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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

NATO, Soviets Square Off on Ice

MTThe Soviet Legends getting suited up before beating their NATO rivals, 5-2.
Bobby Fischer battling Boris Spassky, the United States' 1980 upset of the Soviet hockey team, the Soviets' 1972 defeat of the U.S. basketball squad -- during the Cold War, chessboards, ice rinks and arenas were proxy battlefields for the superpowers.

On Wednesday, the battlelines were briefly resurrected -- sort of.

In a friendly matchup that was part of a nationwide effort to boost NATO's image in Russia, amateur hockey players from NATO countries faced off against the vaunted Soviet Legends, a team that included Olympians and other world-class players.

The Soviets, despite being 10 to 15 years older than their NATO rivals, won 5-2.

Daniel Kostoval, the first secretary at the Czech Embassy in Moscow and the organizer of the match, voiced some initial reservations about the whole idea.

"Sports was used for politics during the Cold War, so at first I wasn't sure if it was a good idea," Kostoval, 35, said. "We didn't want to create the impression that it was NATO versus Russia."

The solution? Throw in a couple players from the Rosich hockey team, a government-connected amateur club made up of bureaucrats, businessmen and former top-tier athletes, and you get a joint NATO-Russian operation.

"Politically, it's not bad for us: Russia and NATO together," Kostoval said.

Whether the game will improve Russians' impressions of NATO is unclear: Only 50 or so people attended the game at the Tsentralny ice rink in southern Moscow, and most of those in the bleachers were friends and family.

This much is beyond a shadow of a doubt: The match -- and the public relations offensive, dubbed NATO-Russia Rally 2006, which kicked off last week in Vladivostook and ends later this month in Kaliningrad -- comes at a low point in Russian-Western relations.

In a poll of 1,600 Russians conducted last month by the independent Levada Center, 46 percent said closer NATO ties would be bad for Russia, while 26 percent said closer relations would be good -- the opposite of what pollsters found in a similar survey four years ago.

NATO's image took a bruising during the alliance's 1999 bombing of Serbia and its eastward expansion in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade.

Today, relations remain fraught. Indeed, NATO-Russia Rally 2006 has already sparked protests in two cities.

Alexander Tretyak, manager of the Soviet Legends, downplayed any political overtones at Wednesday's match.

Igor Tabakov / MT

NATO-Russia players, in white jerseys, facing off against the older "Soviets."

Before his team took to the ice, Tretyak added that spectators should not expect a "Miracle on Ice," the nickname for the U.S. victory over the Soviet Olympic hockey team, one of the most formidable squads ever assembled, at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

"There won't be any miracle," Tretyak said. "The teams aren't exactly evenly matched, but we'll adhere to the spirit of fair play. It won't be a blowout."

The NATO-Russia players sounded slightly in awe of their "Soviet" foes.

"They're just in a different league," said Tom Deters, an analyst at the U.S. Department of Energy's Moscow office. "They're so strong on each stride. Our heads are down, and their heads are always up. It's obvious these guys are Olympians."

Deters, an Ohio native who grew up playing high school and club hockey, said the Soviet Legends were far and away the best players he'd ever faced.

Greg Lemermeyer, an official at the General Relations section of the Canadian Embassy, noted that hockey had served an important diplomatic role between his country and Russia. Earlier this week, he said, Soviet Legend goalkeeper Vladimir Tretyak was presented with Canada's Order of Meritus Service Award at the embassy; he is only the 24th foreigner to win the award.

The Soviet Legends had less to say about their opponents. Yury Blinov, who helped carry the Soviet Union to victory against Canada at the 1972 Olympics, shrugged when asked what to make of his Western rivals. Sporting a mouthful of gold teeth, Blinov said simply: "Fine."