The history of Russians playing in the NHL has plenty of watershed moments.
There is 1989, when the first Soviet player, Sergei Pryakhin, officially was allowed to leave for the NHL, and the first defector, Alexander Mogilny, made his way to the world’s top league in a much more clandestine fashion. Then we have 1994, when the league honored its first Hart Trophy winner of Russian descent, Sergei Fedorov, and the Stanley Cup Final was first shown on Russian television, instantly creating hundreds of thousands of new NHL fans. That summer the first Russian names were etched on the legendary trophy following the New York Rangers' Cup victory.
Who will forget 1997, when the Detroit Red Wings, featuring the famed Russian Five, claimed the Stanley Cup and became, at least for a while, arguably Russia's favorite hockey team? It wouldn't be wrong to point to 2001, when a Russian finally heard his name called first at the NHL Draft, or to 2004, when for the first and so far only time Russians were chosen with the first two picks. Or, indeed, to pretty much every year since, as not a single conversation about the League's top stars nowadays possibly can proceed without mentioning players who hail from places like Moscow, Yekaterinburg or Magnitogorsk.
But if someone were to point to one particular season when Russian NHL players stopped being just a curiosity or a topic of controversy and became an inseparable part of the League's success, it would be the 1992-93 season, when three now-legendary players exploded into the North American sports mainstream and took the Mother Country for an unforgettable ride. Coincidentally, and perhaps symbolically, this also was the first NHL season held entirely after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Neither Russian hockey, nor Russia itself, ever would be the same.
Mogilny, Fedorov and Pavel Bure came up through the ranks of CSKA Moscow together and played on the same line with the club and the Soviet national team. They were supposed to be the Soviet Army team's next great line. Had the Soviet Union endured and kept as tight a rein on its hockey talent as it did in the 1970s and the early 1980s, this unit surely would have ended up rivaling the legacy of the Boris Mikhailov-Vladimir Petrov-Valery Kharlamov and Sergei Makarov-Igor Larionov-Vladimir Krutov lines, arguably among the best offensive trios in hockey history.
But with the country fast heading into oblivion, the three talented forwards all took off for the NHL and wound up forging their own separate legacies. But in the beginning, like true linemates, they did one thing in common: All of them departed with controversy.
Mogilny escaped from the national team's hotel after the 1989 World Championship in Sweden. The following year, Fedorov did the same thing at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle. Bure freed himself from CSKA obligations in 1991 in only a slightly less scandalous manner, enduring a court battle which saw the Soviet side agree to a settlement.
It took a bit of time for the young Russian stars to acclimate themselves in the NHL. Mogilny left before the USSR's breakdown seemed inevitable and had to formally ask for political asylum. For all he knew at the time, he never was going to see his family again. Nominally a soldier, like all CSKA players, he was called a traitor and would have faced a Soviet Army court martial for desertion had he returned home.
Arriving in Buffalo, Mogilny had a particularly tough time adjusting to American culture and the NHL style of play, and as he would later admit in interviews, had to battle fears of being kidnapped by the KGB. Yet all of these problems were dwarfed by the fact that, "in Buffalo, for the first time ever, I felt a free man," he said in a 2007 interview with Russia's Sport-Express. As for his talents, they weren't quite freed up to flourish in the dump-and-chase North American game until the Sabres acquired Pat LaFontaine and paired him with the still somewhat enigmatic Russian, giving birth to an incredibly dynamic duo.
Fedorov, on the other hand, slipped into his new environment as easily as someone would into a pair of gloves. A complete offensive package and a hard-working two-way forward all in one, he immediately earned accolades in Detroit, with none other than Steve Yzerman calling him "the best skater I've ever seen." By 1992, as Russian fans were still lamenting the loss of an up-and-comer they barely knew, the NHL was quite aware that it had landed a potential superstar.
The baby-faced Bure already was a darling of Russian fans when he left for Vancouver. A descendant of a famed Swiss-Russian watchmaker whose name was synonymous with keeping time in imperial Russia, a grandson of a national-team water polo player, a son of an Olympic-medalist swimmer, a lightning-fast skater with the slickest of moves who seemed to embody the Soviet style of hockey, Bure was destined for greatness. He didn't disappoint, earning the Russian Rocket moniker in the NHL after a terrific rookie performance (34 goals, 60 points, the 1992 Calder Memorial Trophy), and was poised for even more heroics in his second season.
Thus, the stage for a Russian revolution was set. The 1992-93 season, for the first time in the League’s history, became a time when Russian superstars shone among the brightest. In Vancouver, Bure became the toast of a city starving for success and recognition. Putting up a four-goal game against the Winnipeg Jets early on, he was unstoppable the rest of the way as he set team records for goals (60) and points (110) in a season, becoming the Canucks' sole representative in the All-Star Game and the first Canucks player to be selected to the NHL's First All-Star Team.
