Since the release of the documentary Red Army late last year, Slava Fetisov has earned universal praise as a hero for his principled stand against the authoritarian Russian hockey regime that controlled his fate during his playing days.
But now that he’s part of that power structure, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman seems to have very different ideas about freedom.
Fetisov, who was elected to the KHL's board of directors on Wednesday, is moving to follow through on a campaign promise to restrict Russian players from pursuing their NHL dreams until they reach the age of 28.
When he first mentioned this proposal in May, Fetisov stressed the importance of keeping “our most talented guys, the ones who the people come to see” in Russia. And from a practical standpoint, his position is easy to understand. He lives in a country that is obsessed with establishing its interests and restoring lost pride. Now that he’s charged with ensuring the prosperity of the KHL, it makes sense that he would want to keep the country’s top talent at home for as long as possible.
But locking the doors, either figuratively through 10-year contracts that would, presumably, be honored by the NHL, or literally by preventing young players from leaving the country, goes beyond being wrongheaded.
It’s blatantly hypocritical. And it immediately flushes away whatever good will he’s engendered.
Fetisov, of all people, should know better. As he’s said himself, the lure of NHL isn’t the money. It’s the irresistible opportunity for an athlete to prove himself in competition against the best players in the world. And that desire runs as strong for the Denis Gurianovs and Ilya Samsonovs of today as it did for Fetisov when he went to war with his coaches, teammates and the Kremlin to open the door to the NHL for players from his country.
To see how much he risked, it’s clear how much freedom—not just for himself, but other Russians—meant to Fetisov. After years of struggle, he finally was permitted to join the NHL’s New Jersey Devils in 1989-90 at the age of 31. Despite his late arrival, he spent nine seasons with the Devils and Red Wings, winning the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 1997 and ’98.
Already a 10-time champion with victories at the World Championships, Olympics and Canada Cup, Fetisov was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2001.
Despite that amazing track record of success, his lasting legacy was destined to be his efforts to promote free movement for athletes between Russia and North America.
It’s entirely possible that he’s simply the messenger here. That higher powers, possibly even his old student Vladimir Putin, could be writing the script with the understanding that the message would carry more weight coming from Fetisov's mouth than their own.
It’s also possible that the system the ultra-nationalistic Fetisov fought against as a younger man simply makes more sense to him now as he’s gotten older.
Whatever the case, his proposal at this point is just that. A proposal. It may never be enacted, at least not in any meaningful way. Or if it is, it could be beaten down by sanctions from the IIHF. Or simply thwarted the old fashioned way through defections—unless, of course, Russia decides to protect itself by becoming hockey’s hermit kingdom.
However it plays out, we now know this much. Fetisov isn’t much of a hero after all.