The Company He Keeps

Here's an old joke:
Two guys are eating at an Italian restaurant in New York's Little Italy. The first guy whispers, "Hey, see that fella over there? He's got mob ties."

"Mob ties?" the second guy asks incredulously.
"Yeah," the first guy says, "and those ties keep getting him in all sorts of trouble."

"That's crazy," the second guy says. "Why doesn't he just stop wearing them?"

Bada boom!
A little tinkering and that joke would work perfectly in South Florida. Change New York to Miami, set it in a Russian restaurant rather than an Italian one, and instead of the nefarious neckwear guy being some faceless character, give him a name. Pavel, for instance. Pavel Bure.

Now, that's funny.
Of course readers of the Miami Herald might not get it. To them Bure (pronounced bur-AY) is merely the newest member of the Florida Panthers hockey team, a 27-year-old superstar known for his deft stick handling and spectacular speed, the latter earning him a nickname: the Russian Rocket. This past month Herald sportswriter David Neal and columnist Dan Le Batard were so busy doing cartwheels announcing Bure's trade to the Panthers that they failed to mention the Rocket's seedier side.

Neal in particular seems to revel in that rah-rah-root-for-the-home-team-please-God-let-us-be-winners-again coverage that is the bane of most sports pages. The most probing insight Neal has offered readers on Bure has been to describe him as a "mystery wrapped in a riddle surrounded by an enigma who then bursts free and scores." A few days later Neal referred to Bure as being "politely enigmatic." (Apparently Neal forgot to advance his word-a-day desktop calendar.)

Perhaps Bure would be less an enigma to folks in South Florida if the Herald spent just a little time reporting what is known about him off the ice. Simply stated: Bure runs with a dangerous crowd, most notably Anzor Kikalishvili, a man the FBI in 1996 identified as one of the heads of the Russian Mafia responsible for overseeing operations inside the United States.

Stories linking Bure's name with the Russian Mafia first surfaced in 1993. Newspapers in both Canada and the United States reported that Russian hockey players in the National Hockey League were being targeted by Russian gangsters and forced to pay protection money out of fear that their family members would be hurt back home.

The Vancouver Province, citing police sources in Canada, claimed that Bure, who at the time was playing for the Vancouver Canucks, was one of the Russians targeted and that Bure had made two payments to members of the Russian mob. Bure denied being threatened or intimidated.

If those news reports were accurate, however, Bure's relationship with the Russian Mafia has evolved over the past few years. No longer the victim, Bure is now seen as someone who courts the friendship of various mobsters in his native land.

In November 1996 ESPN reported that Bure was a corporate officer in a company suspected of being a major front for the Russian Mafia, and that his friend, Kikalishvili, was on a Central Intelligence Agency watch list as one of the top crime bosses in the former Soviet Union. That same year FBI Deputy Director James Mowdy, in an interview with a Moscow newspaper, confirmed that the FBI considers Kikalishvili to be responsible for Russian organized-crime activities inside the United States. The State Department no longer allows Kikalishvili to travel to this country.

Kikalishvili has repeatedly denied being involved in organized crime.
Bure has been linked to Kikalishvili through two separate business endeavors. The first is a company called the Twenty First Century Association, a supposedly nonprofit corporation in Russia designed, among other things, to promote athletic events and competitions. In 1996 Kikalishvili was the company's president and Bure was a vice president.

Bure and Kikalishvili were also partners in a Moscow watchmaking company. Bure is the great-great-grandson of a famous Moscow watchmaker whose family made timepieces for the Russian czars in the 1800s. Bure acknowledged that he approached Kikalishvili several years ago to restart the business, which ceased operations after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The new company presented one of its first watches to Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The most comprehensive story regarding Bure's ties to Kikalishvili and the Russian Mafia appeared this past May in Details magazine. The author of the story, Robert Friedman, delved deep into the relationship between Bure and Kikalishvili, which he claims dates back to Bure's childhood. "I knew him when he was a boy and played on a children's [hockey] team," Kikalishvili told Friedman.

The relationship between the two men developed over time as Kikalishvili became head of the Russian youth sports league and eventually the Russian Olympic Committee. Friedman noted that following the fall of the Soviet Union, organized crime flourished throughout the country, with the Mafia exerting particular control over Russian sports and its athletes.

Citing confidential FBI documents, Friedman, an expert on the Russian mob who has just completed a book on the subject, claimed that the Twenty First Century Association is nothing more than a Mafia front "worth at least $100 million in illicit funds."

Friedman wrote, "The company has extensive interests in real estate, hotels, banks, and allegedly as many as ten casinos. According to FBI records, it also retains a combat brigade of 50 ex-athletes to protect it from other mob families and carry out criminal activities such as extortion."

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