In Detroit, Fedorov continued to impress North American experts with his two-way abilities and work ethic. He set new career highs in goals (34) and points (87), and complemented them with a sparkling plus-33 rating, tied for the team lead with Yzerman. It became abundantly clear that as the Red Wings continued to improve, great things were in store for Fedorov.
And in Buffalo, Mogilny simply had the greatest season ever for a Russian forward, totaling 76 goals and 127 points and becoming known as "Alexander the Great," a moniker coined by legendary Buffalo broadcaster Rick Jeanneret. Mogilny narrowly missed becoming a member of the "50 in 50 Club," scoring his 50th goal in the team's 53rd game (even though, because of an injury, it was his 46th game of the season). Mogilny continued his heroics in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, helping the Sabres advance past the first round for the first time in a decade. A broken foot prevented him from finishing the second-round series, which probably spelled Buffalo's doom as it was swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens.
With three fellow countrymen taking the NHL by storm, Russian hockey fans, unable to watch them on TV and forced to follow their progress exclusively from scant newspaper reports, were left to lament what would have and could have been. These feelings only would intensify later -- after 1993 it would be another 15 years before the Russian national team won anything of significance on the world stage. But as the exploits of local hockey products in the world's best league slowly became available to the general public, they provided a whole new source of pride for Russian fans.
For Mogilny, 1992-93 would prove to be his pinnacle. Hampered by injuries, he never again would approach his own records, topping 50 goals only once more in his career. Having been reunited with Bure in Vancouver following a 1995 trade, the two couldn’t rekindle the old magic. Furthermore, uninterested in playing for the national team, he limited his popularity and influence back home. With the exception of a 2000 Stanley Cup run with the New Jersey Devils, where his former CSKA teammate, Slava Fetisov, served as an assistant coach, Mogilny's profile in Russia remained low. He was, however, always regarded as a hero in his hometown of Khabarovsk. Mogilny was a role model for top prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, who has been following in his footsteps with an almost eerie precision: From Khabarovsk to CSKA to the Buffalo Sabres, who selected Grigorenko with the 12th pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.
Bure would reintroduce himself to his adoring Russian fans the following season as they, for the first time, were treated to TV broadcasts of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. While the New York Rangers won an emotional victory with four Russians on their roster, it was the Russian Rocket's performance (31 points in 24 playoff games) which captivated TV audiences back home. His star only would shine brighter in the following seasons, playing for Vancouver, the Florida Panthers and the Rangers, as he became Russia's most beloved hockey player of the 1990s.
His five-goal outburst in the 1998 Winter Olympic semifinal in Nagano, Japan, propelled the hockey "golden boy" into the status of a living legend. "How Many Newborn Boys Will Be Named Pavel?" was one newspaper headline the morning after the game. What is beyond any doubt is that a whole generation of hockey players growing up in Russia in the 1990s thought Bure could walk on water. Even though he has kept a low profile since his injury-shortened career ended, Bure's name remains one of the enduring symbols of modern Russian hockey.
For Fedorov, 1992-93 only would be the beginning. His career season was the following one, when he set personal highs in scoring (56 goals, 120 points) and won the Hart Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award and the Selke Trophy as the League's best defensive forward, the latter feat flying in the face of the Russian stereotypes still prevalent in North America. As coach Scotty Bowman assembled the "Russian Five" on the way to winning the Stanley Cup in 1997, Red Wings Fever spread from Moscow to Vladivostok. There were perhaps more Detroit fans in the former Soviet Union than those of any single hockey team in the late 1990s, especially after the Cup made its visit to Russia, proudly hoisted by local hockey legends wearing the Winged Wheel.
And Fedorov, of course, was in the center of it all. Sublimely talented, at the peak of his powers, he also provided more than just a touch of scandalous celebrity, something entirely new in Russian sports. Courting teenage tennis star Anna Kournikova, feuding over her with Bure, being engrossed in a 1997-98 contract holdout with Detroit -- all of which made sure Fedorov rarely was omitted from the pages of Russia's sports publications. In a country used to the state-approved, clean-cut, dehumanized image of its sporting heroes, Fedorov became one of the first hockey celebrities in the Western sense of the word. But it was winning the Stanley Cup with the most Russian of all NHL teams that earned him the hearts of fans back home.
Fedorov's reputation as the ultimate professional, acquired over nearly two decades in the NHL, is serving him well now in his current capacity as the general manager of CSKA, one of the most visible positions in Russian hockey today.
As for the "next great Russian line," it was reunited only once, very briefly, at the 1996 World Cup. The three former phenoms blazed their own, separate trails in Russian hockey history. And it never would be the same again.
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