They hated him. He understood why the men in the other uniforms,
the ones who slashed him and elbowed him and finished their
checks head-high, acted the way they did, but his teammates?
They wore the same jersey and shared the same goals he did, but
during the dreary 1989-90 season, Slava Fetisov thought that if
he were to have a heart attack in the dressing room, some of his
New Jersey Devils teammates would be as likely to call for
takeout as they would an ambulance. Fetisov, a man who skated
backward all his life but never retreated, would slink home
after practice, awash in self-pity and self-doubt, wondering why
he even bothered trying to fit in.
Fetisov was the most celebrated defenseman since Bobby Orr. He
had won Olympic gold medals, world championships, a Canada Cup.
He was 31 years old and finally free to play anywhere he wanted.
He also was weary. He'd assumed the battle to control his own
destiny was over when, in May 1989, the Soviet hockey federation
told him he could leave the U.S.S.R. to play in North America.
Fetisov, one of eight Soviet players to arrive in the NHL 10
seasons ago, never imagined he'd have to fight through the
loathing and mistrust of NHL players scared red.
"A lot of guys, mostly older players and a few fringe guys who
felt their jobs were in jeopardy, were really anti-Russian,"
says Brendan Shanahan, a teammate of Fetisov's with the Devils
that season and later with the Detroit Red Wings. "It wasn't
overt. When a teammate makes a mistake, you want to cover for
him, support him, but you had the sense that some guys wanted to
see Slava fail. You had to be a real jerk not to like him,
because he was a real gentleman and so gregarious, but think
about the context. Slava came over in 1989. [The Soviet invasion
of] Afghanistan was not all that long before. Growing up in
Canada and the United States, we'd been taught that Russians
were the enemy. The 1980 U.S.-U.S.S.R. Olympic hockey game was
more than a game, right? In the 1987 world juniors the Canadians
had a bench-clearing brawl with the Soviets. We couldn't
understand them; they couldn't understand us. Now they were
coming here and taking our jobs in our league?
"That's why I have so much respect for Slava. If he'd fought
every guy who threw an extra elbow at him that year, he would've
been fighting every shift. For Russians, he was the Jackie
Robinson of hockey. He opened doors. He took all the cheap shots
and played with a smile on his face."
February 28, 2000
The past is dead. Today the treatment Fetisov, now a New Jersey
assistant coach, received from teammates when he arrived seems
as if it occurred sometime before the Paleozoic Era. There are
now about 65 players from the former Soviet Union--Russians,
Latvians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Lithuanians and a Kazakh--in
the NHL. They occupy about 10% of the league's roster slots.
They include the most thrilling performer (Florida Panthers
right wing Pavel Bure), the most venerable (Detroit's
39-year-old center, Igor Larionov), the most daring (Colorado
Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh) and the most pugnacious
(Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis). Every team
in the NHL except the Phoenix Coyotes and the St. Louis Blues
has at least one player from the former U.S.S.R. In the last
decade ex-Soviets have been named league MVP (Sergei Fedorov of
the Red Wings, in 1994) and won Stanley Cups. They've been
captains. They've been stars, role players, goons. They dump the
puck and chase it. They have contract disputes. They have been
accepted. "The stereotypes have been broken," Penguins coach
Herb Brooks says. "It might have been easier to put a man on the
moon than to change NHL thinking, but it happened."
On Feb. 6 in Toronto the NHL played an All-Star Game that for
the third straight year matched North American stars against
World stars. Among the 25 World All-Stars were five Russians and
Ozolinsh, a Latvian. The revolution is over. Hockey won.
