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Trip by two Canucks lifted curtain to Russia

Sunday, 04.06.2014 / 2:00 AM
Tal Pinchevsky  - NHL.com Staff Writer

The Vancouver Canucks needed answers and weren't shy about looking for them in unusual places.

Not even a trip to the 1982 Stanley Cup Final, where they were swept by the New York Islanders, could put a brave front on what the organization felt was a lost decade.

The Canucks owner, Arthur Griffiths, believed the change would come from harnessing the talents of Eastern European players who, to that point, had been excluded from the NHL.

Throughout the 1980s, the Canucks had a losing record every season, finishing last in the Smythe Division three times in four seasons between 1984-85 and 1987-88.

In that atmosphere, no idea was off-limits. This allowed the organization to turn to a potentially unorthodox avenue for help: Looking into acquiring players from Eastern Europe, particularly those behind the Iron Curtain.

No Eastern Bloc players had made the jump to the NHL. Most were banned from doing so by the communist governments that ruled their countries.

The experiment with Eastern Europeans started with Ivan Hlinka and Jiri Bubla, two Czech players who were granted permission to come to Vancouver for the 1981-82 NHL season. Hlinka, a center, was 31 years old and found immediate success, scoring 60 points, a Canucks rookie record. Bubla, a defenseman, also 31, managed 118 points in 256 NHL games.

But to truly turn things around, the Canucks decided it was time to go for the big guns: members of the Soviet Union's famed national team.

The Canucks selected center Igor Larionov in the 11th round (No. 214) of the 1985 NHL Draft and Vladimir Krutov in the 12th round (No. 238) of the 1986 NHL Draft. They were part of the famed KLM line with Sergei Makarov, considered by some to be the best in hockey.

The fact neither Larionov nor Krutov was guaranteed to ever make it to Vancouver explains why they lasted so deep in those drafts. But, by selecting them, Canucks management knew it was now their responsibility to make the seemingly impossible possible.

What followed was one of the more unique and unusual stories in NHL history.

LIFTING THE IRON CURTAIN

"We had always, as a team, going back to the late-'70s, attempted to draft players that were Eastern Bloc, as they said in those days," Griffiths said. "In the early-'80s, we continued to draft these guys, but we didn't have a really good shot at accessing them."

The Canucks knew Larionov and Krutov wouldn't come easy, if at all.

They were two of the most high-profile figures among the Soviet Union's prolific corps of elite athletes. They won two Olympic gold medals (1984 and 1988) to go with four world championships, two world junior championships and the 1981 Canada Cup.

The likelihood of the Soviet government letting two of their greatest athletes depart for North America wasn't high.

That's when Griffith got his big idea. As a show of good faith, why couldn't the Canucks send two of their own -- a player and a coach -- to the Soviet Union as part of a goodwill exchange?

But who would be the emissaries for the Canucks? In the end, it was goaltender Troy Gamble, who spent the majority of his first pro season with the Milwaukee Admirals of the International Hockey League, and front-office staffer Jack McIlhargey. They were tasked with spending four weeks in and around Moscow during the summer of 1988 to learn about the Soviet approach to hockey training.

What looked like a groundbreaking cultural exchange was, in reality, a last-gasp ploy to try to get Larionov and Krutov to come to the NHL.

"I don't know if it helped or hindered it, I can tell you that much," Gamble said.

There was no arguing that the trip was groundbreaking as a first-of-its-kind international exchange during the Cold War. In the post-World War II rivalry between the East and the West, few, if any, athletes had gone from one side to train with the other.

For the Canucks, the trip was a historic agreement which would hopefully result in acquiring two of the world's best players.

"I don't think it had ever happened before. Not in the Soviet Union," Griffiths said. "I suppose there was a hope something could rub off [on Gamble and McIlhargey]. But at the end of the day, the real prize was the [Russian] players themselves."

