The fall of “The Wall” in 1989 was definitely the National Hockey League’s gain.
With it went the old USSR and in came an influx of Russian hockey players destined for greatness in the world’s best hockey league. For years prior, European born players from Sweden, Finland and a few other countries enjoyed the freedom to cross the pond and try their hand at North American hockey, with those locked behind the Iron Curtain left to wonder “what if?”
So it was that early greats like Vladislav Tretiak, Alexander Yakushev and Valeri Kharlamov would only get to tangle with NHL players in exhibition contests and the great 1972 Summit Series. Otherwise, they would remain largely a mystery to hockey fans in Canada and the United States.
Since 1989, there have been many notable Russians to play and thrive in the NHL. Here are 10 of the greatest to ever suit up.
10. Sergei Makarov
One third of the famed “KLM” line had already had a magnificent career in the old Soviet Union with CSKA Moscow, before migrating with his linemates Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov to the NHL in 1989. Makarov, a right winger, was a key member of the Russian team that lost to the Americans at Lake Placid as well as gold medal teams from 1984 (Sarajevo) and 1988 (Calgary). Makarov’s other international triumphs also included eight world championships and two world junior titles. Makarov suited up for Calgary in 1989 and immediately paid dividends, scoring 24 goals and 86 points, at the age of 31. His advanced years would only see him play six seasons in the NHL and a brief four game return with Dallas in 1996-97. He would finish his NHL career with 384 points (134 goals) in 424 games.
9. Igor Larionov
The “L” of the KLM line, Larionov would also begin his NHL career at an advanced age, lacing them up with Vancouver at the age of 29 in 1989. However, the native of Voskresensk would enjoy a lengthy and more lucrative career than his linemates Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov. Considered one of the best two-way centermen of all time, Larionov was instrumental in opening the door out of the old USSR for other players to follow. Larionov would play three seasons in Vancouver and two more full years in San Jose before an early season trade in his third season (1995-96) with the Sharks to Detroit saw his career take off. He would be instrumental in back-to-back Stanley Cup victories with the Scotty Bowman coached Wings in 1997 and 1998. He would retire at the age of 43 with the New Jersey Devils in 2004. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008.
8. Sergei Gonchar
There have been many great defencemen come out of Russia, like Slava Fetisov (who would make the list of it was 11 best) and Sergei Zubov, but arguably the best of them is Gonchar. The Chelyabinsk born rearguard came to the NHL well after the fall of the wall, joining the Washington Capitals in 1994 at age 20. He skated in the league right up until last season with the Montreal Canadiens, a journey that saw him play 20 seasons with five different teams, winning a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. The five-time all-star was a powerplay specialist with a heavy shot, notching 102 of his 220 career goals with the man advantage. He would play in 1,301 career games and finish with 811 points. He also recorded 90 points (22 goals) in 141 career playoff games, including a high of 14 points in Pittsburgh’s run to the championship.
7. Alexei Kovalev
Like Sergei Gonchar, Kovalev benefited from Igor Larionov’s pioneering ways by finding his way to the New York Rangers in 1992 at the age of 19 (he was drafted 15th overall in 1991) after a brief stint with Moscow Dynamo (starting as a 17-year-old). He played just 13 games in the AHL with Binghamton (scoring 24 points in 13 games) before a permanent call-up. The shifty right winger set to work immediately, scoring 20 goals and 18 assists in 65 games. A year later, Kovalev was instrumental in bringing the first Stanley Cup to New York in decades, scoring nine goals and 21 points in 23 playoff games. Kovalev would enjoy a great run in the NHL with four other teams, scoring 430 career goals and 1,029 points in 1,316 games. He retired in 2014 at age 41.
6. Alexander Mogilny
As draft bargains go, Alexander Mogilny was a diamond for the Buffalo Sabres in the 1988 draft. Not sure if he’d ever play a game, the Sabres took a flyer and drafted the uber-talented winger in the fifth round, 89th overall. He joined the Sabres in 1989 during the exodus and in his fourth season in 1992, announced his presence to the league, loudly. Mogilny would score an astounding 76 goals — most ever for a Russian born player — in just 77 games. The gifted playmaker and shooter would count 473 goals and 1,032 points in 990 games, including a 55-goal season with Vancouver in 1995-96. Among his many accomplishments, Mogilny won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2000, as well as Olympic gold in Calgary in 1988 and a world junior championship in 1989. He was a six-time all-star and Rocket Richard trophy winner for his 76-goal campaign.
