Russians have had a huge impact on the NHL and the way the game is played, but their arrival in North America wasn’t without controversy.
In the August, 1989, edition of The Hockey News, a wave of Soviet stars, riding the crest of glasnost, broke down barriers and signed to play with NHL teams. Slava Fetisov and Sergei Starikov inked in New Jersey. Alexandr (that’s how he spelled it in ’89) Mogilny officially became a Sabre. And Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov were brought into the Vancouver Canucks fold.
Some natives, however, remained suspicious and opposed.
In a story written by New Jersey correspondent Rich Chere, Flyers’ GM Bob Clarke was strong, and candid (go figure), with his feelings.
“I’ve never been in favor of the Soviets playing in the National Hockey League,” he said. “I have a lot of reasons in my own mind, one of which is probably prejudice.”
Clarke said the NHL was sending a lot of money to the Soviet federation, funds that could be used to develop homegrown talent, and he was concerned it would come back to haunt North American hockey.
Devils’ player rep Randy Velischek aired similar sentiments, while Vancouver forward Rich Sutter wondered how welcoming teammates would be.
“I just hope they know what they’re doing,” said Sutter of team management. “There are bound to be some guys upset over this thing. There are bound to be some guys who aren’t here because of it. Frankly, I was surprised they signed him. You worry about who is going to be there when he (Larionov) needs his teammates.”
Other highlights from the August, 1989, issue, for this edition of Throwback Thursday, include:
• cartoonist Dave Elston wondered how the Soviets would adjust on the ice
• Stan Fischler’s speculation on expansion, in light of struggling franchises in Winnipeg and Minnesota. There were reports that Jets owner Barry Shenkarow could get $42 million for the team from a Seattle group “if the Washington city ever builds its long-awaited arena.” Hmmmm.
• chatter about the need for a league-wide drug and alcohol policy, in the shadow of Bob Probert’s arrest for cocaine importation. As per Editor in Chief Bob McKenzie, the only policy was president John Ziegler’s stern warning that “if you use illegal drugs, you forfeit your right to play in the NHL.”
• Ken Campbell’s story on the first-ever Russian-trained player to play in the NHL. Victor Nachaev, who entered the United States after marrying an American woman, appeared in three games for the Los Angeles Kings in 1982-83, but didn’t pan out. He scored once, beating New York Ranger goalie Steve Weeks with a wrist shot from the blueline. “I was tired like devil,” said Nachaev, who’d played three games in three nights after being recalled from the AHL. “I felt dead.”
• Guy Lafleur’s signing with the Quebec Nordiques, as he continued his comeback, at age 38, with the Canadiens’ most-hated rival. ‘The Flower’ had played the previous season with the Rangers. “I’m so happy to be back in Quebec,” said a teary-eyed Lafleur at a press conference. “I’m so happy to be given the opportunity to end my active career here.” Lafleur, who’d been retired for three seasons and elected to the Hall of Fame prior to the comeback, was a junior star in Quebec City in the 1960s and early ’70s.
• Another Hab hero, Bob Gainey, announced he was leaving North America to be player-coach for a second-division club in France.
• Two days before his wedding, Flames star blueliner Al MacInnis was arrested and charged with assault in connection with a fight outside a Calgary restaurant. MacInnis was subsequently found not guilty.