There is a buzz surrounding Russian hockey like never before, at least not since pre-Glasnost days. Much of the anticipation has to do with Russia winning the World Championships in successive seasons heading into an Olympic campaign. So much of their promise comes from the talent level of their young core, many of whom have little if any knowledge of how it used to be.
There was a time, of course, when the communist Soviet Union was the preeminent presence on the world scene. Russians were a great unknown in North America, with the 1972 Summit Series between CCCP and Canada serving as an introduction -- and revelation -- to most. Through the 1980s -- after the USA's Miracle on Ice in the Olympic Games at Lake Placid -- the NHL hosted intermittent events, such as the Canada Cup and exhibition series versus touring Soviet teams that brought the best they had to offer against the rest of the world.
In the Soviet Union, the competition wasn't celebrated, just the winning. It was all about the coach. He held all the power and dictated the fate of players, right down to the perks of modern living. Such ironclad thinking and handling led to the early retirement of standout goaltender Vladislav Tretiak when, after years of service, coach Viktor Tikhonov refused his request to spend more nights at home rather than living with the team during training sessions.
As a result, Tretiak never got to play in the NHL as some of his aging countrymen were finally allowed to do. But their release only came after the defection of young stars Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Federov. As much as Tretiak, Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov meant to Soviet success, change truly began with the daring moves of Mogilny and Federov, according to Slava Kozlov -- the last NHL player with ties to the old days. "When the young guys left, everyone in hockey took notice," he says.
Kozlov himself ended up in Detroit under cover of darkness, whisked away to play in the NHL thanks to the league's version of the underground railroad. "There was still very little information about life outside our country," he says. "In school, they told us that we didn't need to learn another language because soon everyone in the world would be speaking Russian. I didn't even hear about the NHL until I was in eighth grade. Even when I began traveling with the junior team, we were so restricted. A KGB agent was always with us and held all of our passports when we left the country."
But even a little exposure to new things was enough to pique Kozlov's interest. In his mind, "getting drafted by the Red Wings was huge for me. It allowed me to dream. Everyone has that window in their life where they just have to go through and see what it all means."
For Kozlov it meant heading to the great unknown, with very little to go on once he arrived in the U.S. after being flown out of Moscow in 1992 by assistant GM Nick Polano of the Red Wings, who did some behind-the-scenes wheel-greasing to secure his release. "I didn't know anything," Koslov says. "I took baby steps. Everything was completely foreign. I didn't even know what to eat. I had to figure out what things were and then decide if I even liked them."
If the strict Soviet ways of doing things in hockey taught Kozlov anything it was discipline. It is a trait that has served him well throughout his career and continues to be part of his makeup to this day, as he is the picture of fitness at 36 years old. Still, he credits the Red Wings' organization for his development on and off the ice.
"They were patient with me. And we had great people like Steve Yzerman around. Then we had the Russian Five and it got very comfortable, with lots of Russians on the team. And Detroit has a large Russian population. That was good too. I will always be grateful to those who helped me and gave me this opportunity -- to play hockey and earn money to do it."
While Kozlov remains grateful, he shakes his head and smiles at how different it is for the current crop of Russian born stars in the NHL, like Ilya Kovalchuk -- his teammate in Atlanta -- Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. "I see these guys come in and they seem so at ease with the culture. That's because of exposure. They've seen more of what the world is like at a younger age than I did. And they are superstars. In the Soviet Union, there was only team, no stars. Now, the individual is allowed. Coaching in Russia has had to adjust. When the country broke up, many coaches left for the chance to make money. Now they understand today's young Russian player better."
And that is why there is so much hope again for a fine showing in Vancouver. The Russians are young and talented and those in charge won't try to get them to adhere to the old ideals. "Kovy came along at the perfect time," Kozlov says. "The country broke up. Hockey was down for a long time, with no gold medals for something like fifteen years. Coaches left. It had to be reborn and they're making their own history now."
And what of the history? "Kovy (who captained the World Championship team and is the Thrashers' captain) asks about the old days sometimes and has played with some older guys, so he has heard stories. But it is more curiosity than acknowledgement. It's all about the future now. Russia getting the Olympics in 2014 means funding and focus again on hockey. I like the NHL in Europe to start the season. I hope one day they do the same in Russia. It would be so important to grow the game for the kids."
In his own way, Kozlov grew the game for the NHL's Russian "kid" stars of today, whether they understand how much or not.