'92 Draft remembered for influx of Eastern Europeans
With the No. 17 pick at the 1981 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres selected wing Jiri Dudacek, the son of a high-ranking member of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party. Despite the Sabres' best efforts to bring over the young star, Dudacek never played a game with Buffalo.
For NHL general managers, it was the latest reminder not to waste a high pick on a player from a communist country.
During the Cold War, when players from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were restricted by their governments from playing professionally in the West, it was next to impossible for a team to add these players to its roster. If a team wanted to risk it, it could use a 10th- or 11th-round selection on a player from behind the Iron Curtain, but never a top pick.
That all changed in 1992.
With the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia effectively dissolved, the NHL Draft was suddenly flooded with Eastern European talent.
The first signs of change emerged the year before when New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith made waves in 1991 by selecting Russian Alex Kovalev at No. 15. It was a calculated move by Smith, who had been aggressively pursuing Russians since his days with the Detroit Red Wings' front office.
"We were a little bit ahead of the curve because we had taken Kovalev in 1991. But I was ahead of the curve in Detroit taking [Sergei] Fedorov [in 1989]," Smith said. "I was taking guys before the Iron Curtain came down. I knew sooner or later it had to come down."
The Curtain did come down, and the results at the 1992 NHL Draft were instantaneous.
"I think everybody realized we could take them a lot earlier than in the past. [Back then] no one knew when you were going to end up with them, because they were still under communism," then-San Jose Sharks GM Jack Ferreira said. "Now they were free. There was still a question mark about working out agreements with [their] teams. But they went a lot earlier, as they deserved to."
In round one, 11 of the first 21 selections hailed from either Czechoslovakia or Russia. Nine more Eastern Europeans were taken in the second round. When the draft was finished, 41 Russians and 20 Czechoslovakians were taken, both records shattering the previous marks. That draft also saw five players selected from the former Soviet republics of Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine.
But not everyone in attendance at the Montreal Forum was thrilled with the result.
"Two-thirds of the way through the first round, fans were booing the picks because there were so many Europeans and Russians," then-Winnipeg Jets GM Mike Smith said. "That was a draft where everybody took Europeans and the response from the fans was to boo. All of a sudden the entire League realized there were players in Europe capable of playing here."
If there was one NHL executive coveting talent from the Eastern Bloc, it was Mike Smith. In his first draft with the Jets in 1989, he dipped his toe in the Eastern talent pool, taking Russians Evgeny Davydov and Sergei Kharin with his final two picks. By 1991, sensing impending changes in the Soviet Union, Smith took a surprising four Russians. And at the historic 1992 draft, with most teams taking two to four players from behind the Iron Curtain, Smith shocked the hockey world by selecting an astounding nine Russians.
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"We went a little overboard on Russia, but we knew Russia was going to open up. We had three or four Russians who were pretty significant players in that draft," Mike Smith told NHL.com. "It was somewhat controversial at the time, but it didn't make any difference."
Practically overnight, the makeup of the National Hockey League was changed. But like any young players, some of these Eastern Bloc prospects needed to adapt to their new surroundings. In some cases, adding a new language and culture to the mix didn't help.
"The guy that was a handful was [Sandis] Ozolinsh," said Ferreira, who drafted the defenseman No. 30 in 1991. "He would drive like [race car driver] A.J. Foyt. He was unbelievable, constantly getting tickets. But he was a young, talented player."
The Russian and Czechoslovakian players taken in 1992 would make a mark on the League in the long run.
Of the 24 players selected in the first round, five played in the NHL All-Star Game -- all of them Eastern Europeans. Three other Eastern Europeans from that draft would play in the mid-season exhibition, including a little-known Jets goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who was taken at No. 204.
But the watershed draft of 1992 wasn't necessarily a sign of things to come.
That was especially apparent in 1993, when only a single Eastern European player was taken in the first round (Viktor Kozlov, No. 6, San Jose). Of the eight Eastern Europeans taken in the first two rounds, six played fewer than two full seasons worth of NHL games.
If some teams, as Mike Smith put it, "went overboard" drafting Eastern European players in 1992, they did so mostly without a formal scouting team based in that part of the world. After 1992, teams took a step back to begin building a refined staff based there.
"At that particular time, basically what you had was a scout based in Europe, usually in Sweden or Finland. He had contacts he would sometimes use in Czechoslovakia and Russia. There weren't really any full-time staffers," Mike Smith said. "It took until near the end of the '90s before teams started to get that [full-time Eastern European staff]."
With a lack of a formal scouting infrastructure, and a period of prolonged economic decline in the region, the wave of Eastern European prospects abruptly slowed.
Every year after 1992, the number of Russian players taken in the NHL Draft dropped. By 1997, 18 Russians heard their names called at the draft. With Russia still getting back on its feet as a country, those growing pains could also be found in its hockey development.
After winning the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in 1992, Russia went six years without winning again, by far the longest Russian championship drought in that tournament's history.
But things changed in 1999, when Russia again won the World Juniors, beginning a run of five straight years in which either the Russians or Czechs won gold at the tournament. Things were evolving on the home front as well.
Following a steady decline in its gross domestic product through most of the 1990s, Russia was turning a corner, particularly thanks to massive industrial growth. By then, NHL teams had all established a polished scouting team throughout the area as well as formal agreements with pro teams in Eastern Europe.
"During the mid-'90s, it wasn't set what we were going to pay for the players. You were basically buying them off the Russian teams," Mike Smith said. "It took a while to get everything structured when everything changed over there."
If 1992 was the first major moment for young Eastern European players, 2000 was a renaissance. That year, 18 Russian, Czech or Slovak players were taken in the first 44 picks, compared to 19 in 1992. A year later, Ilya Kovalchuk became the first Russian taken No. 1, and a record 84 Russians, Czechs or Slovaks were selected, accounting for 29 percent of players taken.
By now, Russians, Czechs and Slovaks have become fixtures at the top of every NHL Draft board.
But when the world was changing in 1992, the NHL Draft changed with it. The proof was in that historic first round that changed the League forever.