PtG Article 12.11.2002

The Russian Mafia and hockey

Declan Hill explains why the Russian mafia is attracted to hockey both in the former Soviet Union and abroad. He shows how organised crime figures deliberately targeted some of the top hockey players in the NHL and were able to socialise with them, to extort them, and in some cases to actually go into business with them.

Keywords: Corruption Russia

Let me start by paying honour where honour is due. I have had the good fortune to break a fair number of stories. But the story that I am about to tell you was first broken by a New York freelancer called Robert Friedland. I was able to extend the story and get people to come on camera where he had to rely on off the record sources. But really his speciality is the Russian mafiya. And frankly, he has probably forgotten more about the Russian mob than I will ever know.

But the principal reason why I mention his name here - aside from fairness - is that after he first published some of this story he received a call from senior investigators inside the US Federal Bureau of Investigation - the FBI: they had been tapping phones of mobsters and they had received news that there had been a contract taken out on his life.

Just after that Robert Friedland received a threatening letter from one of the people we are going to meet later on - Vyacheslav Ivankov, the so-called Godfather of the Russian mob in the US. Friedland went into hiding soon afterwards.

Hockey: Big business and religion

What is hockey? It is a sport played by six people on a team, on ice, on skates. There is usually one goalie, five outer players and unlimited substitutions are allowed. It is the fastest game in the world.

It is big business in the United States. The National Hockey League - or NHL - which has 30 teams in the US and Canada is one of the biggest money making sports leagues in the world generating billions of dollars in revenue.

It is a religion in Canada. It is almost impossible to overstate the effect hockey has on the psyche of Canadian society. In most communities hockey players are regarded as "untouchables" and forgiven of almost any crime. In the last few years a slew of sexual abuse cases involving players or coaches has come to light. Most of these cases were known about but were deliberately not investigated because they involved hockey players.

This factor of social prestige will become important in the story that I am going to tell you. For this is about how organised crime figures deliberately targeted some of the top hockey players in the league and were able to socialise with them, to extort them, and in some cases to actually go into business with them.

Three examples of extortion

Let's start with this man, Oleg Tverdovsky. He is a top defenceman in the National Hockey League. He regularly appears on the All Star team of the best players in the league. And when he first signed with Winnipeg Jets his contract of one million dollars made headlines in his native Ukraine.

His parents still lived there. And one day a group of men dressed in black masks arrived at their door and kidnapped them. The kidnappers demanded a ransom of two hundred thousand American dollars or they would kill Tverdovsky's parents.

Alexei Zhitnik was a brash young star forward with the Los Angeles Kings. According to a Russian mobster testifying in camera before a US Congressional inquiry Zhitnik liked fast cars, faster women and bragging about how much money he made playing hockey. He "liked" doing this until one day a group of Russian mobsters took him underneath a boardwalk in Long Beach, beat the crap out of him and demanded protection money.

Alexander Mogilny is a star forward for the Vancouver Cannuck, Buffalo Sabres and now the Toronto Maple Leafs. He had to go to the FBI when he received a clear and credible threat of extortion for half a million dollars. He was lucky. The mobster was caught and sentenced to 8 years in jail.

I would like to take a moment here and ask a simple question: How many people know who Peter Schmeichel or Brian Laudrup are? Could you put up your hands?

The reason why I engage in this kind of exercise is to tell you that the players that have been mentioned are the equivalent of Schmeichel or Ladurup. These are not obscure, little known players working in the outer fringes of hockey. These are some of the biggest stars in the National Hockey League today.

80 per cent experience extortion

But the situation does not stop at the NHL. In North America there is a series of minor or junior leagues where younger players are groomed for success in higher leagues. These players - some as young as 15 or 16 - are open to the same kind of extortion. Junior players can expect to receive threats from mobsters.

While investigating this story Canadian police contacts told me of two Russian junior players in Western Canada being extorted by members of the mob.

To give you some idea of how widespread the problem is let me introduce you to Michael Bopp. Mr. Bopp was a senior lawyer with the 1996 US Congressional investigation into the Russian mafiya and their reach into North America.

As part of his inquiry he interviewed hundreds of people connected to hockey: players, coaches, agents. And he claimed that eighty percent of Russian hockey players in North America were either being extorted or were under the threat of extortion by Russian mobsters.

Mob killings of people related to hockey

Now bad as the situation might be in North America, it pales in comparison with what is going on in the former Soviet Union.

We spoke about Peter Schmeichel - the Danish goalkeeper who used to play for Manchester United. Well let's talk about the situation at the Manchester United of Russian hockey - TSKA Moscow.

In the 1970s and 80s - the Moscow Red Army team or TSKA practically owned hockey in the Soviet Union. They had a long string of championships and most of their players played on the world championship and Olympic winning team.

So it was a surprise when their skate sharpener - the equivalent of the guy who cleans the boots - was killed in a mafia style assassination attack. Nor was he the only person killed by the mob. One of their junior players was also killed by the mob.

