Wait, they’re here! Some of today’s younger hockey fans may not remember a time before Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin, but it wasn’t so long ago that Russians were a new occurrence in the NHL. When players from the former Soviet Union entered the NHL, it ushered in a whole new era of hockey. They had a different style of play and changed the sport forever. Here’s how.
Alexander Mogilny made history in 1989 when he slipped away from his Russian teammates to board a plane for America. After helping the Soviet Union win its 21st World Championship, he and his teammates were awarded two “shopping days” to celebrate. With the help of the Buffalo Sabres’ scouting director, Don Luce, Mogilny defected and became the first of many Russian stars in the NHL.
After Mogilny, Sergei Pryakhin was officially the first Soviet player allowed to leave the Soviet Union to join the NHL, even though Slava Fetisov is credited with breaking the iron curtain. But just two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Russian hockey players no longer had to take a clandestine route to join the NHL. During that season in 1992-93, Mogilny scored 76 goals as he was joined by his comrades Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov who exploded onto American ice, creating an offensive style that was difficult to beat.
At the time, Canadians, in particular, viewed Russian-style play as “robotic, collectivist five-man Soviet units,” as described by Chris Selley of the National Post. And even today, some Russian hockey players tend to be astounded at the idea of individual play versus what they grew up with as teamwork. Take this explanation from Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals as an example.
“Practice is much different in Russia. We skate, skate, skate. As a kid, that was the focus of the coaches — to make sure you were skating the proper way. No hitting, no dump in corner. Practice was about playing hockey — scrimmage, one-on-one, lots of skills. This is the Russian style.”
Kuznetsov was even shocked for his first 10 games in the NHL whenever he saw fellow countryman, Ovechkin, dump the puck. But this “collectivist” idea brought a whole new level of teamwork to the NHL. Ovi aside, just consider what Malkin and Crosby have accomplished together, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups and hoping for a three-pete. The puck support and fluid movement of the Russian style has definitely brought a winning combination to the NHL.
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