By: Rick Weegman– Pine Journal
Minnesota Duluth’s men’s hockey team concluded a historic trip behind the Iron Curtain 35 years ago
A strip search. Live bears on skates. Stolen towels. KGB officers knocking on hotel room doors. Brushing one’s teeth with vodka.
Oh yeah, a couple of hockey games, too.
Memories abound about the Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team’s visit to the Soviet Union, which concluded 35 years ago today. That historic December 1984 visit to Moscow and Leningrad was the first time a collegiate team in any sport traveled behind the Iron Curtain.
“That 1984-85 team, I think, was the best team that ever played at UMD,” said All-American forward Bill Watson, who scored 210 career points in three seasons with the Bulldogs. “But that trip that we made was different. Nothing ever went smoothly on that trip.
“Once we got there, it was like going to a different world.”
“There were a lot of (memorable moments),” Jim Toninato, a UMD forward from 1982-86, said with a laugh. “But I’d say about 90 percent of them I can’t tell you.”
And despite the best efforts of those involved, televising the games live back to Duluth — the impetus for the trip in the first place — never happened.
Here’s a look back at that experience, from the sometimes fuzzy perspective of those who were there:
Plan takes shape
Bob Rich, owner of NBC affiliate KBJR-TV, first approached then-UMD athletic director Ralph Romano with the idea of playing in the Communist bloc.
After Romano died during the 1983-84 season, Rich, who had made two previous trips to the USSR, continued discussions with his replacement, Bruce McLeod, and with the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Sports Ministry in Moscow.
“He was always a giant promoter of Duluth,” said Jim Rich, Bob’s son and one half of the announcing team for UMD games on KBJR. “He started the Christmas City of the North Parade and was all about civic pride. One way to promote Duluth was to promote the university, so we started televising UMD games every Friday and Saturday.”
UMD played in its first NCAA championship game at the end of the 1983-84 season, losing to Bowling Green State in four overtimes, and would return to the Frozen Four after the 1984-85 season.
So Bob Rich pounced on an idea to capitalize on the increased interest in UMD hockey.
“He put together a package to bring fans and sponsors to Russia and came up with the idea to have these games there,” Jim Rich said. “It was his vision to give UMD as high of a profile as possible and he thought this was a good way to do it.”
KBJR paid all the expenses for sending UMD’s official party of 29 members — approximately $58,000 — in addition to paying for four satellite links and for an NBC director and producer to fly in from London.
It was the height of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR, just four years after the Americans’ “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the subsequent U.S. pullout from the Summer Games in Moscow.
In order to prepare them for their visit, UMD chemistry professor Ron Caple, who would serve as the team’s unofficial translator, held a couple classes to teach the basics of the Russians’ language and customs.
UMD played a series against Northeastern in Boston before departing for overseas. The Bulldogs lost 4-0 in the series finale.
“It was probably our worst game that we played all year,” assistant coach Jim Knapp said. “Everyone was thinking about going to the Soviet Union.”
The entourage, which included fans and parents of players, flew to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and then took a DC-10 overnight to Helsinki, Finland. By late that Sunday evening, everyone had checked into the Hotel Cosmos in Moscow.
Moscow was an immediate culture shock.
“The people and the buildings, and what it was like living in that culture,” Bemidji-born Toninato said of the difference between Moscow and home. “For naive college kids, it was an incredible experience.”
Sumptuous breakfasts, lunches and dinners were provided and a strict schedule for sightseeing opportunities was adhered to.
“They showed us what they wanted to show us. Very, very structured,” Toninato said. “We did get out a few times and walk around the city a little bit and check out the culture.
“It seemed dark, like there wasn’t a lot of color. They had guards with machine guards on every corner, that was a little weird.”
Head coach Mike Sertich said the group was chaperoned closely throughout their stay in Moscow.
“There were armed service people all over the place,” Sertich recalled by phone Friday from a fish house on Lake of the Woods. “I remember being chastised by one of them because I was chewing tobacco and I spit. He came over and read me the riot act in Russian.”
Sertich didn’t get thrown in the gulag or threatened with a trip to Siberia, “but I probably got pretty close to it because I spit on the Motherland.”
The first day’s schedule included a tour of the famed Red Square.
“My roommate and I, (goaltender) Rick Kosti, both slept in and missed it.” said defenseman Norm Maciver, who scored 191 career points with the Bulldogs before playing 12 seasons in the NHL. “We were so jet-lagged that we missed the first day’s tour.”
When told of that, Sertich countered with a rebuttal: “They were not jet-lagged; they were other-lagged.”
Perhaps that had to do with the abundance of vodka in Moscow.
