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50 Forgotten Stories: Spies, System & Victor Netchaev

by Sheng Peng @Sheng_Peng / LAKings.com

In May 1985, ex-King Victor Netchaev was called by federal prosecutors to testify against Svetlana Ogorodnikova, the Soviet "femme fatale" who allegedly turned FBI agent Richard Miller. Miller would become the first FBI agent to be convicted of espionage.

This capped off a strange American trip for Netchaev. A trailblazer in his own right, the centerman was the first Soviet national to play in the NHL, debuting for Los Angeles against the New York Islanders in Nassau Coliseum on October 16, 1982.

The next night, Netchaev wristed a puck past Steve Weeks in a 5-3 win. "The Russian really has a great shot," admitted the New York Rangers netminder. ("Soviet Skater Scores Goal." The Associated Press, October 18, 1982.) His prospects seemed bright. According to reports, he "was impressive against the Rangers and [would] stay with the Kings indefinitely." (McManis, Sam. "Kings Still Have Only One Line." Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1982.)

Three shifts into his next game versus the New Jersey Devils, Netchaev was benched.

He would never skate in the NHL again.

What happened? And how did a Soviet national manage to play in the NHL during the midst of The Cold War?

In 1980, the Siberian native and Soviet League veteran married American student Cheryl Haigler in the USSR. In April 1982, he was granted permission to immigrate to the United States.

Netchaev's Los Angeles-based cousin Sergei Levin happened to be acquainted with Kings General Manager George Maguire. In fact, the GM actually bought the newly-arrived immigrant a pair of skates, so he and Coach Don Perry could watch him practice.

At that year's NHL Draft, Maguire selected the 27-year-old in the seventh round. He became the first Soviet player to be drafted by an NHL team.

The 6'1" skater was "not a world-class player of the stature of a Tretiak or Kharlamov or the other Russians who every few years come over here and embarrass the NHL's best players." (Edes, Gordon. "Kings Skipping First Round of Draft." Los Angeles Times, June 9, 1982.)

He was also not a national team member, which partly explains why the USSR allowed him to leave.

Netchaev was, however, a Soviet League peer of Tretiak and Kharlamov, armed with a powerful wrist shot and just as much confidence. Levin, who translated for his cousin, said, "He's absolutely sure he can play for any team in the NHL." Of Wayne Gretzky, the center claimed at training camp, "There are several players on the Soviet national team better than Gretzky." (McManis, Sam. "Nechaev Finds Going Is Rough in the NHL." Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1982.)

Over three decades later, Netchaev can confirm that nothing was lost in translation, "We had a lot of Gretzkys in the Soviet Union. They played without bodyguards. Gretzky is a great player, but he was always protected."

That preseason, Netchaev rang up a hat trick, but Perry was still searching for more, "He needs to work on his aggressiveness. He does a lot of circling around instead of accelerating and going right to the area."

These days, Netchaev can laugh off such criticisms, "The North American style, it was a little primitive. I didn't expect such simple strategy and tactics.

"It was simple like basketball. Just go up and down."

After kicking off the season in the AHL with six points in four tilts, Netchaev was called up to the Kings because of injuries to pivots Dan Bonar and Doug Smith. But despite his historic goal against the Rangers, Perry was not satisfied, "He hesitates on his forechecks." (McManis, Sam. "Nechaev Won't Skate in Minors." Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1982.)

The Soviet-trained forward counters, "We were taught that not every forecheck has to be finished. Canadians, it doesn't matter, you're not in possession of the puck, they still finish. I wasn't hesitating. I was looking at the situation.

"Also, I was the center. I was the 'brain' of the line. I was taught like this in the Soviet Union. Usually, the wings were more involved in checking. I had to watch them, cover them."

The clash of ideologies didn't stop there. Netchaev believes his benching in his final NHL game was "the beginning of negotiations."

Maguire had offered a minor league contract, but Netchaev initially refused.

"I told my agent, 'I'm 27 years old…Either let me play or don't let me play [in the NHL]. Or find me the team where I can play.' And the agent, who wasn't the right guy for this moment, because he didn't understand the business, he didn't explain that this is how it works."

