Bure another Russian hockey mystery

In 1999, Pavel Bure, then still a dazzling NHL goal scorer, consented to a television interview with "Frontline" to talk about his controversial relationship with an alleged Russian mobster.

Bure denied business ties with Anzor Kikalishvili, regarded by international law enforcement officials as an organized crime figure, but stood by Kikalishvili as a close friend.

"You can't really explain it. [Russia is] a total different society, it's total different mentality, and it's like black and white, you have to be there and you have to be born there," Bure told "Frontline."

"After you live for so many years you start to understand ... So, I don't think anybody can judge what's wrong in Russia or what's good in Russia. You can't judge, that's the way it is ... If you take whole [Russian] history, like five, 10 centuries ago, today you're President, tomorrow, you're criminal. Day after, you're President again. It's just total different society."

In a similar way, it came as a surprise to North American hockey observers Tuesday when Bure, now 34 years old, formally announced his retirement from the NHL because of debilitating knee problems, as well as his new position as general manager of Team Russia for the upcoming 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

The Russian Rocket, during his fabulous run as an NHL sniper, was usually perceived as a flamboyant, sometimes petulant and always secretive hockey celebrity. Bure, the son of a former Olympic swimmer, was sensationally linked with tennis diva Anna Kournikova at one point in his career and once left an NHL All-Star game to catch a flight before the game was over.

Like the country from which he hailed, Bure was usually seen by North Americans as a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma, a brilliantly talented athlete who, in the course of his career, seemingly became less of a team player and more focused on contracts and scoring goals.

"If you would have asked me about that 10 years ago, I'd probably say I'm not that sure, but there's a lot of people that mature into their role," said Florida Panthers forward Martin Gelinas, a one-time teammate of Bure's with the Vancouver Canucks.

That Bure would be named to run the Russian Olympic project, then, was received as peculiar news on this side of the hockey world.

But perhaps we just don't understand Russia or Russian politics or, in this case, the Byzantine world of Russian hockey politics, very well.

Yesterday, Bure was a hotshot millionaire winger with the New York Rangers. Today, he is apparently all that is respectable in Russian hockey, the man tabbed to do with Russian hockey what Wayne Gretzky has done for Hockey Canada and, in a lesser sense, what Peter Stastny has been able to accomplish for Slovakia in international hockey circles since that country realized its independence from the former Czechoslovakia.

Most figured it would be Igor Larionov, the widely respected former KLM Line star, who would ultimately be called upon to organize Russia back to Olympic glory. Indeed, Larionov, to outsiders, seemed more like a Russian version of Gretzky, an ambassador for the sport who could work with all the disparate elements of the Russian hockey community.

As well, Larionov was thought to be close with former national team star and Detroit Red Wings teammate Viacheslav Fetisov, now the head of the Russian sport ministry.

But Larionov, who once rebelled against the iron-fisted rule of Viktor Tikhonov and the Soviet national team, refused to play for Russia at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, along with players like Slava Kozlov, Alexander Mogilny, Nikolai Khabibulin, Oleg Tverdovsky and Sergei Zubov.

Last year, Larionov was blocked in his attempt to run the Russian entry in the 2004 World Cup. Instead, Igor Tuzik, a vice-president with the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, got the job, and just before the tournament, Tikhonov was replaced as coach by Zinetula Bilyaletdinov.

That sparked another revolt among players, with Khabibulin, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Zhamnov and Danny Markov all citing poor organization as their reason for not participating in the tournament.

Bure, on the other hand, captained the 1998 Russian Olympic team in Larionov's absence, scoring nine goals, including a five-goal performance in the semifinals against Finland, to lift Russia to a silver medal. He also ignored a fractured hand to play for his country at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

So, although he would not be viewed as a cohesive force by North American hockey analysts, he clearly is seen that way at home, a high-profile individual who can get the best Russians to play in Turin, not just the ones willing to play.

Either that, or he simply has the best connections.

"I can promise you one thing, from now on you won't see such a mess with the national team that you've seen here before," Bure told reporters. "You won't see grouchy players here anymore. Only those who really want to play for Russia will be called into the team."

Bure is expected to be in North America this week, along with the head coach of the Russian Olympic team, Vladimir Krikunov, to begin scouting players. The Russian national team has named 77 players to its initial Olympic list, just slightly smaller than the 81-name list submitted by Canada. The Russian roster includes 40 NHL players and 37 players currently playing in the Russian SuperLeague.

Krikunov, the head coach for Moscow Dynamo, coached Russia to bronze last spring at the world championships in Austria and, like Bure, is promising a no-nonsense approach to selecting players for the Olympics.

"Patriots only will play for Russia," Krikunov said. "People are free, and there are no restraints to their wishes."

Russia, or a derivative thereof, hasn't won Olympic gold since 1994, when the Unified Team finished first in Lillehammer. After finishing second to the Czechs in '98, the Russians won bronze in Salt Lake and then, in last year's World Cup, were bounced in the quarterfinals by the Americans.

The backdrop to this Olympic intrigue, meanwhile, is the growing rebellious nature of Russian hockey in general. Last year, the Russian league signed a large number of locked-out NHL players to lucrative contracts and has increasingly become a viable option for players of all nationalities.

Russian authorities, meanwhile, refused to sign a new NHL transfer agreement, and Fetisov is spearheading the development of a new league that would feature the best teams from all the post-Soviet countries and become a "counter-weight" to the NHL.

Bure, then, might be the perfect fit for the independent and increasingly capitalistic nature of Russian hockey within the context of the international game. If Larionov was the link between the great Soviet teams of the past and the new outlook of young Russian players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk, Bure surely has both skates in the modern era, having earned an estimated $68 million over the course of his prolific NHL career

Unlike players like Larionov or Khabibulin, Bure also has no historic animosities within Russian hockey circles.

"I don't know how it's going to be," Russian forward Alexei Kovalev said. "For me, it's kind of unusual seeing a young person being general manager of the national team. We'll see what happens. I can't tell anything right now.

"Everybody knew he would retire, for me it doesn't really matter who is the general manager of the team. I don't have to deal with him. I'm just a player and he's the general manager."

Just as the departure of the similarly youthful Theo Epstein from the Boston Red Sox organization has left many shaking their heads, so too did Bure's ascension to his lofty new post in Russia hockey.

If anything, however, intricacies of Russian hockey politics are far more confusing to the outsider than the intrigue of working for the Red Sox.

Bure probably wouldn't be able to explain it to us if he tried.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.