Thursday, April 10, 2008

No Brotherly Love For Mother Russia

Ever since the very late '80s, there has been a strong Russian presence in the NHL, with Russians playing integral parts in winning Stanley Cups and taking home major NHL awards. Locally, the quartet of Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov has folks fondly remembering the Red Wings' famed Russian Five of the late '90s.

And despite the raw number of Russians in the NHL declining in recent years - only 30 suited up in the NHL this past regular season (3.14% of the 955 players who dressed for at least one game) - the largest of the former Soviet states is still obviously well-represented in the League. This year, the top two (and three of the top four) scorers in the League hailed from Russia, and these sick snipers and skilled set-up men, along with their fellow countrymen, scored 429 goals - 6.26% of all goals scored in 2007-08, with 305 goals coming from the top eight Russian scorers.

But despite the obvious talent surge from the Eurasian nation, not everyone has been bullish on the Russians. Take, for example, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Since the lockout, the Flyers have played 246 regular season games. With 20 players dressed each night, that's 4,920 man-games, just two percent of which have been played by Russians (74 by Dmitry Afanasenkov last season and 26 by Denis Tolpeko, who has played in just four games in 2008, in the recently concluded campaign).

Historically, the Flyers haven't had too many Russian success stories, and they haven't had a Russian-born 20-goal scorer since, well, ever (Valeri Zelepukin's 16 in 1998-99 is the high-water mark). In fact, in team's 40-plus year history, the Flyers have had just 107 goals scored by Russians - exactly as many as Ovechkin, Semin and Kozlov potted for the Caps this past season.

The question, then, is why has the City of Brotherly Love turned its back on Mother Russia (and vice versa)? I point my finger at three people to start.

#1: Bobby Clarke

Clarke was the Flyers' General Manager from 1984 through 1990 and then again from 1994 through 2006 and is currently the team's Senior Vice President, Thuggery. But long before Clarke was failing repeatedly in the Flyer front office, he was busy making friends on the ice, and perhaps his most famous on-ice incident came during the 1972 Summit Series:
... Though [Clarke] earned much praise due to his play, he was also criticized for an incident during the sixth game which is often referred to as, "The Slash."

Clarke's line played against the line of the Soviet's top player, Valeri Kharlamov, during the entire series. After being on the receiving end of some stick work from Kharlamov while going for the puck, Clarke caught up with Kharlamov and laid a two-handed slash across his already sore ankle. The slash broke Kharlamov's ankle and, though he finished the game, he missed the seventh game and was largely ineffective in the eighth. When asked about the slash years later, Clarke said, "If I hadn't learned to lay on a two-hander once in a while, I'd never have left Flin Flon." ... Kharlamov, prior to his death in 1981, said he thought Clarke was tasked with, "taking me out of the game." John Ferguson, Sr., an assistant coach with Team Canada in 1972, said, "I called Clarke over to the bench, looked over at Kharlamov and said, 'I think he needs a tap on the ankle.' I didn't think twice about it. It was Us versus Them. And Kharlamov was killing us. I mean, somebody had to do it. And I sure wasn't going to ask [Paul] Henderson."
Needless to say, Canada isn't going to be appointing Clarke ambassador to Russia any time soon, and I'm certain that his name is still cursed throughout that country. Perhaps Clarke and Russian players have intentionally steered clear of one another.

Incidentally, Kharlamov's son Alexander was a Caps draft pick back in 1994. See? It all interrelates.

#2: Sergei Fedorov

Fedorov terrorized the Flyers back in the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals (as predicted), racking up three goals and three helpers in the Wings' four-game sweep. In his career, including the playoffs, Sergei has 12 goals and 21 assists in 27 games against Philly, and has driven one goalie to change careers:

It's not surprising, then, that the Flyers have been unsure how to handle Fedorov and his ilk after that.

#3: Ivan Drago

This is probably the most valid theory of all. After all, can you blame Philadelphia for harboring some resentment after a 'roided-up Russian killed their city's favorite son's best friend?

Hopefully this story ends more like Fedorov's and less like Clarke's and Drago's for the Caps and their Russian Four.


Ogre said...

I still say that Viktor Kozlov looks like a non-roided up version of Ivan Drago.

rananda said...

i'm not sure what the protocol re this is, but im beginning a series of posts on the capitals over at my blog:

and yes, kozlov does look a bit like dolp lundgren, but with a better wrist shot.

ted said...

After this series there will be yet another reason for the Flyer's organization to dislike Russians.

Ari said...

I'm surprised there are only 30 Russians playing in the NHL - very strange. I wonder if it's because mid-level Russian players can now make similar salaries in the Russian league. Russia's got loads of hockey talent, and clearly some of the elite players in the world, so I find it strange that so few non-elite players play in the NHL.

JP said...

@ Ari - That number was surprisingly low to me, too, and I think your reasoning is spot on. Guys like Alexei Morozov can be big fish at home and make big bucks rather than plugging away on a 2nd or 3rd line here for less.

Also, the lack of a transfer agreement makes drafting Russians a bit more of a gamble (though that's very recent).

And don't forget that there are Kazakhs, Belorusians, Lithuanians, Ukranians, etc. - guys from former Soviet states - in the League as well.

Chemmy said...

What I've gleaned from this article is that Philadelphia is xenophobic and hates immigrants, the poor, and possibly minorities.

I'm not saying the Flyers have a history of crimes against humanity, I'm just saying I wouldn't be surprised.

Brunella said...

I just saw a guy on Metro, the embodiment of “the hockey demographic”*, wearing a Red Wings sweater. Uggghh: flash back to 1998. I was about to bestow upon him my best dirty look when I saw it was a Fedorov sweater, number 91.


I guess we’re friends.

* between 25 and 30, longish unkempt hair, Olie goatee, pot belly, some zits, extremely grubby and very frayed baseball cap on backwards with wisps of forehead hair coming out the front cap hole, ipod plugs in ears, big dirty backpack, Converse sneakers

Anonymous said...

IMO one of the main reasons for the reduced number of Russians was the gradual decline of devloping young hockey players after the dissolution of communism. Their dev system took a hit. Apparently it is being addressed in the last couple of years and there is some new league starting next season though I'm hazy on the details.

Though the lack of aggreement with the Russian Fed doesn't help.


rananda said...

usiel - i have to respectfully disagree with you 100% on this. any post-soviet decline in youth development has almost nothing to do with fewer russians in the nhl. look at the U18 and U20 results for the russians over the last 15 years - they are clearly the 2nd most successful nation behind canada. russia was and still is producing great hockey players. the big difference: the russian, oil-based economy is absolutely booming compared to soviet and post-soviet times. moscow currently has more millionaires than any other city in the world. russian super league players, at least the starts to almost starts, can now make a ton of money, whereas before they could not. now, the russians you see in the nhl are of two varieties: the starts who cant make the 6-8 million in the russia (datsyuk, kovalchuk, malkin, OV) and the fringe players who cant be that successful in russian, and who can make more as fringe nhlers (lisin, anisimov, nikulin). the mid-tier guys (chubarov, morozov, perezhogin, korolyuk) all went back home, and they were all produced by the post-soviet system. the transfer agreement has a little to do with it, but that's all about the economics as well.

Anonymous said...

They had one very talented Russian (?) who was killed in a boat accident riding with other Flyers, of course, Bobby Clarke's weapon is a stick, not a boat. :)
In any case, when I hear that Flyers have a player from Russia, a safe bet he is not going to last long in Flyers uniform, one way or another.

SovSport said...

The Kharlamov incident is the worst.