Legendary ice hockey player Viacheslav Fetisov is pushing to preserve the polar regions.
NOT JUST FOR FUN
To highlight the increasingly dire state of the polar regions, with global warming accelerating the ice melt, the ominouslynamed #TheLastGame will be held on an ice floe in April next year.
Viacheslav Fetisov, or “Slava” to those who know him, can strike fear into opponents with just a penetrating stare. However, it was his grit and determination that established him as a sports icon, and he is using that same dedication today to address the climate crisis – in particular, that rising temperatures may lead to an ice-free Arctic by 2040, according to an Arctic Council report. As ice ﬂoes melt, rising sea levels will impact even communities far away from the polar regions.
The 61-year-old belongs to a league of elite sportsmen, encompassing the likes of Muhammad Ali and Andre Agassi, who have become a voice for humanity, and he is pushing for awareness and action to prevent this devastating development. A former Russian ice hockey champion with a career studded with golds from the Olympics, as well as World and European Championships, he has seen ﬁrsthand the effects of global warming. In Helsinki, for instance, he could not ﬁnd a frozen pond in the coldest month of February on which to play ice hockey with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.
As the Unesco Champion for Sport, and the UN Environment Patron for Polar Regions, he has spearheaded a worldwide initiative – #TheLastGame, supported by no less than Pope Francis and Prince Albert II of Monaco. This unprecedented ice hockey game will take place on the Barneo ice ﬂoe at the North Pole on April 20, 2020.
In Singapore on Oct 15 as part of a series of friendly games leading up to the April match, Fetisov speaks passionately of ice hockey as if he was still the 16-year-old that made his debut in the Soviet era. He tells us how his sporting career led him to advocate for climate change.
HOW DID YOU GET YOUR START IN ICE HOCKEY?
My father put me in skates when I was four or ﬁve years old. I remember it like it was yesterday – the ﬁrst time I found my balance and glided over the ice. I was born in Moscow, and I skated on frozen ponds and rivers for ﬁve months every year. We played football all summer and skated outside all winter. Today, it’s impossible to ﬁnd ice outdoors to skate on for more than a month. When I was 10, I joined a hockey school programme. Before long, I was skating for the Red Army Club, playing with kids two years older than I was. The decision of the coaches to pit me against older boys helped with my development and got me into the Soviet national team at the age of 17.
PUSH FOR ACTION
Fetisov says he used to skate on frozen ponds for five months every year as a child, but that is now impossible, due to climate change.
HOW DID THE SPORT INFLUENCE YOUR WORLD VIEW?
It helped me understand the world. When I was 14, I went to Canada and played in front of a crowd of 15,000. Hockey is like a religion there, so for people to watch a bunch of Soviet kids play was pretty special. By the end of it, I decided I wanted to be the best player in the world. It’s a brutal game but it showed me the power of unity. I joined the National Hockey League in North America in the ’90s, with teammates from different countries. We fought hard on the ice, shed tears and drew blood but, after a game, we would go to a bar, have a beer, talk about the game and our families.
HOW DOES THAT WINNING MENTALITY TRANSLATE TO YOUR ADVOCACY WORK?
Success is a combination of talent, hard work and holding on to a big dream. The philosophy is simple: To achieve success is hard, to repeat it is twice as hard. You cannot be satisﬁed; you’ve got to ﬁnd new sources within yourself to stay successful. In ice hockey, you also have to build a big team to achieve success. In the same way, it is important for everyone, politicians and businesses, to work together to save our ecosystems. When I was in northern Finland, a young lady told me that rain in winter has made it impossible for reindeers to graze on the ice-crusted ground, resulting in half of the reindeer population dying in recent years.
IN NORTHERN FINLAND, RAIN IN WINTER HAS MADE IT IMPOSSIBLE FOR REINDEERS TO GRAZE ON ICE-CRUSTED GROUND.
- FETISOV, ON WHY REINDEERS ARE DYING
WHAT’S THE MOTIVATION BEHIND #THELASTGAME?
Temperature changes in the Arctic have been dramatic, and ice coverage – which has been rapidly shrinking – could completely disappear soon. Staging the game in the environment that has been critically affected draws immediate attention. We’ve played friendly matches in places such as Nairobi and Abu Dhabi, which don’t experience winter, to create awareness.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF SWEDISH YOUTH ACTIVIST GRETA THUNBERG?
Her concerns reﬂect those of kids around the world. What I see is that politicians and businesses are not on the same page; maybe her unusual participation would get people to think differently, although the way she delivered the message could be discussed.
WOULD YOU PICK ICE HOCKEY IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE ALL OVER AGAIN?
Yes. It’s a great game that requires a quick mind, quick feet and teamwork. It’s a contact sport so you have to be ready for the physical aspect at any second. I could be a good footballer too, but the Brazilians would have been in trouble.
PHOTOS ALAMY & VIACHESLAV FETISOV