Soviet legend Viktor Tikhonov, viewed as a hockey villain in the West, changed the game forever

Soviet legend Viktor Tikhonov, viewed as a hockey villain in the West, changed the game forever

Two years ago, while working on a project during the NHL lockout, I found myself waiting outside the dressing room at the CSKA Ice Palace, the old arena on Leningradsky Prospect in Moscow. On the wall: a black-and-white photo of legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov. It was huge, floor to ceiling, larger than life.

As I studied it, an old man walked past. I did a double-take.

“Hey,” I asked an official, “is that Viktor Tikhonov?”

“No interviews!”

“OK. But is that him?”

“No interviews!”

It was him.

To the West, Tikhonov was always a mysterious figure – a villain, the enemy, even – because he coached the Soviet national team and the Central Red Army during the Cold War. He embodied everything about hockey under communism, forcing his players to train 11 months a year, restricting their freedoms.

Tikhonov was a mysterious figure who didn't share his coaching secrets. (Getty)
Tikhonov was a mysterious figure who didn't share his coaching secrets. (Getty)

His mystery remained after the fall of the Iron Curtain. He didn’t speak English. He didn’t care to reveal secrets, anyway. Legendary NHL coach Scotty Bowman once sat down and compared notes with Anatoli Tarasov, the father of Soviet hockey, Tikhonov’s predecessor. With Tikhonov? He got little more than hello.

“Very private guy,” Bowman said Monday. “Every time I met him, he didn’t talk much.”

But Viktor Vasilyevich Tikhonov, who has died at age 84, had an impact on the game that is felt today around the world – from Russia to North America. He was a product of his time in many ways. He was ahead of his time in others. He belongs in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I think he’s been nominated but never got elected,” said Bowman, who has been on the selection committee. “But you never know. His record’s terrific.”

We remember Tikhonov for losing the “Miracle on Ice” – the semifinal between the Soviet Union and the United States at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics – in which he panicked and replaced star goaltender Vladislav Tretiak with backup Vladimir Myshkin.

We tend to forget why it was a “miracle.” The Soviets sent their best while others sent their best amateurs, of course, but their best were damn good and played their own style. They valued skill, speed and possession. They would regroup instead of dump the puck. They got you going one way, and the next thing you knew, the puck was going the opposite direction.

“They had the puck all the time,” said Ottawa Senators coach Paul MacLean, who played for Team Canada in Lake Placid and suffered a 6-4 loss to the Soviets. “Their organization and tactics were drastically different than anything we’d seen before that, so it took a little while to adjust to them. It was always fun to play them.”

Tikhonov ran the “Red Machine.” He led the Soviets to victory in the Canada Cup in 1981. He led them to Olympic gold in ’84 and ’88. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he led the Unified Team to Olympic gold in ’92. He also led Central Red Army to 13 straight Soviet titles and 13 straight European titles.

He could be brutal. Not only did he make his players train, train, train, he didn’t allow them to speak to outsiders, let alone the media. They weren’t allowed to live in the Olympic Village. Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov eventually forced their way to the NHL. Others defected.

“We didn’t have any freedoms,” Larionov once said.

But what Tikhonov did must be kept in context. “He had to do that,” Bowman said. “They had to win, or he probably would have … I don’t know what they would have done with him, you know?”

Look at the kind of players he molded: “The best way to describe them, they were in condition the way the NHL players are now,” Bowman said. “There’s no guys in the NHL that aren’t fit, and that’s the way they were.”

Tikhonov was a hockey pioneer whose teams won three Olympic golds and eight world championships. (AP)
Tikhonov was a hockey pioneer whose teams won three Olympic golds and eight world championships. (AP)

Look at this: Tikhonov first used the ‘Green Unit’ of Fetisov, Larionov, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov. Bowman later used the ‘Russian Five’ of Fetisov, Larionov, Sergei Fedorov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Kozlov with the Detroit Red Wings. Tikhonov preached puck possession; Bowman preached the same in Detroit. Now that is the gold standard of the analytics era in the NHL.

“Those guys had a huge impact on hockey,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who led Team Canada to the last two Olympic golds. “I really think it started the understanding of how good the other countries really were and led to what we have today in the NHL, players from all over the world.”

Times change. People change. Fedorov defected in 1990, sneaking out of a hotel during a tournament in Portland, Ore. But in 1991, still before the fall of the Soviet Union, he rejoined the USSR for the Canada Cup. He was proud to play for Tikhonov. He just didn’t want to spend 11 months a year in camp when he could play in the NHL, make millions of dollars and live a North American lifestyle. And Tikhonov took him back.

“I felt as a Russian young player that I still part of the Soviet Union very much, and I’m still part of the school that Viktor Vasilyevich taught me,” Fedorov told me two years ago on that trip to Moscow. “I came back, and I felt there might be some repercussions, but none of them happened. Everything went down to business, and I played. …

“At that time for me, we kind of bury the hatchet a little bit. I show him I’m a good guy, good player, just could not live on a hockey base all my life. There was a second sort of part to hockey player life, and that was maybe play somewhere else.”

Fedorov played once more for Tikhonov, when Russian stars toured their home country in the mid-1990s. He played several more times for Russia in international tournaments.

Tikhonov’s son, Vasili, became an assistant coach for the San Jose Sharks (and died last year in an accident). His grandson, Viktor, spent much of his youth in the United States and speaks perfect English. He played in the NHL for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2008-09 before going to the minors and then the KHL. The younger Viktor Tikhonov once described the older Viktor Tikhonov as “normal,” “really kind” and “really helpful,” not ruthless.

“Obviously I’ve heard the stories that he’s been a disciplinarian, but I’ve never really got it on me,” he told reporters. “That was mostly my dad’s job.”

After Fedorov retired, he became the general manager of CSKA Moscow in the KHL. His mentor: Viktor Vasilyevich Tikhonov, the “honorable president of the club,” who had an office down the hall from his.

“I know how deeply involved he was with the players that he trained, and now I understand how much he spend as a coach – energy, emotions, like, anything – to make us to play the best hockey, to bring Russia all those titles,” Fedorov said. “And I'm telling you, this is hard level to match. For me, so far, not possible, at all.

“I understand circumstances were whatever Viktor Vasilyevich wants. But what he did on the ice, it was just very hard, incredible magic.”