The club, referred to as TsSKA, has been taken under the wing of Howard Baldwin, an owner of the U.S. National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins, who invested a "substantial" but undisclosed amount of money last June in the money-starved team.
Until four years ago, TsSKA was the unrivaled powerhouse of Russia's 24-team International Hockey League. But since perestroika, some 25 of TsSKA's finest have been lured to the NHL by the almighty dollar as have about 75 other players in the league. Each team has 28 players.
The American investors say despite the temptation of using the Moscow Penguins as a farm club, they are discouraging transfers because they don't want to deplete the team of its talent.
In Soviet days, each sports team was supported by a branch of the state like the army, trade unions, auto builders or the railroad industry-most now with little money.
"You have to be aggressive and find new ways to come up with money," said Mark Kelley, assistant general manager of the new TsSKA.
And aggressive is exactly how the Russian Penguins' marketing squad played the 1993-94 season to attract more fans. In September, TsSKA for the first time opened the home game with a light show and free Iron City beer from new sponsor Pittsburgh Brewing Co., and the game enjoyed the first Russian hockey sellout crowd in a decade, said Tamara Curtin, officially the team's director of logistics and technology but also responsible for marketing and merchandising.
Ms. Curtin, with the help of her staff of two, filled the 6,000-seat stadium with radio spots she created simply inviting fans to the opening game of newly reincarnated team.
Other Western-style attractions, created in-house, shockingly new to Russians, continued throughout the season, helping produce near sellout home games when other teams, which did little if any promotion, played to nearly empty stadiums.
The Penguins introduced the rarely used concept of promotion, giving away a Jeep Wrangler supplied by a Moscow Chrysler dealership to the fan, among a group randomly picked at a game, who won a shootout. During other games, KGF Jacobs Suchard held chocolate-eating contests to promote its Milka chocolate bars.
Introducing such ideas to the Russians hasn't always been easy. Army generals rooting for TsSKA since the height of the Cold War were especially miffed when purple cows, the logo of Milka, were painted under the ice, Ms. Curtin said. As it happens, "like a cow on ice" is a common Russian expression meaning wacky or out of control.
But the fans lived for such displays, confounding officials who, Mr. Kelley said, "were skeptical that we could fill the building. And, with just a few radio spots handled in-house, TsSKA regularly played to sellout home crowds in the September-through-March season.
Moscow sales of Russian Penguins merchandise grossed more than $2,300 in three games, including $19 baseball caps, $3.20 pins and $1.90 bumper stickers, a hefty price tax for the average Russian, whose monthly salary now is about $82.
On a tour of 14 cities in February, the Russian Penguins sold $200,000 of merchandise from the Pittsburgh Penguins catalog, and sales are expanding in the U.S. through six licensees, producing everything from keychains to sweatshirts.
Russian sponsors-each with packages worth $150,000 to $300,000-include Coca-Cola Co., Kraft General Foods subsidiary Jacob Suchard, and Iron City beer, a prominent Pittsburgh Penguins supporter. Their deals vary from patches on players' uniforms to signs in the arena-and, for Iron City, permission to use the Penguins' logo on its can.
Aside from success on the bottom line, the TsSKA team is improving on the blue line, too. After a second-to last-place finish in the previous season, it finished 21-20-5 in the just concluded season. That was good for 13th place and a spot in the playoffs, which ended with an overtime loss in the first round.