By Denis Gibbons
The city was called Leningrad while he was growing up there, as it was in its final months as part of the Soviet Union when he left to play in the NHL in 1990.
Now, after living in North America for 21 years, Alexei Gusarov is back where he was born, serving as assistant GM of the SKA St. Petersburg club of the Kontinental League. The city reverted to its old name in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The KHL is in its fourth season, yet Russia’s second-largest city is still looking for its first Gagarin Cup. Two years ago, SKA placed second overall in the 24-team league, but was upset in the first round of the playoffs. Last year the team fell by the wayside in the second round. This year they were swept in the semifinal.
The Gusarov family moved to St. Petersburg last summer after Alexei was offered the job by SKA GM Alexei Kasatonov, another former NHLer. He and Kasatonov both grew up in Leningrad, but didn’t get to know each other until they moved to Moscow to play for the Central Red Army Club. “I’m happy here,” 47-year-old Gusarov said during the recent KHL all-star weekend during which he played in the legends game. “I was able to keep myself in hockey and work in a business that I know.”
In his new job Gusarov, who was nicknamed ‘Goose’ by his teammates, is also in charge of SKA’s teams in the Russian junior league and Russian under-18 league. In recent weeks he has been working behind the bench as an assistant coach of the KHL squad.
In his spare time, he’s organizing a night recreational league in St. Petersburg.
Selected by Quebec in the 11th round (213th overall) in 1988, Gusarov was already 26 when he came to Canada to play for the Nordiques in 1990. He played 607 NHL games for Quebec, Colorado – where he won the Stanley Cup in 1995-96 – the Rangers and St. Louis before retiring in 2001.
On the international front, he won an Olympic gold medal with the Soviet Union in 1988 and a silver with Russia 10 years later. He played in six world championships, earning three gold medals, two Canada Cups and won gold with the Soviets in the 1984 world juniors in Sweden, where he was named the tournament’s best defenseman.
In the Soviet Union, he was overshadowed by superstar blueliners like Kasatonov and Viacheslav Fetisov, but played smart on the blueline game-in and game-out.
During the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Gusarov was inducted into the IIHF Triple Gold Club as one of 22 players who have won Olympic and world championship gold medals as well as the Stanley Cup. The number has since risen to 25.
After retiring, Gusarov and his family lived in Evergreen, Col., where he founded and operated Goose Racing, a company that fielded teams racing late-model NASCAR cars.
He met his wife Sandra, who is Latvian, during a vacation in 1988. The couple has two sons – 19-year-old Vasily, an international business student at the University of Colorado and 14-year-old Alexander, who attends a Christian school in St. Petersburg.
In the Soviet national team’s heyday under legendary coach Viktor Tikhonov, Gusarov often showed an offensive flair, but in the NHL he was a reliable, stay-at-home defender. Playing behind Sandis Ozolinsh, Uwe Krupp and Adam Foote on the Avalanche depth chart during the Stanley Cup run, Gusarov became an unsung hero of sorts. “He looked very skinny, but he was very strong on the puck,” recalled Foote, who was often paired with Gusarov. “He made the game look so easy. It almost looked like he had a carefree attitude. But he didn’t lose many battles for the puck.
“I played with him when I was young and, other than Ray Bourque, he was the best all-around D-man I played with.”