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
... 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."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.
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."
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.