“It seemed like the only thing we had to drink was Pepsi or vodka. And it was warm Pepsi,” Maciver said.
Water, apparently, was a scarce commodity.
“We’d brush our teeth in vodka,” forward Skeeter Moore remembered. “Typically you don’t swallow your toothpaste, right? But we were college kids brushing our teeth with vodka so what the hell.”
Day 2 of the trip began with a number of alterations to the schedule.
According to a diary kept by equipment manager Rick Menz, a 1 p.m. practice was canceled and then rescheduled for 4:30 only to be canceled again. A 9 p.m. game against Moskvich, a Russian auto factory-sponsored elite team, was changed to 4:30 p.m. against a Moscow Sports Institute team at a rink similar to West Duluth’s Peterson Arena, with no fan seating. UMD lost 8-5.
That was the game KBJR had planned to televise live back to Duluth.
“At the last minute the plug got pulled — literally,” said Jim Rich, who left Duluth in 1991 and is currently the sports director at Fox 9 in the Twin Cities.
“The night before the game we were at a dinner and somebody came up to my father and said they needed to speak,” Rich recalled. “They walked away and they told him that night that the game the next day was off and there would be no television.
“They negotiated through the night and told Coach Sertich what was going to happen. We ended up playing a different Soviet team in what was basically a practice rink. We filmed that with one camera and did the play-by-play with Steve Jezierski and myself.”
During UMD’s pregame warmups, Jezierski remembers being told in no uncertain terms to tell the team to leave the ice immediately.
“Jimmy and I were in the press box and (the Soviets) asked us to make an announcement over the PA system for UMD to get off the ice, that their time was up,” Jezierski said. “Both Jim and I looked at each other like, ‘I’m not telling Sertie that it’s time to get off the ice.’ But they were persistent.
“I don’t do very good dialects but I did my best Russian-English imitation and said, ‘Pleez-a ged-da off-a-da ice’ trying to make Sertie think it was them making the announcement and not me.”
KBJR still filmed the game with one camera in hopes of showing it on a delayed basis once back home, but for Rich and Jezierski the rest of the trip turned into a vacation.
“It was as if the rules changed when we got out there,” Jezierski said. “Basically we were tourists, there was nothing work-related whatsoever.”
‘Trouble finds trouble’
Though memories are a bit hazy and a need to protect the not-so-innocent still persists 35 years later, there’s little doubt the Bulldogs pushed the envelope in creating an international incident.
The first such scene came as the team was preparing to leave Moscow for a 70-minute Aeroflot flight to Leningrad.
Watson roomed with Jay Jackson, the Maroon Loon mascot, who stuffed towels into his luggage as souvenirs.
“He thought he was going to be funny and tried to sneak towels out of the hotel in Moscow,” Watson said. “They searched every one of our bags and I nearly lost my suitcase, which was so dear to me that I gave it the nickname of ‘Boxcar Willie.’ I was very angry with the Maroon Loon after that and I may have done things to his outfit that I can’t really speak about.”
Toilet paper and towels were treated like Faberge eggs.
“The two things they kept track of was toilet paper — that was more like newspaper-sandpaper — and the towels,” Moore related. “(Jackson) was my roommate in college and I remember him saying later, ‘I didn’t try to steal them, I just needed a couple extra and if someone else needed one I would help out.’ ”
Watson doesn’t buy that excuse to this day.
“They counted the potatoes they gave you, the bread they gave you. Of course they’re going to count the towels at this nice hotel,” he said. “We didn’t even get to the bus and they were on (Jackson) like white on rice. And I almost lost my legendary suitcase.”
That wasn’t the only trouble team members got into.
At the posh Moscow hotel, Watson received a call from AD McLeod to come down three floors to retrieve two teammates who had stumbled into his room after playing floor hockey in the hall. Watson wouldn’t reveal any names, but left a hint.
“All I can tell you there was a Hall of Famer and another one of my classmates who had a wonderful time playing floor hockey in the hallway,” he chuckled.
Brett Hull, whose father, Bobby, was highly revered by the Soviets, is the only member of that UMD team to later earn a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Moore was at the heart of another controversy, too.
The Duluthian brought along a number of items such as jeans, gum and cassette tapes in order to trade with the locals. Moore schemed to put a UMD jersey on one of the traders to allow him access to the hotel in Moscow.
“I tried to get to be buddy-buddy with some of the Russians and snuck them in,” Moore acknowledged. “I was trying to do some trading of some of our stuff that we brought over.”
That led to supposed KGB guards knocking on the door and removing the outsiders.
When asked if it was his room that the KGB approached, Watson, tongue firmly planted in cheek, denied any knowledge.
