In 1989, the long-time symbol of the Iron Curtain was dismantled as the world watched in amazement. The fall of the infamous Berlin Wall served as a precursor to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War two years later. The once-mighty nation became 15 separate countries and, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the global political and military landscape changed overnight.
One of the most dominant historical events of the 20th Century was thought by some to mean dire consequences for the game of hockey. It was feared that without the centralized approach to hockey development employed in the Soviet Union, that region of the world would cease to be a breeding ground for young players. When the Soviet Union fell apart, it was thought that its hockey system would collapse along with it; but nothing could be farther from the truth.
Russia has continued to produce great young players.
"The Russian system today consists of clubs being sponsored by successful businesses," says E.J. McGuire, NHL Central Scouting's director. "It is well-supported. The oil companies are involved and, of course, there is still the Red Army team. When the former system collapsed, their talent kept growing."
Moscow native Nikita Filatov
heads the list of European prospects in this year's European rankings. The talented forward played in 34 games for CSKA of the Russian junior league, totaling 32 goals and 66 points. He was Russia's leading scorer at the 2008 World Junior Championships, going 4-5-9 in seven games, with 2-1-3 coming in Russia's victory against the United States in the bronze-medal game.
Filatov, who was selected by Columbus at No. 6, is joined in this year's draft by a bevy of fellow countrymen who could one day make their mark in the NHL.
With six of the top 10 European prospects hailing from Russia, the ability of that country to continue producing blue-chippers is not in question. Young prospects from other countries attest to the fact that the Russian development system is alive and well.
"They're an amazing group of hockey players," says top defense prospect Tyler Myers of Canada. "I played for Team Canada at the Under-18 Tournament against Russia in the round-robin and again in the gold-medal game. Filatov is definitely an amazing hockey player with a bright future ahead of him. But it's not only him.
"There was another six or seven guys on that team that were very good players and played very well together. In the first game they played against us, they were ready and really took it to us. We were a little caught off guard about just how good they were. But we came into the gold-medal game knowing how good they could be, so we came out harder than any other team I've ever started a game with in my life. We were very fortunate to win the gold medal."
"Russian hockey is very much alive," continues Myers. "They are amazing players and it's not just Filatov. Kirill Petrov is a very good player. You definitely have to watch when he is on the ice because he is so dominant. Evgeny Grachev is another one. I was paired up against his line. He is a very good player and they also have some defensemen like Vjateslav Voinov that are great players. You really have to be prepared when you play against those guys."
Team USA has also had its fill of the Russians in the past few years. Those players are also impressed with the caliber of the Russian players.
"The old Soviet system is gone, but their hockey system is far from dead," says Colin Wilson, the second-rated American prospect. "Filatov is a great player and I can't say anything bad about him. I played against him for the last two years. He is energetic on the ice and is exactly like Alexander Ovechkin, maybe even a little more energetic. They are producing a lot of great players in Russia right now. You can't deny that."
The risk of drafting some Russian prospects relates to the uncertainty created by the lack of an agreement between the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL. Some teams are concerned that they would waste a draft pick if the player never comes over or is tied to an existing contract.
The latter concern also applied to the top-rated European prospect last year, Russia's Alexei Cherepanov, who was drafted at No. 17 by the New York Rangers. Many believed Cherepanov was a top-5 talent.
"There is a little uncertainty for some NHL teams," says McGuire. "Alexei Cherepanov dropped to No. 17 in the draft last year but he is better than the 17th best player in last year's draft. The lack of an agreement creates some uncertainty."
Former NHL player Neil Sheehy is now an attorney who represents NHL players, among them Wilson. Sheehy adds that the matter of money is no longer an incentive for Russians to leave home.
"There is a big influx of money in Russia right now," says Sheehy, a veteran of nine NHL seasons. "They're paying big contracts to Russian players within Russia because the oil companies own a lot of franchises. I think the problem for the National Hockey League in the future might be getting these players to come to North America. The money is so big in Russia right now that many players would have to take a pay cut to come to the United States or Canada."
Of course there is only one destination for those young Russians who wish to play in the best league in the world.
"I will do whatever it takes to play in the NHL," says Filatov. "This is the best league in the world and it is a dream of mine to play in the NHL. I am coming over to North America next season no matter what. I played for one team in Russia all my life and that's enough. I think you will see a lot of young Russian players coming over here to play in the junior leagues.
"I will also play one season in the junior league if it is necessary to get stronger or to understand the North American game more. It has been my dream to play in the NHL since I was 11 or 12 years old. This is where I want to be."
The investment in a Russian player this June will likely pay big dividends for those teams willing to take the chance on a prospect who has expressed a commitment to join the NHL club either immediately or in a year or two. Like their North American counterparts, today's young Russian players combine skill with passion for the game.
"Russia has great athletes," says Sheehy. "Their system has changed in that they're not forced to do it now. They play hockey because of love and passion for the game. When you have players with love and passion for the game of hockey, that's when you have something special. The young players they develop now have a love for the game and it's not something they have to do to make their economic life better, it's something the players genuinely love to do."
And some even do it with an edge.
"It's not just skilled players being produced in Russia," concludes Florida Panthers assistant coach Mike Kitchen. "They've got role players, too. They are still producing a great number of skilled players and those skilled players play with passion.
"Just look at the World Championships and you see Russia beating Canada. You see all the emotion they had and how excited they were for their own country. They've had some terrific young hockey players coming out of there in the last four and five years and while it used to be that they were all skilled players, now there are role players, too. You have shot blockers that will do whatever it takes to prevent a goal and in-your-face players that will make you pay a price. There is quite a cross-section of players coming over from Russia and it's just going to grow."
Author: Karl Samuelson | NHL.com Correspondent