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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 29 - Slava and Sergei Arrive

Stan Fischler introduces Viacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Starikov and their first impressions during the 1989-90 season.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

The ecstatic aura enveloping Byrne Arena's Winner's Club on July 7, 1989 had the feeling of A Hollywood world premiere movie.

Then again, this was a hockey world premiere when you think about it.

For the first time, two Russian hockey players had arrived in East Rutherford to put their pens to a New Jersey Devils contract. While they were at it they became instant stars at their own historic event, an American presser.

Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov, by far, was the leading man in this melodrama. Pursued for years by general manager Lou Lamoriello, the king of Russian hockey now had become the main man on the Garden State defense.

Slava's understudy in this case was a barrel-chested fireplug blue-liner named Sergei Starikov who was a virtual unknown to the assembled media. Except of course, to Larrupin' Lou and his boss, club owner Dr. John McMullen.

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Beaming over the proceedings, Doc Mac could well have passed for the proudest gent in the room. After all, it was McMullen who six years earlier had launched Operation Get Those Russians.

"It was a long battle," the good doctor grinned, "but better late than never."

Since neither Fetisov nor his comrade-in-skates, Stariko, were fluent in English, the Devils' Russian-speaking conditioning coach Dimitri Lopuchin did the honors and translated for the newcomers.

Both print and electronic media endlessly machine-gunned questions while the Russians fired back with ease as if they were poke-checking a oncoming forwards. An oft-asked query centered around their adjustments to the NHL.

Fetisov: "Hockey is hockey. You play and you react to situations accordingly. There's no point in complaining or mincing words."

The man with the primary challenge was coach Jim Schoenfeld whose job was ensuring that -- when it came to fitting in his new acquisitions -- the round pegs went into the round holes.

"I have no doubt that Fetisov will fit neatly into our plans," the coach asserted. "For yeas he demonstrated that he's a leader on and off the ice."

Starikov was another story; more of a mystery to everyone since nobody in the press crowd ever heard of the man nor had seen him play. His audition would be held at training camp.

This much was certain; Fetisov virtually was guaranteed a place on Schoenfeld's roster but Starikov was a big maybe. Very big; very maybe.

If Big Jim, the coach, had any kind of surplus it was behind the blue line. The varsity defensemen included Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver, Tom Kurvers, Craig Wolanin, Tommy Albelin, Randy Velschek and Reijo Ruotsalainen.

"It won't be easy for Starikov to beat out those guys," said broadcaster Bill Mazer of Channel 5 news. "The Russian's gonna have to have a helluva good camp."

Put it this way; Starikov gained a post on the big club but it was a tenuous one.  
Mazer. "Sergei may have had all the international experience but his issue will be speed and whether he can keep up with the fast NHL pace."

Fetisov fit in as thread in a needle. Not only did his defensive work impress through training camp but his go-ahead passing was extraordinarily accurate.

"It's amazing how well Slava sees a play develop," said Devils forward Pete McNab. "All he'll need is a little time to learn the styles of his teammates -- and vice versa."

The proof would be in the pudding or, in this case, on the ice -- October 4, 1989 at the intimidating Spectrum on Broad Street in Philadelphia. More than 17,000 fans jammed the arena anticipating a Flyers victory.

Philadelphia's favorite hockey team wasn't nicknamed the Broad Street Bullies for nothing. And within a minute of the opening face-off Philly enforcer Craig Berube took a two-minute roughing penalty.

Schoenfeld immediately despatched Fetisov to man the right point on the power play. The ensuing tic-tac-toe puck movements leaped right out of a "How To Play Winning Hockey" textbook.

It began with captain Kirk Muller ferociously forechecking until he won the puck and skimmed a pass to Slava. Fetisov wasted no time fooling around with the disk. His shot hit mate Sylvain Turgeon in the chest and then flew into the net.

That was only the beginning. Spurred by the Russian Revolution, the Devils mounted a 5-0 lead before the match was half over. At the end the scoreboard read: NEW JERSEY 6, PHILADELPHIA 2.

While Starikov's game was not in the A-Plus class, the burly backliner held his own and was burned only once on a breakaway. One reporter was unequivocal in his observation: "Sergei showed he belonged."

Slava took the victory in stride while allowing that he had plenty of adjusting to do with the NHL game. "I was impressed with the concentration that's necessary. There's little time to relax because play moves about so quickly."

Both Doc Mac and Larrupin' Lou were equally impressed although both were sage enough to understand that the opening night win was not necessarily a portent of things to come.

"I know from owning the (baseball) Houston Astros that a sports season is a marathon not a sprint," McMullen summarized. "In due time, we'll see how Slava and Sergie make the NHL grade."

Lamoriello put it more simply: "One game is not a season."

True enough. Challenges soon would arise and be dealt with including a major-major issue -- Schoenfeld's handling of his two well-publicized imports.

In due -- and sometimes painful -- time, the question of da (yes) or nyet (no) would not come out da for the redhead coach!

LISTS: FOUR EVENTS THAT WENT RIGHT FOR THE RUSSIAN DEVILS:

1. CONTRACTS: Neither Fetisov nor Starikov had any issues with their Devils pacts. Unlike other players, they signed on the dotted line without a challenge.

2. MEDIA: The press welcomed the Soviet pair partly because both Slava and Sergei were amiable personalities despite that neither had a solid command of English.

3. TRAINING CAMP: Competition was keen for starting berths on the back line but both Russians showed enough skill to crack the varsity lineup.

4. OPENING NIGHT. The curtain-riser at the oft-forbidding Philadelphia Spectrum normally was an intimidating experience. But not this time. Fetisov set up the first goal and New Jersey cruised to a 6-2 triumph.

(NEXT WEEK: TROUBLES IN PARADISE: SLAVA SUCCEEDS, NOT SCHONY!)

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