“I still think that state departments or governments of countries can come back at you for things like that,” he said. “I don’t have any recollections of that. Zero.”
Sertich says he took his chaperoning responsibilities seriously, but there was only so much oversight he could do in a foreign setting.
“Some of those guys got into it pretty good,” he said. “Nobody got arrested but I don’t know if they would have known the difference. Kids have a funny way of finding their way where they shouldn’t be. Kids are kids, it doesn’t matter if they are from Moscow or Duluth. Trouble finds trouble sometimes.”
Next stop: Leningrad
The Bulldogs spent their third day in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, a more westernized city of 4.9 million located between Estonia and Finland on the Baltic Sea coast.
The team attended the Moscow Circus on Ice, where the star attraction was live bears on skates, and later saw a ballet and toured the Winter Palace Museum, where paintings of Rembrandt, Picasso and many others were housed.
“It was quite a bonding experience for all the guys, being over in a foreign country and having to be together,” Toninato said.
But again, things did not go as planned with UMD’s scheduled game. The Bulldogs were supposed to play a Red Army junior team, but the rag-tag outfit that took the ice did not resemble the squad UMD had signed up to play. The Bulldogs won 9-0, according to Menz’s diary entry.
“It seemed like we were playing the equivalent of a beer-league team,” said Maciver, who is in his eighth season as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant general manager. “These guys had different colored helmets on and their sticks looked like they had been used for a year.”
The rink itself was substandard as well. Plexiglas was replaced by a barb-wire mesh that surrounded the boards.
In between periods, UMD was served tea in a scene that definitely was not standard at the DECC.
“We didn’t have any locker rooms and we’d sit outside the rink and these older ladies would come and pour coffee or tea between periods for us,” Moore said. “That was an eye-opener, just bizarre to have them pouring tea.”
At least it wasn’t vodka.
That beverage may have played a role, however, during other incidents in Leningrad.
“Coach Sertich was a little more relaxed than he normally was (in Leningrad) and allowed us to enjoy ourselves,” Watson explained.
Jezierski recalls one potential problem being avoided at a bar in the city.
“It was filled with prostitutes,” he said. “I remember (Knapp) had to rescue backup goalie Ben Duffy because he got backed into a corner with three or four of them. Leningrad was completely different than Moscow.”
Sertich said a couple players went missing one night in Leningrad making deals with black marketeers. Moore, one of those involved, ended up meeting up with traders at an off-limits house.
“I was always trying to get one of those Russian fur hats, and I finally got one,” Moore said. “I remember walking out of there thinking, ‘Maybe this isn’t so smart.’ ”
Sertich later found out about the incident.
“I know Skeeter got to some places that he shouldn’t have been,” the coach said.
Luckily, no players caused an international embarrassment.
“One of the guys almost did, but you can’t print that one,” Maciver said. “Those couple of days, the guys had a little bit of fun. Perhaps too much fun.”
The team left Leningrad bound for Helsinki one week after first departing Boston.
Surprise, surprise, all did not go smoothly.
Going through customs at the airport was an ordeal, especially for the U.S. natives, as Soviet officials confiscated whatever they wanted.
“As a Canadian, I flew through customs,” said Watson, a Manitoba native. “It was the Americans who took about 4-1/2 hours to get through customs. I’ll never forget that, it was hilarious.”
Knapp, the team’s assistant, wasn’t laughing.
“They took me in the back room and they took my suitcase apart,” he recalled. “They cut the seams of my suitcase and literally strip-searched me. I’m going, ‘What is going on?’ What (Sertich) found out is that it is normal practice on the Soviet team that the assistant coaches are KGB agents.”
Sertich said the customs officials were in for a hearty laugh if they thought Knapp was an undercover agent.
“The Russian hockey teams when they would come over to North America, the assistant coaches were KGB so they went through (Knapp) pretty good,” Sertich said. “It was pretty humorous actually. We gave him a ton of BS. If anybody looked non-CIA, it was Jim Knapp.”
Included among the confiscations was approximately half of the videotape shot of UMD’s first game, meaning KBJR needed to improvise what it aired when everyone returned.
“When we were leaving the country through outbound customs, they kept half the tapes because they wanted to know what was on them,” Jim Rich said. “They took half the game and said they would send it to us. We’re still waiting for them to mail us that tape.”
Once through customs, the UMD entourage flew Finn Air to Helsinki and then back across the Atlantic to New York via Montreal.
The trip ended with a charter flight to Duluth, arriving before 11 p.m., leaving players time to wear their newly acquired babushka hats into the Warehouse bar in Canal Park.
No word on whether vodka was on the menu that night.