Griffiths set his plan in motion when he met Bob Hindmarch, the director of athletic and sports services for the University of British Columbia. Hindmarch, heavily involved in Canada's Olympic hockey movement, introduced Griffiths to Anatoli Tarasov, the taskmaster Soviet coach who was revered in his homeland as the godfather of Russian hockey.

At the time of the meeting with Griffiths, Tarasov was advanced in age, severely overweight and in dire need of a hip operation, a procedure Soviet surgeons weren't exactly lining up to do.

"The Russian doctors didn't want to touch him. He could have died on the operating table and the Russian doctor probably would have never been heard from again," Griffiths said. "Tarasov was a demigod in hockey there, and rightfully so. So I said the Vancouver Canucks will bring you back, we will pay for your surgery, we'll get you back on your feet. Sadly for him, he was very overweight. It was a really dicey situation.

"The reality is, that was an attempt to create a bit of a bridge. As I think back, I think about the risk that our team took by bringing Anatoli over and having his surgery. He easily could have died on our operating table. I think the [Canadian] prime minister would have given me a [phone call]."

Any sort of international incident was avoided, and Griffiths, with a major assist from some Vancouver surgeons, established a bond with the Eatern Bloc's most important hockey figure. Griffiths believed if he played his cards right, he could have Larionov and Krutov in Canucks uniforms within the year.

"That was a real fun time, a real good bond. We went fishing and all that sort of stuff. So we said, 'Why don't we go the other way? Why don't we send some of our people to Russia to learn there?'" Griffiths said.

That's when McIlhargey and Gamble were pulled aside and told they were going on a little trip.

STRANGE SOVIET SUMMER

A second-round pick (No. 25) of the Canucks in the 1985 NHL Draft, Gamble had a single game of NHL experience when he was asked to participate in this unusual diplomatic mission to Russia. At the time, he had begun training in Spokane, Wash., following offseason hernia surgery. The 21-year-old had never been to the Soviet Union.

"They called me up and said, 'Come to Vancouver,'" Gamble said. "Within two weeks we were on an Aeroflot plane out of Montreal to Moscow. It happened so quick."

McIlhargey played 393 NHL games as a hard-nosed defenseman with 1,102 penalty minutes with the Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers and Hartford Whalers from 1974 to 1982. McIlhargey was hired as Vancouver's special assistant to the general manager in the years following his retirement as a player and was an assistant coach by 1988. He had never been to Russia when he was called upon to meet Tarasov in Moscow.

"We didn't know what to expect when we first went over there. They didn't really tell us too much," McIlhargey said. "When we got there, we thought, 'OK, so this is what we're doing.' We had an interpreter that was with us all the time, and a driver. I had never been there before. It was still all communist at that time."

During the summer of 1988, Russia was experiencing a dramatic financial crisis. Caught in a rash of spending cuts and tax increases, inflation shot up dramatically, banks announced large losses, and a general sense of panic gripped the country.

It was an interesting time for the two Canadians to arrive.

"You get off the plane in Moscow and you're going through the customs, it was a little intimidating with the soldiers all around," McIlhargey said.

After an all-night flight to Moscow, which followed a long flight from Vancouver to Montreal, Gamble and McIlhargey hoped they would be able to check into their hotel and sleep after passing through Russian customs. Instead, they were asked to attend a circus performance with Tarasov and Alexander Yakushev, the former Soviet player who at that time was coaching Spartak Moscow. It was their first duty as unofficial Canadian diplomats.

Gamble was not exactly excited about the invitation.

"Jack, I don't want to go to no circus," he pleaded with McIlhargey.

"We have to do it," McIlhargey replied. "That's what they want us to do."

The pair's Russian adventure was off to an unusual start.

"It was an amazing circus. I likely did too many shots of vodka. We were doing straight vodka, I was a 21-year-old kid," Gamble said. "They had trained these bears with long skinny necks and big fat bellies how to ice skate. That was my big jolly of the night. Watching these bears ice skate and shoot hockey pucks. That was my first night."

