If you are a National Hockey League (NHL) fan, you just have to be excited about all of the new crops of Russian-born players tearing up the scoring sheets these days. Even though there are only 32 Russian-born NHL players currently playing in the NHL, they account for much of the excitement and scoring. There really is something special about watching Alexander Ovechkin, the first Russian-born NHL player to win the Conn Smyther Trophy, as he pretty much carries the Washington Capitols on his unwavering shoulders and exceptional skills. And, he loves it, every part of it.
Alexander Ovechkin already has his major contract, guaranteed to be paid enough money over the next 10 years for his great-grandchildren to be taken care of finncially, as long as he doesn’t blow the money, or have to pay the Russian mafia for rotection/shakedown money. Yet he still plays the game like he really enjoys it, and is always available for children and autigraphs, actually embracinhg and accommodating the fans who are a little “Ovie mad”, always jumping against the glass to join the fans in the celebrations of his goals. The 1972 Summit Series, between Canadian and Russian players, brought the Russian hockey talent into the North American home for the first time. And we were overwhelmed and a little scared that we may lose, winning the series on the last game, late in the final frame (thanks in large part to Larry Henderson, Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr, along with many French-Canadian players from Montreal Canadiens alumni).
Russian-born players like Vladislav Tretiak, possibly the best goaltender to ever play the game, along with Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Yakushev and Alexander Maltsev were introduced to the Western brand of ice hockey, and they seemed to play on par with our beloved NHL players. What? Russians, those cold-blooded Communists, playing our game, and doing as well as, if not better than, our best players? Blasphemy!
The current crop of Russian-born players in the NHL gives the rest of the Russian players to have ever laced up the skates in the big show a run for their money. Players like Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Sergei Gonchar, Andrei Markov and Alexander
Kovalev make up one heck of a powerful lineup, which could be put up against any line made up of players from one country only. Add in goaltending help in the likes of Nikolai Khabibulin and Evgeni Nabhokov, and you have some pretty outstanding Russian-born players. And, that is just the current crop of the stellar Russian-born players (sorry, Alexei Yashin, your boat has sailed, n’yet?).
Back when Russian players were first brought in to play in the NHL, general managers started to drool over the talent pool that had just been opened up to them. Except, of course, for Howard Ballard, the Maple Leafs owner and GM, who said that a Russian would play for the Leafs over his dead body. Well, so be it. Not too long after his death, Ballard’s lifelong team started to draft and trade for Russian Players, as well as Swedes, Slovakians, etc.
Along with Alexander Oveckin and Evgeni Malkin, Russian-born players like Sergei Fedorov, Pavel Bure and Igor Larionov define the style of the present Russian-born player; fast, tenacious and talented. The Russians are known not only for longevity in the NHL, playing well into their late 30’s and early 40’s, but also for lighting up the red light behind their opponent’s nets throughout their careers.
But, does a name like Pavel Datsyuk jump out at you when talking about the top-ten Russian-born players? Hardly a household name, like Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, Vladislav Tretiak, Sergei Fedorov and Nicholai Khabibulin (the “Bulin Wall”) are. However, currently playing in his 16th consecutive season in the NHL, Pavel Datsyuk holds the all-time points record for a Russian-born defenceman, garnering 152 goals and 771 points.
And, Igor Larionov has played twelve full seasons in the Russian Super League, and is currently in his twelfth season in the NHL, for 24 years of professional hockey and counting. With two Olympic Gold medals, three Stanley Cup rings and three World Championships, along with a Canada Cup gold, Larionov is one of the most overlooked and talented players from Mother Russia.
Pavel Datsyuk is currently tied for his worst plus/minus statistic, a horrid -4, and if he were to finish the season in negative numbers it would be his fourth time doing so. Considering 12 of his 16 seasons have been with the Dallas Stars, his last 12 seasons, as a matter of fact, those are extremely impressive numbers.
Comparing Russian-born players from the Summit Series days of the early 1970’s to the current crop of Russian-born NHL players is a rather moot point. The earlier Russian players were mostly, if not all, from the Russian Army, and were playing for prestige and good working and living conditions. If they failed or performed miserably, Siberia was in their future.
Todays Russian-born players are cashing in on multi-million dollar contracts in the NHL, and some even turn out to be much like Alexei Yashin, insofar that as soon as they sign that huge, multi-million contract with a no-movement clause and a front-end loaded contract, they stop playing with heart, and continue playing the game as if it were just that, a game, and not a career. But these types of Russian-born players are the exception, not the norm, and are not the only nationalities to do so (think Danny Heatley or Marion Hossa).