The NHL game in 2000 is a rich stew: a dash of crisscrossing, a
pinch of digging along the boards and a sprinkling of
dump-and-chase. The ingredients have been simmering for more
than a quarter of a century, and if the former Soviet players
were the last to follow American collegians and Swedes and Finns
and Czechs and Slovaks into the pot, they were also the impetus
for the arrival of those other Europeans. The Soviets lit the
fire in the 1972 Summit Series against Canada, when the
supposedly outclassed U.S.S.R. stunningly beat the Canadians in
three out of eight games. "They were the trigger," says Toronto
Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden, a goalie in that series. "In
the years after that series, we were measuring ourselves against
If the NHL seems a duller place than it did 10 years ago, don't
blame the Russians. The successors to Fetisov and
Larionov--Bure, Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny of the Vancouver
Canucks--are bold spices in the NHL kitchen and have perhaps
even forestalled the dead-puck era by a few years with their
offensive gifts. "Fedorov, Bure, [Ottawa Senators holdout center
Alexei] Yashin, [Chicago Blackhawks center Alex] Zhamnov--these
guys have style," Larionov says. "Skating, stickhandling,
vision, unpredictable moves. That's what Russians gave this
They also helped give the NHL enough talented players to expand
from 21 teams in 1979-80 to the 30 that will skate next season.
"At first Russians were cheap labor," says NHL vice president of
hockey operations Mike Murphy. "You could pay them $200,000 a
year, and they'd be delighted"--hardly shocking considering that
Larionov made $200 a month before the Soviet hockey federation
freed him to come to North America.
The price of today's Russians has jumped considerably, because
they have come to see that their services in a talent-starved
league are invaluable. "There's a direct correlation between
expansion and the influx of Russians," New York Rangers general
manager Neil Smith says. "You could field three teams with those
players if you wanted to."
The question was, Who wanted to? In the early 1990s the
Mogilny-led second wave was arriving, and the paranoia that New
Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello contends was being
perpetuated by owners and general managers had begun to subside.
Still, many NHL higher-ups were reluctant to entrust a Stanley
Cup quest to players who had been reared on Olympic medals. "The
guy I remember most from that era was [Winnipeg Jets general
manager] Mike Smith," says Neil Smith, who's no relation.
"Basically he told everybody to get bent. His answer to 'How
many Russians can you have?' was 'Twenty, if they're your best
Mike Smith is now the Blackhawks' manager of hockey operations.
Even today not everyone embraces his point of view, but Smith is
no longer viewed as the raving iconoclast who had the Winnipeg
media grumbling about the R factor. "They thought the arrival of
the Russians was an anti-Canadian conspiracy," Smith says, "and
that I was the lead conspirator." Smith told reporters that they
had better learn to spell the new players' names because soon
every team would have four or five players from the former
"Scouts were the least resistant to Russians," Mike Smith says.
"The coaches, there's still a bit of reluctance. I think it
straightened out pretty quickly on the player level. The
transition is going to be smooth if a guy can help you on the
ice, if he's a good guy, if you can have a beer with him."
If the situation of the players from the former Soviet Union
seems no more remarkable than that of many immigrants, imagine
65 Americans going to play in the Russian league--new language,
new culture, bigger international rinks. "I don't think people
can understand what we went through: the language, the way
people do things, the structure of an organization," Fedorov
says. "I don't want to sound arrogant about it. We don't even
talk about it ourselves. Everybody has tough times adjusting
from one society to another, and it was our choice to be here."
There were milestones on the way to acceptance: the 1992 draft,
in which seven former Soviet players were selected among the
first 17 picks; Mogilny's 76-goal season with the Buffalo Sabres
in '93 and his second-team All-Star selection that year;
Fedorov's winning the Hart and the Selke trophies the following
season; the Rangers' Cup victory in '94 over Bure-led Vancouver
in which New York featured Alexander Karpovtsev, Alexei Kovalev,
Sergei Nemchinov and Sergei Zubov, its regular-season scoring
leader, and Russian names were inscribed for the first time on
the NHL's ultimate calling card.
"In our business whoever wins the Cup is accepted as the
benchmark," Neil Smith says. "Zubov was a significant part of
it, Nemchinov was a role-playing soldier, Kovalev was an
untapped talent, and Karpovtsev was a role-playing defenseman.
