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Russian Hockey Enters A New Commercial Age

IT'S late in the third period in the Central Army hockey team's home opener. The visitors, a team called Traktor from the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, are drubbing the Army club, 5-1.

Normally, you'd expect to find Central Army team officials in a glum mood. But Mark Kelley, the new assistant to Central Army's general manager, is upbeat as he follows the action from a glass-enclosed box high above the rink.

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For Mr. Kelley, the score is secondary: He is more concerned about the pregame and between-periods action. That's because it's far more than just a regular-season contest - it's the dawn of a new era for Russian hockey: the Commercialization Age.

``The stress before the game was incredible,'' Kelley says. ``We were a little anxious about how the generals would react to all of it.''

Kelley is referring to a deal signed last June under which the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins agreed to help market the Central Army team (known by the acronym CSKA). The hype kicked off with the home opener recently.

The marketing venture meant a new identity for the most famous team in Russian sports. When playing outside Russia the team will now be known as the Russian Penguins. Gone is the hammer-and-sickle logo on the team's uniform. In its place is a skating penguin.

The games also have been jazzed up: Pregame festivities feature free beer and a circus performer. Between the first and second periods there is a figure-skating exhibition. And during play stoppages, rock music booms from the public-address system.

The Defense Ministry brass - perhaps the ultimate in corporate sports management - approved.

``These days, you need a sponsor. The Americans approached us and we are happy about it,'' said Gen. Valery Lapshov, an aide to Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, as he watched the game from a sky box.

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In the Soviet era, CSKA was a dynasty that even American baseball's New York Yankees could envy, winning 32 league championships since 1948, including 12 in a row from 1977-1989. But the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war hit the Defense Ministry, and CSKA, very hard.

The team couldn't prevent top stars from defecting to the NHL, including the Buffalo Sabres' Alexander Mogilny [see photo] and the Vancouver Canucks' Pavel Bure, leaving it only with young, unproven players.

Enter the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the top NHL teams, who were willing to put up ``in the neighborhood of a million dollars ... to make this [CSKA] again a breeding ground for great stars,'' says Stephen Warshaw, in charge of promotion.

The top priority of the marketing effort is to put people in the seats. That will lead to advertising revenue and licensing deals, as Warshaw sees it.

Judging by attendance, the game was a success. About 4,000 people came to the 5,700-seat arena, far larger than a typical crowd for a Russian league game. Even the reigning champs, Dynamo Moscow, rarely draw more than 1,000 per game.

``The fans seem to like it,'' Warshaw says of the music and glitz. ``The players also love it. But for the coaches ... it'll take a little time.''

To keep fans turning out, other promotions are planned, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin look-alike contests and barrel jumping.

As for advertising, several American businesses already are interested, including Little Caesar's Pizza.

Warshaw hopes the club can also make money by touring Europe and playing exhibition games against NHL clubs.

Warshaw and Kelley are quick to play up how the deal will benefit CSKA, but they're more tight-lipped about what's in it for Pittsburgh.

Both denied that the deal would lead to CSKA becoming a de facto farm team for the Penguins. Yet there appears to be a special relationship developing between the two clubs. Kelley is not only an assistant to CSKA's general manager, he's also a full-time scout for Pittsburgh.

By establishing a permanent Russian presence, the Penguins hope to gain an advantage over other NHL teams in evaluating and drafting Russian talent, Kelley says.

As for tonight's game, 5-1 is the final score. On a scale of 1 to 10, ``I'd have to rate tonight an eight,'' Kelley says. ``It would have been a nine if we had sold out, and a 10 if we had sold out and won.''

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