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Stanley Cup does Red Square; ‘The Cup is better than Lenin!’

August 17, 1997 GMT

MOSCOW (AP) _ Memo to the NHL, from Russians: Thanks a lot for letting us see the Stanley Cup. Now can we have our players back?

Hockey’s holy grail got a friendly reception Sunday on its first day on full display for the Russian public. But it clearly came second to the returning Russian stars themselves _ they too, alas, now on loan from North America.

First, on a nearly empty Red Square, then at a sold-out exhibition game, three of the five Russians who helped the Detroit Red Wings win the cup reminded their countrymen that Russia’s faded hockey glory lives on abroad.

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``It’s very nice to see the cup here,″ said Igor Larionov, signing autographs on Red Square for fans who still think of him as a former star for the fabled Central Army team, CSKA.

``I think it’s an historic day for everybody in Russia.″

Later, with the lights dimmed in Sokolniki hockey arena, Larionov and teammates Vyacheslav Fetisov and Vyacheslav Kozlov skated a triumphant lap around the rink with the cup, greeted by cheers and popping flashbulbs.

But the reception was just as rousing, if not more so, for introductions for the eight home-grown NHL players who returned to play in the Spartak Cup hockey tournament in the jerseys of the Stars of Russia.

The standing-room-only crowd of 4,500 was especially enthusiastic when Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov lauded ``our Russian hockey players, who ... demonstrate the greatness of Russian hockey and sports abroad.″

The cup had to share the spotlight with the Spartak Cup, which will be awarded to the winner of the week-long preseason tournament involving Russian and European clubs.

Red Square was the most picturesque stop on the Stanley Cup’s five-day visit, with the three Red Wings stars hoisting the silver trophy aloft in front of the Kremlin wall, St. Basil’s Cathedral and Lenin’s mausoleum.

Millions of Russians passionately follow the NHL and the ``Russian Five,″ as they know Larionov and compatriots. But the Red Square stop, billed as a parade, was a victim of non-promotion in the Russian media and unfortunate scheduling on a chilly Sunday morning.

A couple hundred tourists, a horde of media and a handful of diehard fans greeted Larionov and teammates who donned Red Wings jerseys and quietly carted the cup around the huge square.

It may have been one of the most incongruous sights there since a German teen-ager landed a Cessna on the hallowed pavement in 1987 and signed autographs before being led away by police.

The good news was the players and members of a league entourage didn’t have to wait in line to see Lenin’s body. While stern-faced security guards kept the Stanley Cup outside, Kozlov entered the tomb for his first look at the Soviet founder.

The trophy’s appearance drew some puzzled looks from tourists, and a few smiles when it was brought to the Bolshevik revolutionary’s resting place.

``The cup is better than Lenin!″ Igor Khan, 65, said, chuckling.

A long-time hockey fan, he doesn’t bother to go to Russian league games much any more since the top players have fled to the NHL and elsewhere for more money. But he was excited as a schoolboy to collect autographs from the Russian stars.

``Fetisov is the most talented player of all time _ better than Bobby Orr was. Larionov is better than Gretzky.

``We’ll have the best hockey in the world again someday, maybe in 15 or 20 years. But I’ll be dead by then.″

The Stanley Cup arrived in Moscow Saturday, in keeping with the tradition of allowing players on the winning team to take it home during the summer. It previously ventured outside North America last year, to Sweden.

On Monday, it is scheduled to appear before thousands of fans _ including President Boris Yeltsin _ at an exhibition soccer game in rebuilt Luzhniki Stadium.

Two members of the ``Russian Five″ are absent. Vladimir Konstantinov is in a Detroit-area hospital for treatment of injuries from a near-fatal limousine accident in June. Sergei Fedorov skipped the trip amid reports he’s busy with contract negotiations.