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."

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.

jim_defede@miaminewtimes.com

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