Tuesday, June 23, 2009
It was on this date that the Atlanta Thrashers selected Ilya Kovalchuk with the first pick of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, making him the first Russian ever chosen first overall.
The first Russian ever drafted by an NHL team was Viktor Khatulev, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the ninth round, 160th overall, of the 1976 NHL Amateur Draft. He never even learned he was drafted until 1978 and never had the chance to play in North America. He was eventually banned for life from the Soviet hockey league in 1981 for hitting a referee during a fight with another player.
The first Russain in to play in the NHL was Sergei Priakin, the first Soviet player granted permission to do so. Priakin, already a nine year veteran in the Soviet League, lined up for two games for the Calgary Flames at the end of the 1988-89 season after the conclusion of Soviet League season. He was carefully chosen by the Soviet authorities at the time. He was good enough to play in the NHL, but not so good that they could not afford to lose him from the national team. He would represent Soviet hockey and at the same time be used to dangle the carrot of possibly being allowed to play in the NHL in front of the other Soviet players back home. Priakin would play an additional 44 games over the next two seasons for the Flames, before moving back to Europe where he would continue to play another nine seasons in the Swiss, Russain, Finnish and even the Japanese leagues.
Other early Soviet players in the NHL included Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Valdimir Krutov, the first true Soviet stars to fight for the opportunity to play in the NHL. While Krutov did not pan out as an NHLer, Fetisov and Larionov would go onto win the Stanley Cup five times between the two of them, all with the Detroit Red Wings.
Sergei Makarov would also compete in the NHL, and well enough to inspire a rule change. He was named the Calder Trophy winner, given "to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL" at the age of 31. The rules for eligibility were were changed so that only players 26 or younger now qualify for the award.
While Fetisov, Larionov and Krutov would be granted permission to play in the NHL, others would take a different route. Both Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov would defect in order to play in North America. Both chose the year of their escape from the Soviet Union as their jersey numbers, with Mogilny taking #89 and Fedorov #91.
Mogilny would become the first Russian to lead the NHL in goals and reach the 100 point plateau in 1992-93, the year of his amazing 76 goal season, which still stands as the record for most goals in a single season by a Russian player. He would later become not only the first Russian, but the first European of any nationality, to captain an NHL team in 1993-94 with the Buffalo Sabres.
Fedorov would become the first Russian to capture the Hart Trophy, the Selke Trophy and the Pearson Award. He is currently the all-time leading Russian scorer in NHL history with 1179 points.
Prior to Kovalchuk being selected first overall, the three highest drafted Russians were Alexi Yashin, selected by the Ottawa Senators (1992), Oleg Tverdovsky by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (1994) and Andrei Zyuzin by the San Jose Sharks (1996), all of whom were selected with the #2 pick overall.
A significant event in the acceptance of Russian players by the North American hockey community was the 1989 election to the Hockey Hall of Fame of long-time Soviet National Team goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, the first European born player without any NHL experience and the first Russian player ever elected to the Hall.
When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, Sergei Nemchinov, Alexander Karpovtsev, Alexi Kovalev (the first Russian taken in the first round of the draft at #15 overall) and Sergei Zubov became the first Russians to have their names engraved on the Stanley Cup.
Today's featured jersey is a Lutch 2000-01 Spartak Moscow Ilya Kovalchuk jersey. Spartak was the team Kovalchuk last played for in Russia before being drafted first overall. The team name across the waist is in Cyrillic as is the city name and Kovalchuk's name on the back. The jersey is dye-sublimated, as are most good quality authentic Russian jerseys.
It's been explained to me that Spartak (named for "Spartacus" the gladiator) was very popular with the Soviet citizens due to the fact that the Spartak hockey and soccer teams were part of the Spartak Moscow sports society, a physical culture and sports society of the workers, compared to rivals Dynamo Moscow, the sporting arm of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, and Central Red Army, the sports club of the Soviet Army. This made Spartak "the people's club" and cheering for them at games was the one chance Soviet fans had to cheer openly against the government in public without fear of reprisals.