When Winnipeg Jets' General Manager Mike Smith asked Harvard graduating senior Tod Hartje to play hockey next season in the U.S.S.R., Hartje thought he was kidding.
It was no joke.
Hartje will become the first North American--Canadian or U.S. citizen--ever to play hockey professionally in the Soviet Union. The Anoka, Minn. native will skate for Sokol-Kiev in the Soviet Elite League for the Ukrainian team's 1990-91 season.
"I had no idea--I didn't find out about [Sokol-Kiev] until before Spring Break," Hartje said. "I thought [Smith] was kidding at first, but he was serious, and I'm going."
Hartje, who recently inked a three-year pact with the Jets, will be loaned to Sokol-Kiev as part of an ongoing exchange of personnel and players between Winnipeg and Kiev.
The program is the brainchild of Smith, a Ph.D. in Russian Studies, who initiated a set of executive exchanges this year as well. This spring Hartje, who was the Jets' seventh-round pick in 1986, met with Sokol-Kiev Coach Anatoly Bogdanov in Winnipeg.
"Mike started something with Sokol-Kiev during [the NHL] playoffs," Jets Communications Director Mike O'Hearne said. "Their head coach came over and advised us of things he thought would help our team. We reached a reciprocal agreement. whereby we'd send management and players [to Kiev] to train and assist each other, to open new doors in the Soviet Union."
O'Hearne said that Hartje's college hockey experience and stable character made him the right choice within the Winnipeg organization.
"It's obvious that this is going to be a tremendous challenge--living a different lifestyle, going without family and friends," O'Hearne said. "Mike felt that [Hartje] was capable of being open to such an experience."
"And on the college level," O'Hearne added, "[the play] is perhaps more wide open--you aren't allowed to fight. You can't have a guy who's going to explode. In the Soviet style, you need to play a finesse game, and Tod's a pretty decent skater."
Even for a solid finesse player, soviet hockey will pose several potential obstacles to Hartje's transition to the Elite League, the Soviet equivalent of the NHL.
And Hartje will have to adjust to a lot more than just different hockey styles. He will arrive in Kiev in July speaking neither Russian nor Ukrainian, the city's official languages.
But Hartje is not letting any of this get him down.
"I met with Anatoly Bogdanov, who speaks English--at least enough to communicate," Hartje said jokingly.
After reading the latest news flashes from the Soviet Union, one might expect that Hartje will run into food problems as well. As the adage goes, "You are what you eat." And in today's Soviet Union, there isn't much to eat.
Fortunately for Hartje, Sokol-Kiev will feed and house the Harvard graduate during his tenure in Kiev, while the jets will foot the bill for a salary about which Hartje has no complaints.
"It's a good contract, and I'm happy with it," said Hartje, who refused disclose specific details.
But the bigger bucks may come after the season, when Hartje hopes to co-author a journal of his experiences with an American correspondent. The former Harvard utility man is currently working out the details with MacMillan publishing
"This could wind up the NBC movie of the week," O'Hearne said.