Possibly you don't think there is much of a problem if only junior personnel are being killed? Well then take the case of Ms. Larisa Nechayeva - she was the President of Sparta Moscow - the chief rival of TSKA Moscow. She was shot and killed by the Russian mafia.

Or the President of the prestigious TSKA St. Petersburg hockey team: he too was killed by the mob.

Or how about this story that was told to me by Mrs. Valentin Sych. One April morning in 1997 she and her husband were leaving their dacha outside of Moscow. As they were driving along a flat bed truck with seven men and a Kalashnikov machine gun mounted on the truck drove in front of them. The men fired three short bursts from the Kalashnikov through the window screen of the car. They severely injured Mrs. Sych, the driver and killed her husband. Why? Well, he was the President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation.

So you had a situation where the guy who sharpens the skates to the very president of the Ice Hockey Federation were all victims of the Russian mob. In fact, so bad was Russian mob control of hockey that the TSKA Moscow team - the Manchester United of Russian hockey - had to stage a raid using their former army connections to bring in tanks and SWAT teams to free their club of mob control.

The Russian mafia wants money

So why do some Russian mafia figures gravitate towards sports people? Is it some fierce love of hockey which makes them kill the skate sharpener of TSKA Moscow? A passion for a great sport that makes them assassinate the presidents of the biggest clubs in Russia? No, of course not.

There are in fact four main reasons why the Russian mafiya gravitated towards sports figures.

The first reason and one that we have seen is extortion. The salaries of hockey players are published. They are well known and for a country crumbling into economic shambles they are astronomical. The average wage of librarians and teachers at the Moscow State University is around 500US$ a month. The average wage of a National Hockey League hockey player starts at around one million dollars a year.

But actually extortion is not the principal reason for mafia involvement. Although we have seen that 80% of hockey players can expect to be extorted - really that type of extortion comes from low level criminals. Tverdosky, Zhitnik and Mogilny were all threatened by the bottom feeding level of Russian criminals. The big mobsters go after sports figures for other reasons.

The Russian mafia wants to control games

The real money comes from gambling.

Michael Franzese was a Don in the Colombo crime family of New York. He was the top earning Capo of the mafia with an elaborate gas tax refund rebate that brought in over 1-billion dollars a year. I spoke to him. In 1995 he met with members of the Russian mob to try and infiltrate various sports organisations.

And he claimed that in the late seventies he had several members of the New York Yankees - the biggest sports franchise in the world - ready to throw games for him. He claimed that he won hundreds of millions of dollars on fixing a Robert Duran fight.

He talked about his modus operandi. He revealed that if you are a mobster you actually want to be friends - at first -with sports people. The idea is to find their weakness. If it is blondes, you use blondes. If it is drugs, you use drugs. Whatever it is, you use it to get a hold over the sports person. Then you try to get them to throw games.

This is a real danger to sports in the computer age. Because it used to be that in North America you went to a character like Jimmy the Greek - you bet money and he took it. If you won and there was anything suspicious he would know. Now with the internet a mobster can potentially win - or launder - millions of dollars from a sporting event and no one would be the wiser.

The Russian mafia wants to be seen with stars

But possibly the biggest reason why organised crime figures want to hang around sports people is NOT illegal. It is something I call the Kennedy factor.

Top mobsters often don't think of themselves as criminals but as misunderstood businessmen. Their ideal is the Kennedy clan that went from being lowlife, bootleggers on the Boston docks to being the President of the most powerful nation in the world in two generations.

How can they do it? Well, the way you legitimise yourself is to hang around famous people. And who better to do it than sports people? We will see a classic case in a few moments.

But the important point is that the relationship may not be one-sided extortion. The mobsters may be gaining more from the sports people than just money. This is important to recognise because to people in the sports world it seems that their world is an innocent schoolyard where grown children play among the flowers. But to mobsters this is happy hunting ground.

It is a natural marriage. So rather than people being surprised at mobsters hanging around sports people - it should be their first reaction.

The Russian mafia wants part of sport proceeds 

There is also a fourth and particular reason why the Russian mob was interested in hockey and actually all sports in Russia.

It starts with Boris Yeltsin's former tennis coach Shamil Tarpischev: a man who Yeltsin - in a fit of imperial grandeur that would make a Tsar cringe - made his Sports Minister. (And Tarpischev - by the way - survived his own mob assassination on the Kremlin tennis grounds.)

The year was 1993 and the Russian economy was in free fall and the once great Soviet sporting machine was crumbling. So Tarpischev proposed to Yeltsin that sports clubs be allowed to import alcohol and tobacco duty free so they could earn extra money.

Now this was a huge concession. Jim Moody, former head of organised crime for the FBI, claimed that one third of all Russian government money came from taxes on alcohol and tobacco. So it took Russian mobsters all of about one fifteenth of a second to figure out they should get into this racket.

