RIGA/MOSCOW – Russian hockey was handed a shock at the weekend when Vyacheslav Fetisov – one of the great legends of the game – told a press conference in Riga that he was quitting CSKA Moscow, the KHL board, and hockey altogether.
The news came amid the glitz and glamour of the KHL’s All-Star Game in Riga, and just hours after Fetisov had captained a veterans side to victory in the warm-up event in the Latvian capital. Speaking at a press conference Fetisov, who has served as chairman of the board of directors since the league was formed in 2008, stunned journalists by saying it was time to quit.
“I would like to make a statement – I’m leaving hockey,” he said. “For me, this is my last weekend in hockey. I wish [KHL president] Alexander Medvedev all the best, and I’m sure he will succeed. For me, the situation at CSKA is disgusting. I’ve worked too long to earn a good name, and God knows I’ve done nothing to damage the sport. I see no sense in remaining. I am decided.”
Sitting next to him, Medvedev could say little, and responded: “I cannot comment on this. I can hardly imagine our hockey without Fetisov.”
After that press conference, Fetisov was faced with a barrage of questions and expanded on his reasons for leaving CSKA, web portal championat.ru reported. And he launched a stinging claim of management malpractice at one of the game’s most famous names.
“The whole team, which recently exploited CSKA, was willing to do anything, not just on the hockey side. I’m talking about deals which were done, and which might be done in future,” he told the website. “At one time I was asked to help CSKA and we initiated a letter to the Prime Minister. Now the club is state owned [by Rosneft]. This company needs to strengthen the management because CSKA needs to take care of every ruble – this is taxpayers’ money now. With the current management I do not see any prospect of this happening.”
On the face of it, Fetisov was the ideal figurehead for both club and league: as a player he enjoyed universal respect as a ruthless defenceman who won two Olympic golds, back-to-back Stanley Cups and a host of Soviet titles after making his CSKA debut as a 16-year-old. He was also instrumental in enabling Soviet players to play in North America, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. He was also well regarded in Moscow after sticking with CSKA as crisis threatened the club once again in 2009 following the departure of head coach Vyacheslav Bykov and widely-reported claims of poor financial health.
But at the weekend he also hinted that Bykov might have had the right idea all along, following a long conversation with the World Championship winning coach. “I spent a long time sitting with Bykov, discussing the situation at CSKA,” Fetisov told championat.ru. “Perhaps before I was biased, but Bykov also left for a reason – the situation at the club was slowing its growth.”
Fetisov’s announcement in Riga came as a huge surprise, but there were warning signs on the morning of the All-Star press conference. Comments reported by Russian website Sports.ru on Saturday morning hint at a battle behind the scenes at the famous Moscow club, which was recently bought by oil giant Rosneft with plans to see the Army Men dining at the officers’ table once again after years of meagre rations (see this story).
Asked why the club had not made greater efforts to strengthen its roster ahead of the Jan. 15 deadline (the return of Nikita Filatov in December was the only significant change as the club looks to confirm a play-off spot), Fetisov attacked the internal politics of the organization, speaking of a “war for money” which had seen the team become a political football among rival factions of the club management.
“I’m already no longer the president – other people are in control of these things,” Fetisov added. “I am unable to play a formal role. Either I am in the process, or I am outside of it. Other people have come in, let them take charge of the process.”
Meanwhile, at a time when the KHL was keen to show off its progress to the world during the All-Star weekend, and with league president Medvedev confidently announcing that he saw no good reason for any Russian player to leave for North America before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Fetisov concluded his comments with an apparent swipe at the competition he has helped to establish. Asked why there had been no formal announcement, as might have been expected in the NHL, he replied: “In the NHL there are normal structures, where people respect each other. In our league things are very different: at the moment the KHL cannot be compared with the NHL. Not yet.”
After his announcement in Riga, though, Fetisov explained that he had always maintained a “normal working relationship” with Medvedev and added that the KHL’s story, in general, was a successful one. He was leaving the KHL because it would be wrong to quit CSKA and remain with the league, he explained.
There was surprise and dismay among the CSKA people assembled in Riga for the weekend extravaganza. Forward Sergei Shirokov, a key player on his return this season after two years on the fringes of the NHL, told RIA Novosti: “For me it’s a shock that Vyacheslav has left. It’s not my business to discuss the club’s leadership but apparently there is some reason behind it. We must respect his decision and what he has said about it... As for the future of the club, it is difficult to say. I am not a director, and this situation will be addressed by those who have now come to the club.”
On his personal Twitter account, however, Shirokov appeared rather more critical of whatever situation had prompted Fetisov to step down. “Apparently our hockey is now at such a stratospheric level that we no longer need professionals like Fetisov and Larionov!!!!!!” he wrote.
CSKA coach Julius Supler, who also played in the veterans game in Riga on Friday night, noted Fetisov’s departure with regret. “It’s a big blow. Slava has done a lot for Russian hockey and for CSKA, and it was he who invited me to work with CSKA. This is a big loss for Russian hockey.”
But there were mixed reactions among supporters commenting on the news via online message boards and blogs. Many were saddened to see a great name leave the sport, and a number of CSKA fans were quick to pay tribute to a man whose commitment to the cause even saw him suit up for a KHL game – at the age of 49 – to help solve a defensive injury crisis. But others were critical of his work as CSKA President, and in particular his reluctance to remove Sergei Nemchinov, who was head coach as CSKA failed to reach last season’s play-offs, and remains at the club as General Manager.
However, Nemchinov also felt the lash of Fetisov’s anger on Saturday. “He is a weak coach, a weak manager and even weaker as a person. I am sure he has no future prospects,” the departing CSKA president told the media.
Fetisov may have left Russian hockey – at least for the time being – but the fall-out from his dramatic departure is likely to be felt for some time to come.