mafia power play
THE 1998 DETAILS MAGAZINE EXPOSE OF ALLEGED CORRUPTION: The NHL's protest  and reactions from NHL players
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cover of details magazine When Vyacheslav Fetisov first laced his skates for the New Jersey Devils in 1989, he was a pioneer: That year, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still Prime Minister and the Iron Curtain still stood, five Soviet players made the leap to the NHL-- most of them, including Fetisov, had played for the elite Central Red Army Team.

Now, more than sixty players from Russia and the former Soviet Union play in the NHL. They have brought a different style of play to North America, adding speed and grace to a sport known for its bullying "enforcers" and bench-clearing brawls. They also brought with them significant and powerful elements of Russian organized crime -- at least this was the claim made by Robert I. Friedman, when he published "Power Play" in the May, 1998 issue of Details Magazine.

Friedman was not the first to describe links between NHL players and Russian organized crime: Throughout the early 1990's, newspaper reports appeared throughout Canada and the United States describing extortion plots targeting former Soviet hockey stars who had recently signed rich NHL contracts. Few of the players corroborated the stories: Many feared worsening their position with the extortionists, who often threatened players' families still living in Russia. In one case, Alexander Mogilny, a star with the Vancouver Canucks, reported a plot against him to the FBI, resulting in one of the only arrests in such cases. Tellingly, Mogilny later refused to talk about being extorted.

power play (article) Friedman's article went beyond earlier accounts, however. It was more comprehensive and detailed, and it emphasized claims about several players who had allegedly crossed the line from victim of Russian organized crime to ally. The players responded bitterly and angrily to the Details article.

The Moscow Times published a front page story in which Pavel Bure denied any association with Russian organized crime. "Trying to clear your name after such false information," he said, was "like trying to wash yourself off from so much dirt."

Valeri Kamensky, a star winger for the Colorado Avalanche told the Denver Rocky Mountain News: "I'm angry and upset because I never hear about Russian Mafia. They never bothered me, and I never kept in touch with them." (About the letter of reference the star player reportedly helped generate for a reputed Russian mob figure, Kamensky said he remembered nothing -- "It's long timeago, you know?")

And Vyacheslav Fetisov, the man who many credit for leading the "Russian Revolution" of the NHL, was upset that the Details article appeared just as his Detroit Red Wings were making their run as repeat Stanley Cup Champions. "I have no relationship, no business to deal with any Russian mob," Fetisov told the Detroit News. "I never had any business to deal with anybody."

The NHL, though its attorneys, denounced the Details piece as "false, misleading, and defamatory," demanding an immediate retraction which they never got. The NHL letter focused on two matters: the nature and extent of NHL cooperation with investigations into the problem, and the possibility of organized crime "fixing" league games.

The worst news, perhaps, landed on Friedman himself. On June 10, 1998, Friedman received a call from an FBI agent specializing in Russian organized crime in New York. "The information is that a Russian organized crime figure has ordered, has taken out a contract on your life," the New York Times later reported the FBI agents' warning. Friedman briefly went into hiding in Vermont. After returning home, he received two items through the mail: a gift of a bulletproof vest from Details, and a letter mailed from a Federal Prison in New York with a handwritten death threat and a note that read, "It was easy finding a Valentine for someone like you." The note was signed by Vyacheslav Ivankov. Friedman struck a defiant tone in his published response. "I want [Ivankov] to know that he cannot treat the American press the same way the Mafia does in Russia." Friedman is alive and well in New York and still a contributing editor for Details.

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