Viktor Tikhonov, the iron-willed coach who helmed the Soviet Union’s best hockey teams during the height of the Cold War’s peak, died in a Moscow hospital Monday. For better and worse, the 84-year-old was one of the most influential figures in Russian hockey history, winning three Olympic gold medals, eight IIHF World Championship gold medals, 13 consecutive Soviet titles as head coach of CSKA Moscow, and one Canada Cup. Tikhonov had been admitted to hospital suddenly in late October, and was reported to have had lost the ability to “move independently”. Tikhonov is predeceased by his son, Vasily, who died at age 55 in 2013. His grandson, also named Viktor Tikhonov, played in the NHL with Phoenix in 2008-09 and currently plays in the Russian-based Kontinental League.
Born in 1930, Tikhonov first gained prominence on the Russian hockey scene playing for the Air Force’s team and Moscow Dynamo; he scored 35 goals in 296 games during a 15-year career in the Soviet Elite League, but it wasn’t until he retired and moved behind the bench that Tikhonov truly made a name for himself.
After beginning his coaching days as an assistant for Moscow Dynamo in 1964, Tikhonov gradually gained experience until he was named coach of both CSKA and the Russian national team in 1977. From 1978-1989, he guided CSKA to 13 straight championships and was a key force on the international scene, coaching Russia at the 1979 Challenge Cup (which featured the Russian national teams taking on NHL teams) and 1981 Canada Cup. In addition to winning Olympic gold in 1984, 1988 and 1992, Tikhonov also coached the Soviet team that fell to an upstart American squad during the 1980 Lake Placid “Miracle On Ice” game and wound up with the silver medal.
Tikhonov was infamous for his controlling ways, often meddling with players’ personal lives and worrying about defections to the West during international play. He put players through gruelling conditioning and training situations, and it came to a head when Russian star Igor Larionov’s open letter of protest to Tikhonov was published in the magazine Ogonyok in late 1988; Larionov wrote about Tikhonov’s authoritarian rule – “It’s a wonder our wives are allowed to give birth,” he said in one part of the 7,000-word letter – and for challenging Tikhonov’s authority so openly, Larionov was cut from the CSKA team that was to tour North America. Unfortunately for the veteran coach, star blueliner Slava Fetisov joined Larionov’s side and left the team fractured and irreversibly broken. A quick agreement was made so that the Russians could play one more World Championship in 1989, but after that, the changing socioeconomic structure of Russia allowed top players to leave for the NHL, and they did so in droves.
Once that happened – first, with players like Larionov and Fetisov; then, with Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny – Tikhonov’s power effectively was drained. He continued coaching the Russian national team until 1994, and remained CSKA’s coach until 1996.
He may not be as beloved in his homeland as someone like, say, Pavel Datsyuk, but make no mistake: Tikhonov’s legacy in Russian hockey history is secure. He demanded the utmost from his players and made them into a force that frightened and challenged the North American hockey community to be better. That he is a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame but not the Hockey Hall of Fame is a shame on the latter organization that should be remedied as soon as possible.