Not only did they contribute, but they were obviously different
players and different personalities. On one hand you had
Nemchinov, who was almost military in presence, and you had
Kovalev, who was Peter Pan. We proved you could win with
However, even as Detroit stomped to an NHL-record 62 wins in
1995-96, whispers persisted that the Wings relied too heavily on
Russians. The endorsement of the Russians by the
Lombardi-Auerbach-McGraw of his business, coach Scotty Bowman,
who had pushed for the trades that brought Fetisov and Larionov
to Detroit and then played them as a unit with Fedorov, Slava
Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov, was ignored. Bowman howled
throughout the season that officiating was tilted against his
Russian Five--NHL referees stoutly denied it--but Neil Smith
insists Bowman was not indulging in his typical gamesmanship.
"There is no doubt in my mind Russians were discriminated
against by refs at the time," Smith says. "I really believe a
guy whose name ended in ov had to absorb a lot more slashes to
get a penalty called than a guy named Smith."
Not until the Red Wings won the Cup in 1997--captain Steve
Yzerman first passed it to Fetisov, a gesture that oozed
symbolism--did the Russians' unofficial probation end. "To see
Igor and Slava, two guys who grew up in the Soviet system,
embrace the Cup, that was the moment," Shanahan says. "It was
"Konstantinov was the key," Dryden says of the preternaturally
nasty defenseman whose career ended six days after the Wings won
the Cup when he was injured in a limo accident. "While Russians
always have played a tough style relative to European hockey, it
took somebody like Konstantinov to symbolize what the Russians
always had been, and to get them over the hump in terms of the
last piece of the reputation."
In 2000 the battleground for players from the former Soviet
Union has shifted. Russian players have been involved in some of
the most high-profile contract wars--Fedorov's 1997-98 stalemate
with the Red Wings, Bure's '98 demand that the Canucks trade
him, Yashin's refusal to honor his contract with the Senators
this season--that have lent credence to a popular theory that
Russians are high-maintenance. Yashin's walkout, his third
contract dispute in six years with Ottawa, has been ripe fodder
for anyone wanting to refight the Cold War.
"High-maintenance? For the most part, no," Detroit general
manager Ken Holland says, "but they're very strong-willed. For
them to even be here--especially Larionov and Fetisov, who
fought the system, and the guys who defected--they had to be.
Fedorov left Russia never knowing if he would see his family
again. When it comes to negotiations, they have a strong sense
of their worth. It's also part of the reason they've been
successful as players."
The final barrier isn't in front of the Russians but above them,
a red ceiling that has kept them--and other Europeans--from
becoming NHL head coaches and general managers. But that
obstacle will fall too. Write it down, like a Mike Smith quote:
In three years, 10 years, whenever, a Russian will be a head
coach. When that happens, he'll stare into a camera after a loss
and moan that his players didn't stick to the system, that they
were outworked along the wall, that they ran into a hot goalie.
When he spews the cliches, he'll do it in an accent so gentle
the NHL will have trouble remembering what all the fuss was
Here are SI's choices for the top players at each position to
come to the NHL from the former Soviet Union.
RW Pavel Bure, PANTHERS
He beats out Alexander Mogilny, who had 36 more NHL goals through
Sunday but hasn't sustained his brilliance. Along with Jaromir Jagr, Bure is an MVP candidate this season.
C Sergei Fedorov, RED WINGS
He doesn't think the game as well as teammate Igor Larionov,
whose best years were in the U.S.S.R., but Fedorov won the Hart
and Selke trophies and remains an impact player.
LW Dmitri Khristich, MAPLE LEAFS
Although he is struggling this season with only 11 goals,
Khristich was a productive scorer--averaging .36 goals per
game--with three previous NHL teams.
D Vladimir Konstantinov, RED WINGS
A limousine accident six days after Detroit won the Stanley Cup
in 1997 cut short the career of this nasty hitter, who was a
second-team NHL All-Star in '95-96.
D Sergei Zubov, STARS
A superb power-play quarterback whose two Stanley Cups, with the
Rangers in 1994 and the Stars in '99, give him the nod over
freelancing Sandis Ozolinsh.
G Arturs Irbe, HURRICANES
He gets the edge over the Coyotes' unsigned restricted
free-agent, Nikolai Khabibulin, because Irbe has won a playoff
series, in 1994, for the Sharks.