SOCHI, Russia — A dictator. Taskmaster. Strict. Cruel.
Those were the words that were used to describe Viktor Tikhonov when he coached the Soviet national hockey team from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. For North American hockey fans, he was the unsmiling face of the ruthless Big Red Machine that dominated most international competitions during the last quarter of the Cold War (save for the 1980 Olympics, of course.)
And it wasn’t just typical stereotyping of the times. Tikhonov’s players weren’t all that fond of his methods, either.
“When Tikhonov was the head coach,” his former player Igor Larionov once said, “the players who are living at the training camp for 11 months a year, year after year, there was a lot of humiliation and insulting for the players.”
All of which made it so interesting to hear his grandson and namesake, Viktor Tikhonov, a member of the Russian team here in Sochi, describe his grandfather so differently.
“He’s just a normal grandfather,” the younger Tikhonov said. “Always been really kind, always been really helpful. Obviously, I’ve heard the stories that he’s been a disciplinarian, but I’ve never really got it on me.”
Both grandson, 25, and grandfather, 83, will be together soon.
“He’s coming here maybe the 16th or 17th, he said,” said Tikhonov. “So he’ll probably catch the quarter-finals.”
The opportunity to add another Olympic gold medal to the family’s collection isn’t lost on the former top prospect of the Phoenix Coyotes, now a member of SKA Saint Petersburg in the KHL.
“It really is unbelievable,” he said. “I forget who mentioned it to me, but someone said the last time they won was in 1992 when my grandfather (was coaching). Maybe it’ll come full circle.”
If it does, it will be a bittersweet triumph. Tikhonov’s father, Vasily, died tragically in August when he fell from his fourth-floor apartment in Moscow while doing home repairs.
“I wish he could be here,” Tikhonov said. “It’s been both of our dreams for me to make the Olympics. I know he is watching up there and I will try to make him proud.”
Russia opens its Olympic tournament Thursday versus Slovenia.
“The closer we get to it, we definitely can feel all of the emotions growing,” said Tikhonov. “Even since the opening, everyone was watching it on TV and personally I kind of got butterflies seeing that it’s finally here. Playing on our home turf is a big deal.”