Anoka County History: Local prep star was first to play behind the Iron Curtain

With tensions between the United States and Russia reaching a fevered pitch, it makes one think back to the not-so-long-ago years of the Cold War. This was an era when relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were often tense.

Some measured the relative “success” of the two competing countries through athletic competition. Indeed, the Olympics saw many such examples of the athletic substituting for the political. The 1972 gold medal basketball game and the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament cemented the sports rivalry.

Sometimes that rivalry didn’t play out in directly on the court or ice, sometimes it took place when a person went over to the other side. Hockey players defecting from other eastern bloc communist nations weren’t all that uncommon. But no hockey player defected from the Soviet Union until Alexander Mogilny did it in 1989. Soviet hockey players were revered and privileged in their country and had less incentive to leave that life behind.

But what about American players going to the Soviet Union? Well, the first player was Tod Hartje, a 1986 graduate of Anoka High School. But his story is not one of defection or seeking a different way of life.

Hartje was a star athlete at Anoka High School and a member of the National Honors Society. As a senior he quarterbacked the Tornados football team to a conference championship and the team ranked as high as fifth in the state polls. As a junior, he was a member of the school’s hockey team that went to the state tournament. His senior year found him as one of the hockey team’s captains. That team won its conference championship before losing to Duluth Denfeld 6-2 in the sectional finals.

After graduating from Anoka, Hartje went on to play collegiate hockey at Harvard. After his freshman season he was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League. Considered to be a borderline talent, the Jets allowed him to play out his years at Harvard, while they hoped he would continue to develop his game.

The Jets general manager at the time was Mike Smith. He had a doctoral degree in Soviet studies and was something of a student of the Soviet style of hockey, a system that, with few exceptions, dominated international play. Smith saw in Hartje a player that might be well-suited for something that had never been done before; he wanted to send Hartje to play for the Sokol Kiev of the Soviet Championship League. The league was state run.

Smith reasoned that Hartje’s skills were well suited for the Soviet style and that this experiment, in addition to developing Hartje’s skills, could play well with bringing the Soviet style to North America and possibly players. Hartje’s Harvard background, Smith theorized, would be recognized and respected in the Soviet Union.

The late ‘80s were a period of greater openness in the Soviet Union. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies created a new era of openness. It also proved to be the end of the Soviet era. In 1991, the country dissolved.

Meanwhile, Hartje had a front row seat to history as he played for Sokol Kiev in 1990, the final year the league’s existence.

Todd Mahon is the Executive Director of the Anoka County Historical Society.

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