When East meets West
Today's National Hockey League boasts nearly 700 players on the rosters of the 30 teams. And itís a tribute to the people who work in and watch the sport with such fervor that these nearly 700 players are considered "players", not American players, Canadian players, Russian players or Czech players.
The League's players are embraced by their fans for who they are. Canadian and American hockey fans count players from all around the globe as their favorites.
Scan the rosters of today's NHL and you notice players from all around the globe filling a myriad of roles. From role players to goaltenders to superstars, it doesn't matter where you were born, but what you accomplish that counts.
That said, you cannot underemphasize the impact that players from Eastern European countries have had in creating the competitive landscape of the NHL. As the 2003-04 season dawned, there were 53 Russians players in the League, supplemented by 62 Czechs and 24 Slovaks, as well as others from the Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia and Belarus.
There are goal scorers like Atlanta's dynamic Ilya Kovalchuk, Colorado's Milan Hejduk, Washington's Jaromir Jagr and Anaheim's Sergei Fedorov, defensemen like Sergei Gonchar, Vladimir Malakhov and Martin Skoula, plus goaltenders like Nikolai Khabibulin, Dominik Hasek and Tomas Vokoun.
But it wasn't that long ago that the world's political landscape was so radically different that not only were there no players from Eastern European countries in the NHL, but those players were regarded as the enemy because of the Cold War between East and West. That was symbolized in two instances in international hockey history -- the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia and the 1980 United States' "Miracle on Ice" at the Lake Placid Olympics when the late Herb Brooks' team of college players shocked the "Big Red Machine" of the Soviet Union.
The passion of those two events still resonates today, but the venom has long since passed. But as is the case with any transition, the move from enemy to friend has gone in stages.
It wasn't that long ago -- 1980 in fact -- that in order for Hall of Famer Peter Stastny to compete in the NHL, he had to defect from Czechoslovakia along with his brother Anton. The two Stastnys bolted for the Quebec Nordiques during an European Cup tournament in Innsbruck, Austria, that boasted all the cloak and dagger of a James Bond movie. But the difference for the Stastny brothers was this was reality and the consequences of being caught were dire indeed.
Peter Stastny went on to score 450 goals and 789 assists in a 15-year NHL career that included stops in New Jersey and St. Louis before his retirement in 1995. Anton also had a strong career, scoring 636 points in a nine-year career with the Nordiques. Younger brother Marian, initially left behind in Czechoslovakia, came to North America in 1981 and managed 294 points in 322 games during a five-year career with Quebec and Toronto.
The three played together in Quebec -- sometimes on the same line -- from 1981 to 1985. The brothers combined for the first nine spots on the all-time list of points by a pair of brothers in one season. In 1981-82, Peter and Anton combined for 228 points to top the list.
Peter Stastny says that the magnitude of defecting will be lost on future generations of former Eastern Bloc players.
"You really needed to know the times," Peter said in one interview. "It will be harder and harder to explain what that was like to someone who was born later."
But Marian Hossa, who plays for the Ottawa Senators, knows just what the Stastnys went through, despite being born 23 years after Peter. Hossa easily joined the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League from his native Slovakia in 1997, just before being drafted in the first round, 12th overall, by the Ottawa Senators. Today, he is one of the Senators' biggest stars. And he still feels indebted to the Stastnys, especially Peter.
"Peter is one of my biggest influences," Hossa said. "He was one of the greatest hockey players ever."
The painful and dangerous decision to defect remained about the only option for Eastern European players until the end of the 1980s. By then, the political climate had changed with the Cold War beginning to thaw and players from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, soon to become the Czech Republic and Slovakia, could entertain the hopes of playing in the NHL.
Victor Nechaev, who played a three-game stint with the Los Angeles Kings in 1982-83 was the first Soviet Union-trained player to compete in the NHL. Nechaev defected to earn his chance. He scored a goal against the New York Rangers before fading from the NHL scene.
Sergei Priakin was the first player to receive official permission to leave for the NHL, joining the Calgary Flames. Priakin was a 12th-round selection of the Flames in 1988 and played in a handful of games in the 1988-89 season, and appeared in less than 50 games for his career. But while he didn't make a lasting impression, he was the first.
"The final bridge has been crossed insofar as making our league a truly international league," said Cliff Fletcher, then the general manager of the Flames, after Priakin was signed. "Sergei is the pioneer. He is the first Soviet athlete to come to play for a North American sports club."