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Viacheslav Fetisov, Sporting Legend/Climate Change Activist
AS A WORLD class ice hockey player, Viacheslav Fetisov was worth his weight in gold – medals, that is. His storied Hall of Fame career, spanning two decades from the mid-1970s to the late-1990s, is the stuff of sporting legend. By the time he retired in 1998 Fetisov, or ‘Slava’ to his friends and teammates, had won seven world titles and two Olympic golds for the Soviet national team, plus a slew of personal accolades and professional club championships, including the biggest prize in hockey, the Stanley Cup – twice as a player and a third time as coach. In his prime, he was one of the best players on the planet, and off – he’s had an asteroid named for him, after all (.8806 Fetisov).
The ice (or lack of it) is once again his battleground of choice. Fetisov, 61, now travels the world to raise awareness on climate change in the Arctic region. Over the past year, he’s been lacing his skates up for the cause at rinks and frozen ponds in places like Nairobi, Israel, Abu Dhabi, New York, Moscow and Finland.
His primary mission as Polar Regions ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is an initiative called The Last Game, an exhibition hockey match to be held at a base near the North Pole. It’s hoped that the game, currently slated for April 2020, will draw attention to the plight of the fragile Arctic ecosystem.
Fetisov brought his message to Singapore last week, playing a friendly game at The Rink in Jurong. He has being an outspoken advocate for player rights and was the first player to leave the Soviet system to join the lucrative National Hockey League (NHL), a move that preceded the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Communist bloc in late-1989. These days, the skate is on the other foot, as it were. Fetisov answered a call from Vladimir Putin to join the government and revive the sports system in Russia. He is a member of the Russian parliament, a former Minister of Sport and the person who spearheaded a drive to build hundreds of skating rinks and sports stadiums across the country.
YOU’VE SAID THAT WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE, THERE’S NO PLANET B. THE ARCTIC IS PARTICULARLY VULNERABLE, WITH UNPRECEDENTED MELTING OF ICE AND RISING SEA LEVELS AS A CONSEQUENCE.
It’s the biggest challenge for all of us on the planet. I thought of playing a game at the North Pole and shared the idea with people in the ecological field – we decided it was a good idea to send a message to people by combining sport and the environment. Some people are concerned about the environment but most never give priority to what’s going on with the planet, they think of things like their salary and pension plan – everything except what’s happening in ecology. Now is the time to send that message, tomorrow it will be too late.
YOU’RE PROMOTING AWARENESS THROUGH THE LAST GAME EVENTS AROUND THE WORLD AND ALSO GETTING PROMINENT PEOPLE TO HELP SPREAD THE WORD.
Prince Albert of Monaco is a big supporter – he’s a big picture guy, a leader on environmental awareness. I give talks in Russia, Europe, America to governments, big business, and important members of society. Big businesses work hard to make money, they don’t think about how to change the situation People like Pope Francis, the Russian orthodox Church preach about how to take care of the planet, but people don’t do anything until there is a natural disaster – this is human nature. Somebody has to do something a little different, so that’s why we play games in different regions. When sea levels rise, 80 percent of people on earth will suffer, even Singapore – if someone thinks they’re not going to be affected, they’re wrong.
WHAT CAN WE DO AS INDIVIDUALS, AND IS RUSSIA ALSO PLAYING ITS PART?
Start from yourself: save energy, don’t use plastic, take short showers, turn the lights off when you don’t need them. We’re not going to fix it in one day but we must at least have a strategic plan. No one country or political leader can fix everything himself. Russia is a big player in this field, we have 10 national programmes, work hard on environmental development, a huge portion of the national budget goes to the environment. But we have to deal with sanctions, the military race. People don’t realise that if Russia doesn’t fix its ecological issues, it will be a big problem.
HOW HAS THE CLIMATE CHANGED FROM THE TIME WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
I grew up in Moscow. After World War Two there wasn’t much to do except skate on frozen ponds and rivers. We started in October and finished in mid-April but now it’s impossible to skate for more than one month. In February we went to a local rink in northern Finland and I asked a young lady with two boys about the situation there. She said every winter the rain comes down and freezes the snow so the reindeer can’t get at the food on the ground. The permafrost has also started melting. The Bahamas is my favourite place to go with my wife. The weather is usually perfect but this time it was 50/50. My taxi driver gave a lecture on the changes, he said the fish are gone and the coral is dead because of rising temperatures. In Singapore, using air-conditioning all the time is going to cause lots of problems.
YOU’RE A MEMBER OF THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME AND THE INTERNATIONAL ALL-STAR TEAM OF THE 20TH CENTURY, WITH MORE VOTES THAN THE GREAT WAYNE GRETZKY. THAT MEANS YOU’RE PRETTY GOOD.
I was five years old when I started skating. At six I grabbed a stick to learn to shoot a puck. We lived in barracks, there was no electricity or hot water, the toilet was outside – but we had a good spirit. We were raised in the streets, not like the cookie cutter athletes these days. My father taught me to believe in the benefits of hard work.
YOU LEFT THE SOVIET UNION TO PLAY IN THE NHL IN 1989. NATIONAL TEAM CAPTAINS AREN’T SUPPOSED TO BREAK STRICT COMMUNIST RULES, BUT IN 2002 YOU RETURNED TO REBUILD THE SPORTS SYSTEM.
I could have lost everything, I stood up against a system that controlled every second of your life, but when you believe in something…it’s one of the things nobody can take away. I’m a citizen, patriot, willing to do everything to make myself stronger – but I’m also a citizen who can have disagreements with his country. In 2002 Putin asked me to come back. He said, ‘I need you here to help build the system.’
HOW GOOD IS PRESIDENT PUTIN AT ICE HOCKEY?
He was 58 when he decided to learn. I asked him, maybe you can start – he was already a judo master. He started on the ice with a walker but he learned in a short period of time. During a game at his inauguration in 2012 he took a penalty shot and put it in the top corner. If you’re playing with amateur players of the same level, the thing is to be in the right place at the right time. It’s a very philosophical game, by the way. You skate on metal blades, hold a wooden stick, play with a rubber puck. You have to think fast, make decisions, it’s the fastest game on the planet and quite physical.