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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NHL Stars' Visit Lifts Russian Clubs

The National Hockey League's loss was Russia's gain during the three-month lockout that ended Friday, according to hockey officials, players and fans.

When talks between NHL management and the players' association stalled last October, 22 Russian and CIS players, out of the more than 60 who play in North America, returned to their former teams.

Their return has clearly been appreciated by the fans. Recent games in the Western Division of the Interstate Hockey League, Russia's equivalent of a national league, have drawn more than 2,000 spectators compared with the sparse attendance of a few hundred before the NHL stars returned.

"There is no question in my mind that when our boys came back to play here, it was great for the game of hockey, for the Russian fans," said former hockey goalie Vladislav Tretyak, who was in the stands for Thursday's clash between cross-town Moscow rivals CSKA and Spartak at the CSKA Ice Palace. Tretyak guarded the net for CSKA and the Soviet national ice hockey team during the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

"The NHL lockout turned out to be a plus for Russian hockey in general. It brought back the fans, who lost interest after the best Russian players left the country," said Mark Kelley, a scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins who is an assistant manager for CSKA.

Some said the return also helped to improve Russian hockey.

"Alexei Kasatonov and Vyacheslav Kozlov made our team psychologically more stable, we were more sure of ourselves," said Andrei Raisky, the one-time property of the Winnipeg Jets and now, at 24, the most experienced player on a young CSKA squad.

These players "raised the overall level of play, here in Russia," said Alexander Petrov, the editor of the weekly Russian newspaper Khokkei, who has covered Russian hockey for nearly three decades. "The younger players got a chance not only to play with professionals, they could see them in practice, learn not just the inner parts of the game but how to prepare themselves better, what it takes to be a pro."

Even though players were unevenly spread among Russian teams -- Dinamo Moscow got four back while Krylya Sovetov received none -- their overall impact on the league standings was minimal, many said.

"In my opinion it didn't affect the championships because there weren't enough players that made that big of a difference for any one particular team," said Kelley. "The only game affected was Spartak, with the help of (Pavel) Bure and (Alexander) Mogilny, beating Torpedo (Yaroslavl)" on Nov. 23.

Spartak, on a strength of two goals from Bure and another from Mogilny, beat Torpedo 4-2, with Bure getting the game winner.

Dinamo, Krylya Sovetov, CSKA and Torpedo Yaroslavl were leading the standings before the lockout. This same group of teams still tops the Western Division.

Technically, however, the two points awarded Spartak for the win could have cost the Yaroslavl team a chance to make the playoffs, given the degree of competitiveness within the division.

"I was told to play (Bure and Mogilny)," said Valentin Gureyev, the head coach of Spartak. "I understood, it was done for publicity reasons, to bring fans to the game," he added, maintaining it was unfair that regular starters had to sit out so stars could be brought in for a single game.

Kelley, however, said Yaroslavl also had Dmitry Yushkevich of the Philadelphia Flyers in its lineup and he had "played very well for them."

Alexander Karpovtsev, who was just an ordinary player with Dinamo Moscow, before going to the New York Rangers in the fall of 1993, was the first Russian to "defect" back home.

Sergei Mnatsakanov, one of Dinamo's coaches, remarked, "For us, when Karpovtsev arrived, it was just like Mark Messier coming to our club," a reference to the star of the New York Rangers.