I grew up in secret admiration of the Soviet hockey players. It was bordering on treason. I always cheered on my beloved Team Canada, but I loved to watch those Soviet teams play, with their blinding speed and intricate passing plays.
In the 1980s all the talk was about Green Unit, a.k.a. the KLM Line - Krutov, Larionov and Makarov. Together with Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov on defense, they were the best line in the world, bar none. Everyone raved about them, and with good reason.
But I always took a special liking to the Soviet's second troika - Valery Kamensky and Andrei Khomutov between my favorite, Vyacheslav Bykov.
Bykov never really intended to have a career in hockey. As a young man he loved to spend time on the ice, constantly perfecting his puck tricks and skating skills, never receiving much formal coaching. He languished with unknown teams in Chelyabinsk as he focussed on his studies. He was never even persued for the Soviet youth or junior programs simply because he was undiscovered.
But Cheyabinsk Traktor, the local entry in the top Russian league, invited him to play in 1980. Soon Red Army and national team coach Viktor Tikhonov discovered him and moved him to the Red Army team by 1982. Later that season he played his first games with the national team, winning gold at the 1983 World Championships.
Not bad for a kid who almost went undiscovered. Fortunately for Bykov, the right man discovered him. The traditional Soviet centerman is big and strong, focussing on defensive first, always remaining high and with an offensive mandate to headman the puck to his breaking wingers. Tikhonov had great success employing the tiny Larionov as the engine on the top line, he did not fear to put the even smaller Bykov in control of line two.
Even then Bykov was nearly exiled to Siberia after just one season with the national team. While at the 1983 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden. He made international headlines when he was caught shoplifting clothing for his child. Bykov was banned from the national team for over a year, costing him at shot at the 1984 Olympic games in Sarajevo.
Bykov's talent allowed him to return to national team scene and go onto a career highlighted with 5 world championships, 2 Olympic Golds, and 7 Russian league titles. Two of the WCs and the last Olympic gold came with Bykov as team captain, putting him in a group of esteemed Soviet hockey captains such as Mikhailov and Fetisov.
Bykov and Khomutov in particular had incredible chemistry together. They played a smooth, uninterrupted style of game. Their hockey truly was beautiful hockey, an absolute joy to watch. Their criss-crossing skating with dazzling passing displays dizzied the best of defenses and wore down the opponents. The only thing more nimble than their feet was their hands.
When the bigger and more physical Kamensky joined the two tiny puck wizards in about 1986, the Bykov line was considered by many to be the equal of the KLM Line.
That was part of the reason why the Soviet Union began allowing veterans to freely play in the NHL. Remember, before the gates were kicked wide open by politics, the first wave of Soviet greats needed permission to come. The authorities allowed the likes of Fetisov, Larionov, Makarov and Krutov to come because a) they were the most vocal and b) they had the Bykov troika ready in line to keep the national team running smoothly while waiting for their young trio of Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Bure to emerge.
I truly believe that was the intention of the Soviet authorities at that time. But all too soon the political process opened the gates wide open to everybody. By the 1990-91 season, one year after the first wave of Soviet greats headed west, so did Bykov and Khomutov. Only they never went to the NHL.
Their NHL rights were held by the sad-sack Quebec Nordiques. The Nords had brought over goaltender Sergei Mylnikov in 1989-90, but he had a terrible time, both on the ice and off of it. He fled from North America as soon as he could, returning to Russia with no kind words about the Nordiques or the NHL. The story has it Bykov and Khomutov listened to Mylnikov's horror stories and opted instead to play in the Alps Mountains of Switzerland. They were in the West, the money was good, the lifestyle and the country were amazing.
The hockey was good, too. Bykov and Khomutov dominated the Swiss league, playing with Fribourg until late in the century. Bykov continued to play until 2000 with Lausanne before becoming a very successful coach.