Ex-Red Army player breaks the NHL ice (briefly) as league's first Soviet skater
It is hard to know where 6 ft. 1 in., 180-lb. center Victor Nechaev's English ends and his Russian begins, or maybe it's vice versa. But this native of Siberia, who until a few days ago was a member of the Los Angeles Kings, has learned capitalism in a hurry.
Called up from L.A.'s New Haven farm team to fill a void at center caused by injuries, Nechaev made history on Oct. 16 by becoming the first Russian ever to play in the National Hockey League. No one expected him to remain with the Kings once the injury crisis was over. He would sign a contract, which both L.A. and his agent claim he agreed to do, and then try to work his way back to the Kings via New Haven.
Ordered back to the minors after three games with L.A., Nechaev told his agent that he wouldn't go and that he wanted him to negotiate a contract for him with another NHL team. When the agent reminded Victor that his agreement with the Kings was binding through June, Victor fired the man and got himself a new agent.
Nechaev thinks he is good enough to play regularly in the NHL and that L.A. treated him badly. The fact that he was only the Kings' seventh pick in the 1982 NHL entry draft and the 132nd player selected overall cuts no ice with Victor. Next thing you know, he'll be subscribing to The Wall Street Journal.
In a game that had the makings of a publicity man's dream, the Kings faced the defending champion New York Islanders in Nechaev's NHL debut. The New York press was there to record every move, only Victor didn't score a goal.
Instead Nechaev waited until the following evening to put his first NHL puck into the net against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Surely something will have to be done about Victor's sense of theater, although there is nothing wrong with his rocketing slap shot.
The thing you have to understand about Nechaev is that he is not yet a complete hockey player in the opinion of his American employers.
''We think, if Victor had continued to improve, that he could possibly make the Kings squad in about a year,'' explained L.A. general manager George Maguire. ''But he had some things against him. He's 27, which is old for a rookie in this league, and he didn't forecheck much, which is mandatory on this club. There was also the language barrier with his teammates, although he does speak some English and will get better.
''Part of Nechaev's failure to forecheck, of course, was due to his training as a Russian-born hockey player,'' Maguire added. ''They do things differently over there, like playing a zone defense, where contact is incidental. Unless Victor had become more aggressive with us, we couldn't have afforded him. We actually talked to him about this a couple of times while he was still with us, but it didn't seem to register.
''Basically we liked his potential, because we thought that once he learned what we wanted, he'd adjust. He was not a great skater, but had a pretty good sense of where his teammates were on the ice. Whenever he controlled the puck and there was time, he would look to see if one of his teammates was more open than he was before he took the shot.''
The night I interviewed Nechaev in the Kings' dressing room at the Forum, L.A. was coming off an easy win over the New Jersey Devils in which Victor had played very little.
''I would like to take a regular turn on the ice, only I don't know why they don't play me,'' he said. ''They bring me up and then they don't use me. I don't like it when the coach doesn't tell me why I don't play.'' Yet all the time Nechaev was talking he appeared to be smiling.
When asked what the biggest difference was between the National Hockey League and the brand of hockey played in the Soviet Union, Victor replied:
''In the NHL they play only one way - offense. You shoot the puck in the corner; you fight for the puck; then when you get possession you shoot puck.
''In Soviet Union, there are so many different tactics; so many different ways to play the game. You work all the time on combinations with your teammates. Before every game, coach takes you aside and asks you to do special little things.
''In United States and Canada, I don't think they like Soviet brand of hockey. They always think their way better. But I notice when Soviets play against National Hockey League All-Star team a few years ago, Soviets win their share of games.''
At this point in our interview we were joined by an executive of a Russian-language radio station in L.A., who offereed to serve as an interpreter. Through this go-between we learned that although Victor is still a citizen of the Soviet Union, he is married to an American.
''He says he met his wife in Switzerland in 1976, when he is playing hockey there with the Red Army team,'' the interpreter remarked. ''She was an American tourist and her name is Sheryl. They date, they write letters to each other, they visit whenever they can, and in 1980 get married in Leningrad.''
Sheryl, according to the interpreter, is majoring in political science at the University of Connecticut, but Victor tells me later that her school is Yale. Their home, when they are able to be together, is in Connecticut.
''Victor wants you to know,'' the interpreter added, ''that he is not homesick or lonesome and that he is capable of playing at the National Hockey League level.''
I didn't have the heart to ask Nechaev if he had bought any stock yet in General Motors!