Anatoly Firsov is little-known on this side of the pond, but is a celebrated player in Russian hockey history. (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)
By Dennis Gibbons
When the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams for the 1967-68 season, almost every minor-leaguer was bidding for a shot at the big time. Yet expansion did not tap into the vast pool of European talent, especially in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet government’s refusal to grant exit visas to its stars from that era prevented them from ever playing in the NHL. In fact, it wasn't until 1989 that Soviet players were allowed to leave.
The Soviet national team that won nine consecutive World Championship gold medals between 1963 and 1971 might have been the strongest of all-time. NHL scouts scrutinized the players when the Soviet team toured North America and even drafted some stars with the hope one day the government would change its minf, as the Montreal Canadiens did when they selected legendary goalie Vladislav Tretiak in 1983 towards the end of his career.
As far back as 1964, the Soviets asked New York Rangers GM Muzz Patrick for some exhibition games, but it took eight years before Canada’s best pros and the Soviet Union clashed in the 1972 Summit Series.
Here are the best 10 Russian players who never played in the NHL.
10. Alexander Ragulin
If 10 World Championship and three Olympic (1964, 1968 and 1972) gold medals weren’t enough to earn him recognition, consider he was the first Soviet defenseman who developed the skill of blocking shots. More than half a century ago, he sometimes was referred to as the national team’s third goalie. Ragulin was strong as an ox, but rarely crossed the line of dirty play.
9. Vyacheslav Starshinov
With reinstated pro defenseman Carl Brewer in the lineup, Canada was hopeful of finally shutting down the Big Red Machine at the 1967 World Championship. But Starshinov, a hard-nosed center who planted himself in front of the net and battled opposing defensemen, was more than a match for Brewer.
8. Boris Mikhailov
Mikhailov’s shining moment came in captaining the Soviet national team to victory over the NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup. The Moscow native played with a lot of emotion and was perhaps the best pure goal-scorer in the Soviet League history, connecting for 428 goals. He was a two-time winner of the Soviet player of the year award.
7. Alexander Yakushev
When the hulking left winger scored seven goals in eight games against Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, Canadian fans were astounded to learn he wasn’t even the best player in the Soviet League. Two years later Bobby Hull called him the best left winger of all time.
6. Valery Vasiliev
Vasiliev captained the Soviet team to victory in the 1981 Canada Cup. A hard hitter, he was feared by opponents, but also generated offense with pinpoint breakout passes and had a powerful shot from the point. Extremely strong on his skates, Vasiliev was named best defenseman at the World Championship three times.
5. Alexander Maltsev
A diminutive but craft puckhandler, Maltsev appeared in more international games (321) than any other Soviet player and scored 213 goals. His moves were totally unpredictable. He starred agsint Canada’s best pros at the 1976 Canada Cup and was recognized as best forward at the World Championship on three occasions.
4. Vsevolod Bobrov
The first great Russian star, Bobrov captained both the national hockey and soccer teams of the Soviet Union in the 1950s. He was a daring attacker who played the individual-style Canadian game and could easily switch the stick from his left hand to his right while beating a defender.
3. Valery Kharlamov
After watching Kharlamov play, Toronto owner Harold Ballard said he would offer him $1 million to play for the Maple Leafs. Kharlamov, who stunned fans at the Montreal Forum with two brilliant goals in the first meeting between Soviets and Team Canada in 1972, had three skating speeds and used quick dekes to beat defenders.
2. Vladislav Tretiak
At the age of just 20, Tretiak sparkled against NHL stars in the 1972 Summit Series. He was outstanding again when the Soviets embarrassed Canada 8-1 in the 1981 Canada Cup final and once shut out the Montreal Canadiens 5-0. He was named European player of the year three times.
1. Anatoly Firsov
Canadians didn’t see Firsov, an expert at dropping the puck back to his skates then kicking it ahead to his stick, perform against top NHL players because he ended his national team career six months prior to the Summit Series. Among his many feats, he won three Olympic gold medals, most notably in 1968 when he led the Soviets to a perfect record and scored a tournament-leading 12 goals and 16 points. His unmatched work ethic, quick thinking and lightning speed made him the best Russian forward ever.
This list is one of the many that can be found in THN's Top 10: Counting down the game's wonderful, wild, weird and wacky!
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.