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Ilya Kovalchuk
Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk might be the hottest player of the 53 Russians that presently call the NHL their home.
Influx of Eastern Europeans changed NHL landscape

By Phil Coffey | Impact! Magazine

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.

Stastny brothers
The three Stastny brothers -- Peter, Anton and Marian, all played for the Quebec Nordiques from 1981-85. Sometimes, the three siblings played together on the same line.

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."

Marian Hossa
Despite being born 23 years after Peter Stastny, Ottawa's Marian Hossa cites the influence of Stastny's bravery in defecting to play in the NHL as one of the biggest on his own career.

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."

Alexander Mogilny
Alexander Mogilny defected from the Soviet Union and then proved his Russian detractors wrong by becoming one of the best scorers in the history of the NHL.

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"

Slava Fetisov
Slava Fetisov was among the first wave of Russians to be allowed to join the NHL, although he admitted that the process of gaining permission was more draining than any game he played in his career.

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.

Bure brothers
Russia's Bure brothers -- Valeri and Pavel -- grew up wanting to play for Russia's famed Red Army team. Eventually, though, that thinking changed and both came to North America to leave indelible impacts on the NHL.

"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.


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