When East meets West
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But months later there was concern that Priakin would be the first and only as Alexander Mogilny, then an emerging young forward for the Soviets, had had enough of the restrictive system and defected. Mogilny then signed with the Buffalo Sabres.
Mogilny was disparaged by Soviet officials who called his defection selfish and they predicted he wouldn't cut it on the NHL.
"He should be able to flourish here," countered former Sabres GM Gerry Meehan. "He has a talent that begs to express itself and maybe it wasn't doing so in their system. He should be able to flourish here where more self expression is permitted. "
"Why should the Soviet federation do my thinking for me?" Mogilny asked at the time. "I want to make my decisions. I've been thinking about it (defecting) for a year, but circumstances didn't permit it. It's very hard to take a step like that."
History has proven that Mogilny was indeed able to express himself and he has gone on to have a tremendous NHL career with the Sabres, Canucks, Devils and Maple Leafs.
The ruffled feathers were soon smoothed over and some of the greatest players in the Soviet Union, winners of countless medals throughout the years, gained entry to the NHL. But the bureaucratic wrangling to gain that permission was draining.
"It is easier to win hockey games than deal with the bureaucracy," said Slava Fetisov, the great defenseman who led the way, along with Igor Larioniov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Starikov. "When it comes down to it I was fighting for what I wanted. With the changes going on in the Soviet Union now, it's up to the individual to take a stand and take a chance, go out on a limb. Now you can make decisions for yourself instead of going with the group. If it wasn't for Mikhail Gorbachev and Glasnost, we wouldn't have these opportunities"
While some of the first "official" class to come to North America for the 1989-90 season had minimal impact, others, notably Larionov, Fetisov and Makarov were successful. Larionov, in fact, today owns the distinction of being the NHL's oldest player as he competes in his final NHL season with the Devils.
But arriving in North America didn't end the struggle. It just started another chapter. Not everyone was overjoyed to have a new wave of players -- players who had long been considered the enemy -- now on hand to take NHL jobs.
"He's a North American-type of player," said Jim Schoenfeld, then coach of the Devils when he asked the obstacles Fetisov would face. "I think he'll be challenged, but that's the difference between making it and not making it. Borje Salming was challenged and he stood up to the challenge. He became a challenger himself. He had a good, long career here in the NHL. There were other European players who came over and this wasn't the brand of hockey they wanted to play.
"I was in the League when the first Swedes came over and the same comments were made. It's understandable," Schoenfeld said. "We're a North American league. We have some Europeans, but it's Canadian and American boys. It's natural for a player to want to protect his own. I understand the comments and appreciate where they're coming from. I also know that in our case that once these players get on the ice for that first game they'll be New Jersey Devils in the players' eyes and there will be no legitimate reasons for them not to be."
Fetisov and the other Eastern European players were challenged, both on the ice and in their own dressing rooms, as people tried to adjust to a change of historic proportion.
"What am I guilty of," a frustrated Fetisov asked in his first days as a Devil. "If anyone is here and they are better than me, and the coaches feel that way, they should play ahead of me. I was invited here to play. If I'm not needed here, the team will release me. I'm aware of the opposition from some teams. I just have to play. I can't satisfy everybody, I guess."
But with time comes understanding and the walls that came down physically in Berlin and across the Iron Curtin also came down philosophically in the hearts and minds of people.
"I don't think it will be a magical transition," Schoenfeld predicted at the time. "We're dealing with a lot of things -- new culture, the emotion of leaving the Soviet Union and coming to an awful lot of remarkable things in North America. There will be an adjustment, socially, mentally and emotionally."
Today, some adjustments remain, most notably language and culture, but the young players who have come to ply their trade in the NHL are making the transition successfully and in record time.
"When we were kids, it was our dream to play with the Red Army team and on the national team and win an Olympic gold medal," Florida's Valeri Bure recalled. "As we grew older, and players from Russia started to come over here and our dreams started to change."
And with the change came a new era in hockey, one that is being enjoyed in NHL cities today as the NHL remains the showplace for the world's best hockey players.