A version of this story appears in the April 9, 2018, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
While Russo-American relations have frayed around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days, a sanctioned Russian back channel is open after most Capitals games just eight blocks away. The host of these informal summits, which take place in the hallway between the home and visiting dressing rooms, typically wears leggings and a compression shirt bearing his personal logo, though sometimes Washington captain Alex Ovechkin greets his visiting countrymen wearing nothing but two bath towels. The chats don’t last long, 10 minutes max. Still, thanks to the outreach of Ovie—plus Capitals sidekicks Evgeny Kuznetsov and Dmitry Orlov—they serve as refreshing reminders of home.
“There’s not so many Russian guys in this league right now,” says Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev. “That’s why we’re so happy to see each other.”
They are sticking together—and sticking out. Veterans like Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin remain as dangerous as ever: the former just led the league in goals (49) for a seventh time, while the latter, now in pursuit of a third straight Stanley Cup, finished two points shy of 100. But a new generation of Russian talent is reaching its mid-20s prime, dazzling with its skills, occupying key roles for contenders throughout the Eastern Conference.
In Toronto, the 26-year-old Zaitsev averages 22:13 on coach Mike Babcock’s top pair and will soon receive the honor of facing the Bruins' firepower first line. Sharpshooting Artemi Panarin, also 26, enters Columbus’s opening-round series against Washington with a ludicrous 18 points over his final eight regular season games. Few playmakers exhibit flare like Kuznetsov (27 goals, 56 assists), who damn near pulled off a backhanded lacrosse goal and seemed awful excited about trying again. Orlov, meanwhile, has developed into an all-situations workhorse defenseman and dishes out old-school hip checks that would make Denis Potvin proud. Add winger Vladimir Tarasenko, 26, of the just-missed-out St. Louis Blues, and this quintet wouldn’t make a bad sequel to the legendary Soviet-era Green Unit.
Just as Nicklas Lidstrom begot a class of puck-moving Swedish blueliners (see: Norris Trophy favorite Victor Hedman of Tampa Bay and former winner Erik Karlsson of the Senators) the Red Wings’ Russian Five from the early 1990s—Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Kozlov—deserve ample credit for this recent wave of playmakers. “They were the first to break into the NHL. It’s that generation that inspired this one,” says Golfo Alexopoulos, a professor of Russian History and Director of the Institute on Russia at the University of South Florida. An avid hockey fan who hails from Chicago, Alexopoulos attends the occasional Lightning game, marveling at the offensive brilliance of winger Nikita Kucherov (39 goals, 61 assists) and the snazzy saves of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (44-17-3, .920 SV%, 2.62 GAA).
Sixty-six Russians skated in the NHL during the 1999-2000 season, a total that dipped to 23 in 2012–13. This season 33 have appeared in at least one game, with plenty more prospects on the way. Last June teams drafted a record-tying 18 Russian-born players, forever putting to bed the ridiculous notion of a “Russian problem,” that xenophobic code phrase perpetuated by flashy suits on TV. “Whether it was old-school guys painting all Russians as soft or divers or guys that were selfish, there were a lot of stereotypes that surrounded Russian guys as a whole,” says Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think that’s starting to fade a little bit more.”
“When I was drafted, a lot of people said about Russians, they want to stay in KHL, make more money, not come here,” says Orlov, a second-rounder in 2009. “Still KHL is good league. You can grow there too. But if you top player, probably you should try here.”
What was once the biggest adjustment—switching from Communism to Western capitalism—is no longer an insurmountable issue. Orlov and his peers were raised during a time of relative economic prosperity in Russia, which trickled down to youth programs. “The conditions they trained under and lived in have gotten significantly better, yes,” says Dan Milstein, a Soviet-born businessman and agent whose roster of players includes Kucherov, Zaitsev and future Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk. “That’s why perhaps it’s easier for the Russians to adapt now. Certainly the talent was always there.”
Take Panarin, another Milstein client. Born and raised in a coal-mining territory called Korkino that Milstein describes as “the middle of nowhere,” he learned self-sufficiency from an early age, often walking himself to child care. At 10, Panarin moved away to a hockey boarding school; the decision was made by his grandfather, who had been driving him 30 miles to practice in the nearest city. A late-riser who hardly registered on the national radar as a teen, he went unselected in the NHL draft but signed with the Blackhawks after leading St. Petersburg to the 2015 KHL title. He recalls walking around Chicago a month before training camp that following fall, wide-eyed at the skyscrapers and rivers and giant shiny bean, and thinking to himself, “I never dreamt that a kid from Korkino could ever end up playing in the NHL.”
Every path contains its challenges. Kucherov arrived in North America needing double shoulder surgery because his KHL club, CSKA Moscow, was nearing bankruptcy and refused to cover his medical expenses. Orlov and Kuznetsov both recall sharing confusion when Caps coaches instructed them to dump pucks deep into the offensive zone, rather than making a controlled entrance across the blue line. Panarin is still grasping English, preferring to answer questions through Milstein. “The biggest challenge is the lifestyle, the language barrier,” says Rangers forward Vladislav Namestnikov, who benefitted from a childhood of hanging around his maternal uncle, the aforementioned Kozlov of Russian Five fame. “But that’s up to you to learn.”
Of course, talent translates anywhere. With less holding and obstruction in a faster, niftier NHL, Panarin’s exceptional stick-handling skills and Tarasenko’s sizzling wrister have room to breathe. “They’re all real skilled guys,” says Orpik, a 15-year NHL vet from the U.S. who picked up some of the language when he played alongside Malkin in Pittsburgh. “But they’re not, so-called perimeter guys. They go to the hard areas, which goes against some of the stereotypes that used to exist. The league has evolved. More of their skills are showcased now as opposed to 15 or 20 years ago. The game’s probably more suited to them.”
More are positioned to break out this spring. Like Mikhail Sergachev, the Tampa Bay teenager whose 40 points led all rookie defensemen. Or Flyers blueliner Ivan Provorov, 21, averaging a team-high 24:09. When Provorov was 13, his family made the tough decision to have him move to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., thinking that would make for an easier transition to the NHL. It was lonely at times, Provorov admits. Even now he is the only Russian native on Philadelphia’s roster, although he does speak perfect English. At least if he does get homesick, Provorov could run into Ovechkin and company in the second round, provided the Flyers get past Malkin and the Penguins. He just shouldn’t expect that friendly back channel to stay open during the playoffs.