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DEVILS OVER THE DECADES: Ch. 30 - Evolution of the Russians

Stan Fischler details the evolution of the Devils Russian revolution.

by Stan Fischler StanFischler / Special to NewJerseyDevils.com

Any hockey person worth his or her weight in shin pads will tell you that every National Hockey League season is a marathon not a sprint.

That very worthwhile bromide certainly applied to the New Jersey Devils "Russian Revolution."

It was one thing to successfully import Soviet defensemen Viacheslav (Slava) Fetisov and Sergei Starikov but it was another trick to intelligently blend them into the lineup.

And turn that lineup into a winning team.

What the Devils high command -- owner Dr. John McMullen and general manager Lou Lamoriello -- could not accurately foresee was how opponents would treat the newcomers from Red Square.

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"One concern," said Glenn (Chico) Resch, ex-National Hockey League goaltender and now Devils radio analyst, "was the physical question. Would players on other teams deliberately 'run' at and harass Slava and Sergei?"

The answer came fast and furious on the night of October 23, 1989 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

The answer was, emphatically yes. Fetisov and Starikov would be singled out for extra hits; some legal and others on the far side of the foul line.

Former Devils coach Doug Carpenter now was behind the Toronto bench, orchestrating a team that liked to hit anything that moved on the ice except the officials. The first victim on this night was Devils goalie Sean Burke.

Knocked for a loop by Maple Leaf forward Dan Daoust, Burke sought revenge and the result was a Pier Six brawl that culminated with a main event featuring Burke and Toronto goalie Mark Laforest.

So far, New Jersey's Russians had managed to elude the flying fists until Fetisov corralled the puck behind his net. While Slava searched for a Devils recipient for his pass, Leafs forward Wendel Clark boarded the defenseman.

Not satisfied with the damage done, the intensely angry Clark then created a windmill of punches that surprised Slava more than the uninvited jabs injured him.

"I never expected Clark to do that," Slava later told the press. "It just didn't occur to me that he'd start swinging."

Compounding the furor was Coach Jim Schoenfeld's decision to bench Fetisov for the remainder of the game; a fact well analyzed by reporters in the Toronto dailies.

Fetisov was deleted, but not his team. The Devils emerged with a 5-4 victory and looked very much like a playoff possibility. That is, if Fetisov could regain his composure and reconcile himself with his coach's benching move.

But bad went to worse.

The Devils next match was in Calgary where Sergei Makarov, Slava's old pal from Red Army. now was skating for the Flames. "Naturally, I wanted the opportunity to play against my former teammate," Fetisov allowed.

But Schoenfeld was allowing nothing of the sort. Fetisov was scratched from the lineup card while the Devils were sent down to defeat by Makarov's club.
Slava's anger was building and ditto for his boss, Lamoriello.

Lou's potentially high octane team was plodding with tortoise-like speed and after 14 games, the best it could show for it was a 6-6-2 mark that suggested a treadmill to oblivion.

Rather than wait for further events, Lamoriello applied his homily -- "Do what's right and do it now." -- to his team and fired Schoenfeld. Gentleman Jim's assistant John Conniff was promoted to head coach.

But that didn't end the shake-up. Next to get the guillotine treatment was none other than the plodding Starikov. Fetisov's comrade was given a bus ticket to Utica of the American Hockey League and it looked very much like "One-Way."

The axing of Starikov was less of a surprise than his replacement. Forgotten in the lineup fuss was the fact that the Devils also had drafted a Russian defenseman at the 225th spot overall in 1983.

Alexei Kasatonov was an eight-time Soviet all-star who was playing in the American Hockey League during the 1989-90 campaign when Lamoriello reached out to him.

Tall, rangy and seemingly always in a good mood, Kasatonov was promoted to the big club on January 4, 1990. His debut foe would be the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings.

Cunniff: "Alexei will be an asset and, make no mistake, he can handle the rough play."

The newest Russian also demonstrated that he could handle the power play, penalty-killing -- and Gretzky. He helped New Jersey to a 4-2 decision and also won applause from The Great One.

"From what I could see," Wayne remarked post-game, "Kasatonov doesn't look a bit out of place in the NHL."

Happy go lucky Alexei quickly became one of the most popular teammates and a very competent competitor. Cunniff finally concluded that it would a good idea to pair the two Russians since they had played together for so many years.

There was, however, a social problem. Because of (Russian) political differences, they didn't like each other. Or as teammate Sylvain Turgeon put it, "They can both help the team as long as they don't kill each other."

Slava and Alexei didn't kiss and make up nor did they talk to each other when off the ice. On the ice they blended as a pair like perfectly meshed gears; just as they had when winning Gold Medals for Red Army.

Responding positively to Cunniff's low-key yet fervent coaching. the Devils climbed to first place by the middle of the 1989-90 season. A victory against the Penguins symbolized the club's transformation from also-rans to aces.

Not only did they beat Pittsburgh, 4-2, at the Penguins Igloo but Fetisov emerged as a star. He assisted on two goals, was on the ice for all his club's red lights. He also blanked Pitt icon Mario Lemieux all night.

The positive play carried the Devils into the homestretch; the steamy season which separates the playoff contenders from the also-rans. These pressure-cooker games were new to the Russians and their response would be critical.

A March 2 encounter, again with the Penguins, proved that the Russian duet could warble a winning tune. New Jersey prevailed, 6-5, while Alexei and Slava each contributed goals.

Fetisov: "It was a big win for us. We know there's little margin for error."

Meanwhile, Fetisov's feud with Wendel Clark took another ominous turn when the Maple Leafs invaded East Rutherford. This time the Devil lined up the Leaf and felled Clark with a clean, hard check.

Now Slava stalked his prey a second time and cleanly checked the tough forward. Enraged, Clark dropped his gloves as did Fetisov but before Slava could launch a punch Wendel dropped him with a right cross.

Once stitched up, Fetisov scrambled back into action but his adversary was done for the season. Slava's check had damaged Clark's knee and, as far as Devils fans were concerned, justice triumphed.

Still, there was work to be done if Cunniff's club was going to make the post-season; much work.

"Looking at the standings as we headed into March," said Lamoriello, "we were under .500 and I wanted us to get better. I knew I had to try to make deals before the deadline if we were to make the playoffs."

Lou was true to his word and, once again, New Jersey's favorite hockey team was hellbent for a might push to Playoff Land!

Would they make it? That was the puzzling question in East Rutherford and all points north, south and west as well!

LISTS: FOUR REASONS WHY THE DEVILS STAYED IN THE PLAYOFF PACK:

1. CHANGING COACHES: Lamoriello sensed that Schoenfeld had lost his grip on the team. Rather than waiting for further losses, he moved pro-actively and replaced Gentleman Jim with the calmer Cunniff.

2. CHANGING RUSSIANS; While Fetisov earned a regular spot on defense, Starikov proved too slow for NHL action. Fortunately Kasitonov was available and proved to be a first-rate addition.

3. MATURING YOUTH: The likes of Kirk Muller, John MacLean and Sean Burke, among others, had polished their games thereby giving New Jersey a seasoned corps of young aces.

4. EXPERIENCE: Many of the younger Devils had gone through homestretch tension in the 1987-88 season and knew what to expect this time around. In this case, experience was the best teacher.

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