"[When I wouldn't sign their contract], they took all my gear away from me. They didn't let me skate or anything with the team for one month. For me, it was shocking, the business."

Lawyer Stanley Matalon offered at the time, "He believes in his own mind that he can play in the NHL." Matalon resigned as Netchaev's agent after his client refused assignment.

"They offered me two years plus an option year," says Netchaev. "I told [Matalon] to find me a team that would play me right away. So we pushed the Kings to sign a one-year contract. That was a big mistake.

"A one-year contract to the Kings meant to them that I didn't want to play for them. So they sent me right away to the minors."

He stresses, "We didn't have agents in the Soviet Union. In the US, you had to have an agent. My agent wasn't a real agent though, he was a lawyer. He didn't understand the business.

"Nobody could explain to me the right thing to do with their contract offer. I made a mistake, but I didn't know."

A couple weeks later, Netchaev accepted his assignment to New Haven, "But at the time, the New York Rangers and the Hartford Whalers were interested in me. The Kings denied them."

To add insult to injury, he reveals, "After I signed for one year, management ordered hockey sticks for me. They were supposed to be Jerry Korab's model. But when I got them in December - they weren't even close!

"[Using those sticks was] like playing hockey in figure skates. So it goes."

After an uninspiring showing in his return to New Haven, LA dropped Netchaev to the IHL. For the Soviet League veteran, the International Hockey League was "international" in name only, "In Saginaw, there was no hockey. It wasn't international hockey. It was goons. Fighters. But no hockey. They were chasing me, calling me, 'Commie! Commie! Commie!'

"Of course I ended the season badly. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere. No communication. Totally cut off from the world. After that season, Hartford and New York weren't interested anymore."

Los Angeles also wasn't interested, so he left for Dusseldorf. There, he met former peers Igor Larionov and Alexei Kasatonov, when his Düsseldorfer EG squared off against Red Army in an exhibition. This was more than five seasons before those Soviet stars would be allowed to leave.

"I may have helped put it in their minds," suggests Netchaev. "They [probably] said, 'If Victor could play in the NHL...we're the stars! We definitely can play there!' "

Netchaev's success may have also influenced other NHL organizations at the draft table. A year after he was selected, Tretiak, Kasatonov, Slava Fetisov, and Sergei Makarov were drafted.

That year in Germany would be Netchaev's final season in professional hockey. Along with Levin, he began distributing Soviet movies to Russian-American communities with the help of...Svetlana Ogorodnikova.

Apparently, Netchaev told federal prosecutors that the alleged spy had visited the Soviet consulate in San Francisco twice in July 1984. But on taking the stand, he backed away from those comments.

"[Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard B. Kendall], obviously exasperated, took the rare step of attempting to impeach the testimony of his own witness." (Overend, William. "Testimony Details FBI Role in Soviet Spy Probe." Los Angeles Times, May 19, 1985.)

"I was not involved," insists Netchaev. "I have no idea what she was doing in the consulate.

"[Svetlana and her husband] weren't at all spies," he chuckles, though the couple was convicted. "Not even close. She barely spoke [proper] Russian. English nothing."

After the Ogorodnikova affair, he and Levin started sports agency ARTV Sports Management, fitting after Netchaev's experience with the Kings. Among their clients were Pavel Bure, Andrei Kovalenko, and Mikhail Shtalenkov.

Looking back, Netchaev wonders what could've been if he had received the right guidance, "I'm disappointed that I didn't have much time, to play and correct myself and listen."

Regardless, he remembers his time with Los Angeles fondly, "I'm grateful to the Kings for giving me the opportunity to taste the NHL. Especially the Triple Crown Line, Mike Murphy, Dave Lewis, Pete Demers, and of course, Bob Miller!"

 

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Sheng Peng is a freelance hockey writer based out of Los Angeles, California. He covers the LA Kings and Ontario Reign for Today's Slapshot. His work has also appeared on VICE Sports, The Hockey News, and SB Nation's Jewels from the Crown.

 

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