5. Pavel Datsyuk
Datsyuk must be Russian for “clutch.” Not many other players in the history of the NHL have or had the knack for rising to the occasion like Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk. In 157 playoff games, the “Magic Man” has scored 42 goals and 113 points. He has also scored 314 goals and 918 points in 953 regular season games, before returning to Russia in 2016 to finish his career. And, he’s done all that scoring without sacrificing good defensive play, logging impressive plus-minus totals like the amazing +41 during the Red Wings’ 2007-08 Stanley Cup year. For that he was awarded one of his three Selke trophies as best defensive forward. A late round draft nugget (171st overall in 1998), Datsyuk put his fine touch for playoff scoring on wide display that year, too, scoring 10 goals and 23 points in 22 games. He was an elite level playmaker, for sure, having collected 60 or more assists in three straight seasons from 2006-07 to 2008-09.
4. Ilya Kovalchuk
Kovalchuk, unlike other Russian players, has done a reverse exodus, taking his considerable game back to Russia in 2013. Before packing his bags for St. Petersburg, though, Kovalchuk electrified NHL rinks, starting with Atlanta after being drafted first overall in 2001-02. If not for the fact he never won a Stanley Cup or Olympic gold medal, he would appear higher on this list. But, he is fourth, for good reason. He made the NHL all-rookie team his first year out of the gate, and by his fourth year in the league with the Thrashers he scored 52 goals and repeated the feat in 2007-08. Curiously, he tied with two others with 41 goals in 2003-04 to win his only Rocket Richard trophy. Despite the lack of playoff success, Kovalchuk had an outstanding post-season with New Jersey in 2011-12, scoring a league high eight goals and adding 11 assists in 23 games. He finished his NHL career with 816 points in 816 games.
3. Pavel Bure
One could argue, ad nauseam, that Pavel Bure was the best Russian hockey player, hands down. The Russian Rocket wasn’t called that for nothing, using his considerable speed and hands to burn many an NHL defenceman and goaltender in his all-too-brief injury-shortened 12-year career. Yet, he would score 60 goals in a season, twice with the Vancouver Canucks and over 50 goals on three other occasions (once with Vancouver and twice with Florida) before injuries forced him out in 2002-03. Drafted 113th overall in 1989, Bure scored an amazing 437 goals in 702 games and added antoerh 35 goals (70 points) in 64 playoff games. In his illustrious career, which resulted in a Hall of Fame induction in 2012, Bure won a Calder as top rookie, two Rocket Richard trophies, a world junior gold, and a first all-star team selection.
2. Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, Tie
Drafted No. 1 (Ovechkin) and No. 2 (Malkin) overall in 2004, we had to have a tie between these two dynamic Russian forwards. There really is little to chose from, statistically speaking, to separate them. In Ovie’s favor is the fact he is the all-time Russian leading goal scorer in the NHL, after scoring his 484th marker. In Malkin’s favor is the fact he won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 2009 and 2016 and has enjoyed great playoff success, scoring 48 goals and 129 points in 124 games (Ovie has 41 goals and 82 points in 84 post-season starts, but hasn’t managed to get his name on the Cup). The genial Russians are both danglers of renown, scoring ridiculous goals at full speed that others couldn’t duplicate at half speed. For the record, Ovechkin now has 1032 points in 914 games and Malkin has 832 points in 706 games.
1. Sergei Fedorov
For our money, Sergei Fedorov is the best Russian to have ever competed in the National Hockey League, bar none. Why? Consider he was the first European trained player to win a Hart Memorial Trophy (1993-94) and was also Steve Yzerman’s wing man on three Stanley Cup winning teams. Alex Ovechkin has won three Harts (and Evgeni Malkin one), but his longevity (1,248 games), defensively astute playing style (two Selke trophies) and post-season play (176 points in 183 games) make him the best Russian, for now. In addition to all that, he won gold with the super 1989 Russian junior team, and three world championships. The topper on it all is that he just became a venerated member of the Hockey Hall of Fame this year. A truly great one, Fedorov.