Some Last Thoughts About Viktor Vasilyevich Tikhonov
It is very fitting that one of Viktor Tikhonov’s last public appearances took place in a victorious dressing room, surrounded by celebrating Russian hockey players, as that was a setting in which he had been seen many, many, times before. On that particular occasion, in May of 2014, they were celebrating their gold medal victory at the World Championship in Minsk. The old coach shook hands, posed for photographs, and embraced his grandson and namesake, who had led the tournament in scoring. It was in all ways a happy scene, but shortly thereafter came the news that Tikhonov was ill, hospitalized in fact. Over the summer and into this autumn there were sporadic updates, some encouraging and others not so much, until, on November 23rd, came the sad news that Viktor Tikhonov had passed away in Moscow at the age of 84.
The bare facts; Tikhonov was born in 1930, in Moscow, and spent 14 seasons as a useful but undistinguished forward in the early years of the Soviet Championship. Upon his retirement, in 1963, he entered the coaching ranks, first as an assistant with Dynamo Moscow and then as the Head Coach of Dinamo Riga. When Tikhonov took over in Riga in 1968, the team was languishing in the third division of the Soviet league, but he had them in the top flight by 1973. In 1976-77 the team finished fourth, ahead of giants like Spartak Moscow and Soviet Wings. That was enough to hand Tikhonov the reigns at both Central Red Army (CSKA) and the Soviet national program. He remained in charge of both until the end of the Soviet Union and beyond — in fact, he was associated with CSKA until quite recently, although his last “serious” coaching gig came in the early ’00s. Late in his life, he got to see his grandson Viktor become one of the better talents in the KHL, but also suffered a tragedy when his son, Vasily, also a high-level hockey coach, died after an accidental fall in 2013. Viktor Tikhonov is survived by his wife, Tatyana.
It is impossible to talk about Viktor Tikhonov without dealing with the subject of his reputation. The old coach ran a very tight ship at CSKA and with the national team, and his harsh discipline is often cited as one of the reasons that Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Fetisov, and several others began agitating to come to North America. There are some grounds for believability here; CSKA players played hockey six days a week, eleven months of the year, and spent most of their time living in barracks away from their families. Furthermore, Tikhonov could feud with the best of them (literally!). The bad blood between him and the superb Helmuts Balderis, whom Tikhonov coached both in Riga and with Red Army, is quite legendary and far from the only example. Whatever his merits as a coach, Tikhonov was not an easy personality to deal with.
But, oh, he did have those merits. From the mid- to late-70s until the very end of the USSR, his teams pretty much swept all before them. We can start with the three Olympic gold medals for the national team, plus that unlooked-for silver in Lake Placid in 1980. Under Tikhonov, the Soviets won their only Canada Cup, with a massive 8-1 shellacking of Team Canada in Montreal in 1981. That came two years after they had embarrassed the NHL’s best in the 1979 Challenge Cup, winning the series two games to one, with the decider being a 6-0 hammering in Madison Square Garden. And you can add the nine World Championships to the pile too.
On the domestic front, Tikhonov’s CSKA Moscow team won 12 straight Soviet Championships (part of a 13-in-a-row streak, with the first of those coming the year before Tikhonov was hired). They also fared well against the NHL in the annual Super Series between Soviet clubs and NHL squads. Red Army’s total record under Tikhonov in those encounters reads “22 wins, 7 losses, 1 tie.” Now, one can of course object that CSKA had a massive, massive, advantage in the area of player recruitment, and this is so — The army team could, and did, simply conscript players from other teams. However, that was an advantage that CSKA had always held, and at no other time did they win as many as 13 championhips in a row. Furthermore, the job Tikhonov did in bringing Dinamo Riga out of complete obscurity to become one of the USSR’s better squads is both remarkable and often overlooked. To turn around a previous statement: whatever Tikhonov’s foibles as a person, he was one heck of a hockey coach.
There is a certain amount of irony, or at least odd coincidence, in Tikhonov passing away at this moment in the history of the Russian game. For one thing, his old CSKA team is as close now to winning a championship as it has been since the last of those 13 straight in 1989 (the post-Soviet period was not kind to the old Red Army team). CSKA currently tops the KHL table by seven points, and have outscored their opposition this season 131-56 in 35 games. There is a long way to go yet, of course, but they definitely look like the team to beat right now.
Furthermore, there are some signs that the KHL, with Dmitry Chernyshenko now in charge, is going to cleave more closely to Russian hockey’s past in the coming years than it did under Alexander Medvedev. Whereas Medvedev’s league was always willing to take on new clubs, even those based in “non-hockey” areas (e.g. Medvescak Zagreb), there appears to be a more conservative bent to the new regime. The KHL has already spoken of an expansion strategy focused on “domestic clubs with a rich history, and also well-known foreign teams.” That bodes well for clubs like Jokerit Helsinki, who are indeed famous and have played very well in front of large home crowds in their inaugural season, and ominously for the afore-mentioned Medvescak, as the linked article states.
On the “domestic clubs with rich histories” front, it appears now all but certain that Spartak Moscow will return to the KHL fold in 2015-16, after folding in May of this year due to financial problems. Spartak won four Soviet Championships of their own, in 1962, 1967, 1969, and 1976 — the last of those coming just before CSKA’s great run began — and supplied numerous players to the USSR’s national team. And while Krylya Sovetov Moscow, rumoured to be joining the KHL in 2016-17, were not as famous as renowned as some of the others, they also were twice champions of the USSR (1957 and 1974). So there does appear to be action behind the talk of Russian hockey moving a bit closer to its roots. What it all means, and what sorts of activity we should look for, can wait for a different post.
Back to Tikhonov. His above-noted grandson, Viktor Tikhonov jr., played his first game following the elder Tikhonov’s death in the same building where the old coach had won so many titles — the CSKA Ice Palace. The younger Tikhonov’s SKA St. Petersburg squad fell 5-3 to CSKA, but he himself saw his grandfather off in style, with two goals and an assist. It did seem rather fitting as a memorial for a man who was difficult, ornery, and at times even perhaps awful, but at the same time deserving of a prominent seat in the pantheon of great hockey coaches.*
*At this juncture, we look rather pointedly at the Hockey Hall of Fame.