The Company He Keeps

Friedman also reported that during the mid-Nineties, Kikalishvili lived in Miami. Citing an FBI affidavit, Friedman claimed that during Kikalishvili's stay in South Florida, "he was allegedly involved in the drug trade with South America, in bringing Eastern European prostitutes to the United States, and in extortion.

"[Kikalishvili] bragged on one FBI wiretap that he controlled an army of over 600 men, and started buying tens of millions of dollars in real estate to establish a beachhead," Friedman wrote. "In one instance he warned the Russian owners of a Miami deli that if they didn't pay his demands of some half a million dollars, they 'could be found anywhere in the world and skinned like an animal.' The couple fled the country."

In the Details article, Kikalishvili denied being involved in anything illegal. "In my whole life," he told Friedman, "I've never been in a police station, even as a witness."

Bure also stood by Kikalishvili in the article. "I have to see [the evidence] with my own eyes, you know, to believe it," Bure declared. "I know the guy. He's really nice to me. So what am I supposed to say, 'You're not my friend anymore'? I don't think its fair and I think it's rude. There's got to be a really big reason why I don't want to be a friend with him. Like, if he does some bad stuff, like ... drugs or arms, some big deal, you know?"

Friedman reported that FBI officials are worried the Russian mob's influence over players such as Bure could spell disaster for the NHL. "The FBI worries that the NHL is now so compromised by Russian gangsters that the integrity of the game itself may be in jeopardy," he wrote.

According to Friedman, Vancouver team officials "ordered" Bure to stop associating with underworld figures in 1993. Bure agreed, but continued to anyway, Friedman explained. (The Financial Post, a Toronto newspaper, claimed that in 1995 Bure was having dinner with a group of people in Vancouver, "some of whom had been peripherally involved with the Mafia." After dinner the party piled into two waiting cars. "Bure," the newspaper reported, "got into the rear car just in time to see the front one explode.")

Following the story in Details, Bure held a press conference in Moscow to deny he was connected to the Russian mob. "The worst thing for me in this whole affair is trying to deny something I have never done or been associated with," Bure was quoted as saying in the Moscow Times. Standing alongside Bure during the press conference: Anzor Kikalishvili.

"It's very easy for people to print all sorts of totally unfounded rumors about myself, but it's very difficult for me, or for anyone else for that matter, trying to clear your name after such false information," Bure added. "It's like trying to wash yourself off from all this dirt."

Kikalishvili claimed that the rumors spread about Bure were part of a plot by the American media to keep the United States and Russia at odds with each other. "There are particular circles, special-interest groups in the United States, who are constantly trying to mess up our relations and therefore accuse many of our well-known public figures, like Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Iosif Kobzon, Pavel Bure, and others, of ties with the Mafia for their own political interests," he declared during the 1998 press conference.

Last week Bure's agent, Mike Gillis, again repeated his client's denials. "I've asked him if there is anything I should be concerned about," Gillis said from his office in Ottawa, "and he has assured me that there isn't. What else can I say? He is a great hockey player. He doesn't have any hidden agendas. He lives an extremely simple lifestyle. He is completely dedicated to fitness, to conditioning, and playing hockey. He doesn't have the time or the desire to participate in any of the things he's alleged to be associated with."

Why should the public care? Bure, after all, isn't guilty of anything except lousy taste in friends. But keep this in mind: Wayne Huizenga isn't paying Bure $8.5 million per year just to skate. He's paying him to bring people into his new Broward arena. And that means Bure will be a showcase for the Panthers' marketing machine.

It won't take long for Bure to become another South Florida sports hero, a role model, and a second-tier celebrity. And if the Panthers begin to win, his ascendancy to the ranks of the adored will be assured. As we know, this town loves a winner.

But before we throw him any parades or buy a jersey with his name on the back or stand in line to get his autograph, let's try to remember that just because he skates fast and knows how to put the puck in the net doesn't necessarily make him one of the good guys.

And that's no joke.

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