And the tax police wanted their money. And then the minor criminals
wanted their money. So it became impossible for companies to actually make
money over there, because, by the time you sold the can of beer or a chocolate
bar, it already cost more to bring it in than it does to sell it.
So, are you telling me that like this remarkable marketing success, was
written off in a matter of months?
We had two really beautiful seasons, and we were lucky enough to get some great
media from all over the world. German television, Canadian television, the US
was very high on it. Disney came in, I think that was the biggest part of the
whole deal is when Disney became our partner. And then I think the problem
was after the second year they felt that they learned enough from us, they saw
how we did it, and they figured they could take over. Why cut us in for fifty
percent when they could have the whole thing? And I think it was at the end of
the second season that we knew that we were ghosts. We were dead.
The Pittsburgh Penguins.
Did it ever cross anybody's mind to basically tell these people to go
Well. You can't do that over there. It's their country. And we always had to
realize that we were the imperialist capitalist dogs that Stalin and Brezhnev
and Lenin and everyone had told the Russians that we were. We had to be on
best behavior. And we had to respect the authorities; we had to respect
everyone over there. As a matter of fact that's why we became successful, is
because we paid tribute to all the deceased legends of the Red Army. Guys that
had never received ten dollars from the government, and we retired their
jerseys, brought their widows onto the ice, their children. And in Russia,
remember, it was never about individuals, it was always the team. And it was a
system, it was a machine, an evil machine that would dehumanize people. So
what we did is we started to make people human. To show the human side,
through promotions, through entertainment at our games. And I think it was too
much of a good thing too fast. . .
So, tell me, what did you think when the guys with the shotguns showed
I wondered if they were kalashnikovs or American made, I didn't know at first.
I naively went up to these big guys in the super boxes owned by Philip Morris
and I asked them if I could help them. And they just sort of laughed at me.
And I brought Sergei Starykof's kid who was eight years old with me so that
they really couldn't do much in front of a little kid. . . And [the kid] said
to me, Steven, I don't think you're gonna wanna hear what they're saying in
Russian. And I said, No, tell me. And that's when I realized that we became
so popular so fast, that we really had no safeguard against this criminal
element. We did bring in security, but you gotta understand that the security
forces in Russia, the police, are ineffective, they're useless against the new
rich, the new Russians. They have their own security forces that come into the
building hours in advance, check it out, make sure it's okay for their big guns
to come in.
I heard that they actually bought [advertising] space on the boards [around
the rink]. What was that all about?
Well it's very strange. We had a deal with the partners that we would sell
about eighty percent of the rink boards and leave twenty for them to sell.
Because we wanted to have Russian sponsors, not just multinationals. And one
game I looked down and I saw a company that I'd never heard of. And I asked
one of our partners--who is this? What do they make? He said, Don't ask.
Again, you'll be hanging from the rafters by your thumbs. And this became sort
of the easy way out for our partners that if something was a problem, it was
always mafia. So we never knew if it was a hundred percent mafia, fifty
percent mafia, or perhaps made up by greedy partners, we could never really
You're talking partners Tikhonov and Gushin.
These weren't boy scouts.
These are hard-line Communist.
And how big a part of the problem were they?
Well, I think that at the very beginning, they really had to swallow a lot of
pride, to get the cash from the Pittsburgh Penguins. And it really hurt them
in a strange way, to see the building full. They were happy that they were
making money, but they were embarrassed that it took Americans to come in to
Russia and show them how to do it. And I think that success really hurt us. I
mean it happened so fast. I remember one great story when I first got there.
That Valery Gushin said to me that--'not even Jesus Christ could fill this
building.' And I remember two months after the opening game, against Dynamo,
we were full. And I went up to him, I said--'Have you seen a guy with long
hair and sandals? ' And he didn't laugh. You know. This is -- there's no
humor in Russia . . . No matter how evil rival factions are, they're always
more attractive than the Americans. . .
What impact did this have on this little brief hockey renaissance that you
Well it killed the future of Russian hockey, and the [NHL/Russian]
partnerships, because the Detroit Red Wings were watching us very intently.
Michael Ilitch who owns Little Caesars and the Detroit Red Wings had already put a
restaurant in Prague, and he was already looking at Moscow and we figured what
a perfect venue to introduce his pizza. So they sent their staff over to
Moscow to consider purchasing the Krilya Sovietov team which is the Soviet
Wings, a perfect match with the Red Wings. . . And they got greedy. Which
seems to be the problem for the country is that the greed is so great, they
asked for five million dollars from the Detroit Red Wings. [The Red Wings]
countered with a million. Which was a million more than we gave to the Red Army
-- we only gave them marketing dollars, and expertise. And they left. The
Russians got too greedy, they didn't take the million, and, today, they owe
money, and there's tax collectors and bill collectors and no fans. And again,
this is, I think, the biggest tragedy: I think that everybody was watching the
Penguins and the Red Army and if this worked, perhaps every Russian elite team
would have an NHL affiliate. But they killed the goose. . .
Didn't the NHL also kill the golden goose by taking the best players
developed under the Soviet system and not doing anything to cultivate a future
crop of promising Russian players?
Well, I think the NHL has lost its conscience. I think that they have
neglected their responsibility to replacing the trees that they've cut down in
Russia. It's not different than a rain forest that's been denuded by a greedy
paper company, and they leave for the next rain forest. And I think it's very
shortsighted by the NHL, considering that almost twenty percent of the players
in the league are from the former Soviet Union, including the top stars of the
game. I think that American business is sort of a slash and burn, rape and
pillage mentality, just to get you to the next quarter for your stockholders'
meeting. And I think that from the commissioner on down to the general
managers, they have to succeed each quarter. They don't think about five, ten
years from now. . . [Russia] used to be a hatchery for the NHL. They would
just breed 'em, like little fish. And now, the hatcheries are drying up.
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