The differences between East and West became apparent early. When it came time to enjoy some fresh water, McIlhargey and Gamble encountered a vending machine that would provide a refreshing drink for a few rubles. There was just one problem.

"The glass would fill up and you would take your drink. But you put the glass back and everybody used the same glass," McIlhargey said. "So I didn't drink any of the water."

McIlhargey's time in the Soviet Union was more of a vacation than that of Gamble. McIlhargey spent plenty of time with Tarasov, occasionally indulging in local food and drink. It was a unique trip to a country that was months away from undergoing upheaval. The Canucks staffer had gone to Russia to learn from the country's best, but with the legendary Central Red Army club training elsewhere and the Russians hesitant to give up too many of their training secrets, it turned into a limited exchange when it came to coaching.

"They let us come in and train. They were pretty guarded in what information you got and what you saw," McIlhargey said.

The time spent abroad wasn't easy for Gamble. At a time when offseason training was not the norm in North America, especially among goaltenders, he was thrown headfirst into the most demanding training regimen on the planet. Embedded for two weeks with Dynamo Moscow and another two weeks with Spartak, Gamble was completely out of his element.

"It was ridiculous. I had never seen anything like it," Gamble said. "You put a guy on your shoulders and you're basically hopping up and down stairs."

In his introduction to Russia's demanding off-ice training, Gamble was handed a miniature hockey stick by a Soviet coach, who, through an interpreter, instructed the goalie to adopt a crouching position and go running through the woods. Soon, Gamble's legs were slashed and bloodied by a relentless parade of unforgiving branches. When he turned around to look for help, the Russian coach was right there pushing him further, yelling at him without mercy.

"Lower," he demanded. "Lower."

Gamble definitely wasn't in Spokane anymore.

"This guy was chasing me in the woods with a stick. What kind of training was this?" Gamble said. "Their methods were interesting. We were dragging tires behind us in skating drills and wearing weight belts of 40 pounds. They were advanced in pushing their athletes."

Gamble may have had a difficult time appreciating these demanding methods, especially with McIlhargey spending his days relaxing with Tarasov. But it was a glimpse into the Soviet hockey machine that had groomed many of history's greatest players.

"Jack had it good. I was kind of the guinea pig getting beat up with these guys," Gamble said. "In one drill, they had five shooting stations and every shooter had five pucks. They had one minute to shoot all five pucks, but they could shoot them at any time. I was yelling, 'What drill is this?!' I've got pucks whizzing at my head and there was no sense. There were some different drills, for sure."

As the weeks went by, McIlhargey and Gamble had absolutely no contact with the Canucks. Gradually, it dawned on them what this hockey exchange was really all about.

"I don't think the Canucks were really concerned about me. They just wanted a goalie to go over there," Gamble said. "I think they wanted to give me the experience. But, more importantly, they wanted to make sure that we were able to keep the lines of communication open with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation."

The training methods they picked up in Russia wouldn't have worked in Vancouver. For one thing, the facilities in Moscow were spartan compared to the state-of-the-art infrastructure the Canucks enjoyed. Also, for the Canucks and countless other players in the NHL, life as a professional athlete in the West offered distractions away from the rink: time with friends and family, the opportunity to reflect, regroup and refresh. Those were luxuries not afforded elite hockey players in the East.

"We went to their training facilities where the players all lived. Even the married guys, they all stayed in dorms and had their meals there," McIlhargey said. "Our players here had a lot of freedom. They didn't have that. They were told what to do and they did it.

"I remember one time they were doing a drill in dry land where they would piggy-back each other. You would partner with someone and the guy would piggy-back you up and down some stairs. It was Troy's turn and then they had a little bit of a break. This Russian kid came by and said, 'Troy very tired.'"

While Gamble was suffering, McIlhargey was getting to know Tarasov more as a person than a coach. Coach Tarasov could be an absolute tyrant. Comrade Tarasov was a delight. McIlhargey learned of the distinction by engaging in some classic Russian pastimes with one of the country's favorite sons. Vodka was sometimes within arm's length and it was clear wherever McIlhargey went with Tarasov he was in the company of greatness.