Different types of mafia

The way the Russian mob works is unlike anything else in the world. To give you an example, most of us think about bank robbers as people who put masks over their face and walk into a bank saying, "This is a stick up. Give me the money!"

Russian bank mobsters are far more psychotic. They just kill the president and take over the whole bank! In 1993 - 29 of the top fifty bank executives in Russia were killed. And law enforcement sources estimate that the whole banking system is riddled with mafia control. So to seize control of sports organisations and hockey clubs that had duty free exemptions was a natural target for mobsters.

Tonight, I have been speaking very loosely of the Russian mob. But it is important to stress that there really is very little hierarchy among most Russian mobsters. There certainly is not the ring kissing of a Don or a line of Capos who pay homage to each other that you see in Hollywood movies of the Italian mafia. However, taking that into consideration it is possible to make three basic divisions in the Russian mob:

The first is the former Soviet bureaucrats - the apparatchiks. The next are the ethnic gangs - the Georgians or the Chechenians that we have heard so much about recently. And lastly, the professional thieves or the vor-y-zakone.

According to law enforcement sources, in September 1993 representatives of these three sections met in a dacha outside of Moscow. There they were reputed to split up the world into zones of control.

North America was supposedly given to this man - Vyachslav Ivankov: aka: Little Japanese. The next year Ivankov moved to New York where, with his gangs of former Afghan veterans, he took over the Brighton Beach area. Not the man you would expect to see associating with a National Hockey League player.

Well, that was the situation confronting the FBI. They had heard Ivankov threatening death to an extortion victim. So they raided his house and discovered documents outlining his financial empire.

One of them was this company Slava Inc. Its main goal was to procure immigration visas for mob connected businesses and money launder illegal profits. But one of its executive officers was this man Slava Fetisov.

We have now moved from the likes of Peter Schmichel to David Beckham or Zidane. Slava Fetisov is a Russian super star. Yet he was chief executive of a company with connections with the superstar of the Russian mob.

Another example: the same meeting in the dacha outside Moscow sent this man - Vyacheslav Sliva to control the Canadian market. But Sliva was facing problems with his immigration to Canada so he went to NHL star Valeri Kamensky. Kamensky's name was on Sliva's immigration papers as one of the chief sponsors.

Interestingly enough, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the RCMP - or the Mounties to you and me -  the people who wear red coats, wide hats and always get their man. Well in this case they did get their man - Sliva. And he boasted about his friendship - not his criminal victim - but his friendship with National Hockey League players. As if by boasting about his friendship with NHL players he would get off an investigation by the RCMP.

The story of Bure and  Kikalishvili

But the most curious is the story of this man - Pavel Bure. Bure is the ultimate of all Russian hockey players: he is a winner of Olympic Medals; he is a pin up boy;  and he became chums and business partners with Anzor Kikalishvili.

Kikalishvili is the head of the 21st Century Associationm an organisation formed by Anil and Avari Kvantrishvili -ostensibly to help Afghan veterans. But the 21st Century Association has been named by the Russian government, Kroll Associates, the FBI and the US senate as the top criminal organisation in Russia. The founding Kvantrishvili brothers were both killed in mafiya attacks. One by a large car bomb explosion: the other by a sniper's bullet as he left a sauna.

Six weeks after we interviewed Anzor Kikalishvili, his office was the target of a mafia bombing. Kikalishvili has been specifically named by U.S. law enforcement and the U.S. senate as a top Russian mobster. In FBI wiretaps in Miami he was caught threatening to skin someone alive: few people in law enforcement doubt he meant it. All in all not someone you want your daughter to date, or your hockey player to be hanging around with.

But that is exactly the situation that you see in Russia today with Pavel Bure and Anzor Kikalishvili. Kikalishvili has declared himself "Bure's spiritual father". He is running for political office, and a poster of Bure and Kikalishvili with their arms around each other's shoulders was seen everywhere in Moscow: the caption "The Future belongs to the 21st Century".

The story was scorned by sports journalists

This was the situation then that we broadcast on our program "the fifth estate" on October 6th, 1999 and then on the American documentary program "Frontline" October 12th of the same year. The program was absolutely true. We backed it up with extensive documentation and interviews with FBI and RCMP officers, hockey players and mobsters.

Yet it was indifferently received by Canadian sports journalists. Our ratings were high, but the reviews among the sports pages were almost universally negative. Why? It was reasonably well produced, factually accurate and about Canada's national "religion".

I believe it is partly because in Canada sports journalism is an oxymoron. 90% of our sports journalists are cheerleaders who want their local, regional or national team to win at all costs and certainly do not want their heroes besmirched.

But it is also partly because of the glamour of hockey players. Remember Canada is a nation where a cabinet minister had to resign because he went to a strip club. Yet we showed prominent hockey players allegedly actually doing business with mob members, but the reaction of sports journalists was to downplay the revelations.

This example is why conferences like this are so important. If you are a real sports journalist that you will discover that your colleagues will not be in the same newsroom or the same academic hall: they are here in this room.

Thank you.