Thirty-five years removed from the “Miracle on Ice,” recently hired South Brunswick High School ice hockey coach Sergei Starikov stood inside a skating rink, waiting for his team to arrive for a scrimmage.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist who appeared on the cover of an October 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated as the poster boy for the NHL’s first wave of Russian players, Starikov is perhaps best known in this country as a former New Jersey Devil and as the unfortunate Soviet Union defenseman off whose stick the game-tying goal emerged in an eventual semifinal loss to the United States in the 1980 Olympics.
The U.S. national team’s stunning 4-3 victory in Lake Placid is widely regarded as the greatest upset in sports history, and is the one game Starikov would most like to forget from his storied career.
“I was young,” said the soft-spoken Starikov, his thick Russian accent straining to rise above the din of a Zamboni. “It was the first big tournament in my career. We had a great team. The best of the best. I think we played real well. But we did not play good enough. The Americans really wanted that game. They really beat us. A lot of the American guys showed very good skating, very good skill and very good heart. They played like it was the last game in their life. We had more skill, more experience, but we could do nothing against those guys. That’s what I remember.”
Starikov went on to win gold in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics before coming to the United States with linemate Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, who joined him on the cover of Sports Illustrated for its 1989-90 NHL preview issue.
A photo of the two Americanized players wearing blue jeans — Starikov clad in a denim jacket with skates draped over his shoulder; Fetisov sporting a T-shirt and black vest with a hockey-gloved right hand resting on his compatriot’s shoulder — appeared next to four capitalized words that signified a changing NHL landscape.
“THE RUSSIANS ARE HERE,” the magazine boldly pronounced, as pioneers Starikov and Fetisov followed in the footsteps of countryman Sergei Priakin.
Priakin, who played with the Calgary Flames in 1989, was the first to take advantage of an agreement between the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL that permitted skaters to leave their homeland for North America. Five years later, a record 7.3 percent of NHL players were Russian, according to QuantHockey.com.
“At that time, there was a lot of change in my country,” Starikov recalled, noting that then-Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika (restructuring of the economy) and Glasnost (openness) created opportunities for Russian players. “I was serving in the army. He let us (go) from the army and continue to play hockey. Me and Slava Fetisov were the first guys who opened the door to the NHL.”
Starikov said hockey in North America — with its smaller rinks and physical play — forced the Russians to adapt from their more finesse style. Starikov played in the NHL near the end of his almost two-decade career. Starikov said it took himself and other Russian players time — in some instances nearly a half-season — to adjust on and off the ice.
“Social life and hockey, too,” he said. “Every step was like a surprise.”
Starikov played just 16 games with the Devils before ending his career with the IHL’s San Diego Gulls in 1993. Since then, Starikov has devoted much of his life to coaching youth hockey in the Garden State, currently serving as an instructor at ProSkate in Monmouth Junction, where South Brunswick plays its home games.
His impressive resume came across the desk of South Brunswick Athletics Director Elaine McGrath, who called the document “just fascinating.”
“For someone with that much hockey experience, where he played in three Olympics and in the NHL, to come forward as a high school coach — which is a totally different perspective from the level he played at — seemed like a great opportunity,” an admittedly star-struck McGrath said.
“Even if I didn’t hire him, just to meet him was a pleasure. He was very personable. We talked about a lot of things. I thought it would be a great opportunity to have an experienced person at the helm here.”
McGrath partnered Starikov with Nick Gazzale, a newly appointed assistant who never played or coached the sport but whose organizational skills would complement the head man. An assistant soccer and lacrosse coach at the high school, Gazzale handles the administrative duties. In the honeymoon stages, Gazzale’s relationship with Starikov appears to be a perfect marriage.
“I grew up watching hockey and always said it’s the one sport I wish I had actually played,” said Gazzale, noting that he plans to bring any similarities between the sports he has coached to the ice. “My knowledge of hockey is pretty elementary. Sergei told me, ‘I have the ice under control. Just watch and learn.’”
Intrigued by his new coach, goaltender Austin Miller, according to Gazzale, has selected a book about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team for an independent reading assignment in English class, illustrating the South Brunswick players’ interest in Starikov’s background.
“A lot of the kids,” Gazzale said, “probably don’t understand what the Soviet Union was all about, how much hockey meant to them, or the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union.”
South Brunswick players would be well served to watch the recently released documentary “Red Army,” which tells the story of the Soviet Union’s famed ice hockey team of the same name through the perspective of former players, including Fetisov.
Starikov played for the Red Army from 1979 to 1989, the start of his career coinciding with the height of the Cold War as tensions on and off the ice mounted between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Americans were introduced to Starikov and the Soviet Union national team when it traveled to Madison Square Garden in 1979 for the three-game Challenge Cup Series against an NHL All-Star squad. Starikov assisted on Sergei Kapustin’s goal in the second game, setting the tone for a 5-4 Soviet Union victory.
According to the “Red Army” documentary, players sometimes practiced four times daily. Iron-fisted head coach Viktor Tikhonov — renown for pulling Vladislav Tretiak, one of the greatest goaltenders in the history of the sport, after he allowed a rebound off a shot from beyond the red line that led to a goal with one second left in the second period of the 1980 Olympic semifinal — would not allow a player to visit his dying father, telling him he had to practice for an upcoming game. Those who thought of defecting were told they’d be sent to Siberia.
Former Red Army teammate Igor Larionov, during an interview on SiriusXM last year, discussed Tikhonov’s mistreatment of Starikov after the then 21-year-old defenseman, who was the second-youngest player on the team, lost control of the puck in front of the net on a soft pass from the high slot that allowed Mark Johnson to even the score at 3-3 eight minutes into the third period of the 1980 Olympic semifinal.
Ken Dryden, the color commentator for ABC’s broadcast of the game, called it “a goal that absolutely came out of nowhere.”
“The U.S. team did not seem to be threatening,” Dryden said during a replay of the goal on the broadcast. “The puck went to Starikov, the Soviet defenseman, who should have had very good control of it. But he lost it. Watch the puck go to Starikov. He’s in great shape with it, and he loses it right onto Johnson’s stick and in the net.”
Larionov criticized Tikhonov for pointing “the finger at the young defenseman,” whom he called “one of the top defenseman beside (Hockey Hall of Fame member) Slava Fetisov.”
Starikov remained a member of the Red Army but did not play in the next World Championships for the national team.
“That’s what kind of banishment, harsh punishment for a player like that,” Larionov said on SiriusXM. “It’s good for (Starikov) because (Tikhonov) didn’t kill his confidence completely.”
Kevin McCoy, a senior defenseman for South Brunswick, said he and his teammates have the utmost respect for Starikov, noting that their new soft-spoken coach lets his actions speak louder than words.
“Even though he doesn’t talk that much, the drills he runs and the way he explains things, you could just tell he has a ridiculous amount of experience for the game and knows what he’s talking about,” McCoy said.
Starikov has added some weight to his once-svelte 180-pound frame. His thick black hair has grayed. The clean-shaven face on the cover of Sports Illustrated now features a salt-and-pepper goatee.
The 56-year-old rookie head coach took a spot last week behind the bench at the Woodbridge Community Center as South Brunswick and Westfield players skated onto the ice for a pregame warm-up while Blur’s “Woo Hoo” blared across the public address system.
Many of those in the stands for the season-opening scrimmage and on the opposing team were unaware that a hockey legend was in their presence.
Flanked by colorful American flag murals that adorned the walls on either side of him, the Russian-born Starikov appeared right at home.
Staff Writer Greg Tufaro: firstname.lastname@example.org
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