"He was the king around there for hockey and sports at that time," McIlhargey said.

On a couple of occasions, the two coaches spent time relaxing at Russia's famous bathhouses, wading in the saunas while their backs were swatted with tree branches to assist in circulation. Gamble joined McIlhargey for one such trip, but the goaltender doesn't have the fondest memories of the banyas.

"They brought in these branches that they made wet and they whipped me and Jack. Jack was first and I could hear him yelling. I was wondering what is going on? They said it was good for you," Gamble said with a laugh. "It was a good experience."

Tarasov would extend the same hospitality a year later to Griffiths and Quinn when they visited Moscow to try to get Larionov and Krutov to Vancouver. Accompanied by Canada senator Ray Perrault, the trip would bear fruit. During the summer of 1989, legendary Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak visited the Canucks in Vancouver. A few months later, Larionov and Krutov joined the NHL team.

LONG-LASTING INFLUENCE

Larionov and Krutov made their NHL debut Oct. 5, 1989. Larionov would play 14 seasons with the Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008.

Krutov played only the 1988-89 season in the NHL; he played six seasons afterward in Switzerland and Sweden.

The trip preceding Larionov and Krutov's arrival gave Gamble and McIlhargey a unique insight into the contrast between life on either side of the Iron Curtain. Gamble has a number of distinct memories.

"I took eight pairs of [Levi's] 501 Jeans," Gamble said. "Outside our hotel, I would trade them, because on the black market that's what they wanted. They wanted 501 Jeans. I actually supplemented my meal money by selling 501 Jeans. You could see that the influence of the West was coming, even with the hockey players in the locker room. It was very depressed at that time, but you could sense there was going to be a break in something. Obviously, it happened in a couple of years."

During their time in Russia, the trip became about something more than hockey for the two Canucks. As the weeks went by, they became more and more integrated into a unique world most Westerners had only heard about. With the trip winding down, they unexpectedly got to enjoy an infusion of Western culture when musician Billy Joel came to Moscow as part of a historic six-date tour of the Soviet Union.

McIlhargey got to attend one of Joel's three Moscow concerts.

"It was very unique. They hadn't had a lot of concerts there," McIlhargey said. "When people were starting to stand up and dance, the soldiers were in the aisles making everybody sit down.

"My experience with all the people I met was very good. People were very nice and they tried to help you any way they could."

After Gamble's adventure in the Soviet Union, he enjoyed a standout season when he was 23-9-4 record with Milwaukee and 2-3-0 with the Canucks. The training in Russia served him well, but the experience would be even more helpful when he discovered his second career after retiring from hockey.

After finishing with the Houston Aeros of the IHL in 1996, Gamble took a job as a manager with M-I SWACO, a Texas-based company specializing in global oil and gas production. The job took Gamble throughout the Middle East, including more than three years living in Libya, a culture shock even after his time in Russia.

Gamble made the decision to leave Libya shortly after his son, Marine Lance Cpl. Garrett Gamble, died while serving during Operation Enduring Freedom in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

It's an unlikely second life for someone who grew up playing hockey in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. The transition may have been cushioned a bit by an unexpected invitation from the Canucks to "study abroad."

"At that time, I was excited to get out of there because they were kicking the snot out of me," Gamble said. "I've reflected a lot on that trip. I have reflected a lot on my Moscow experience. It was a trip that you'll never forget, even though it was a long time ago.

"I couldn't have gone with a better guy than Jack McIlhargey. He's a character, just loves the game of hockey. I think he got a lot out of it by just talking to the different coaches and watching the training."

Within two years after McIlhargey and Gamble returned to Vancouver, the Cold War ended and a wave of Russian hockey players came to the NHL.

It was the fitting conclusion to a lengthy process that involved sending two members of the Canucks family on a classic fish-out-of-water adventure.

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