By John Toperzer
There was a time when a Cold War separated North American hockey and the Eastern Block-led Soviet Union. From 1946, when the first Communist government was set up in Albania, until Alexander Mogilny defected from the Soviet Union in 1989, Russian hockey players rarely participated in the NHL.
Of course, that made for fascinating scenarios of international play. Who can forget the 1972 Summit Series between a victorious Canada against the Soviet Union or the 1980 “Miracle on Ice during which a group of American amateurs and collegians knocked off USSR’s professionals in the Olympic medal round?
Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena hosted a contest between the Penguins and the Soviet Red Army on Jan. 4, 1989. The Penguins won that game by the score of 4-2. The Soviet team featured the amazing line of Mogilny, Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov. (Here’s a link to a list of international games played by NHL teams.)
Since the early 1990s, European-trained players have become fixtures in the league. Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr highlighted the influx of fresh hockey talent from across the Atlantic Ocean.
But there has been a sea change of opinions and possibilities for Europeans in recent years. The Kontinental Hockey League, formerly known as the Russian Superleague, started in 2008 and has become an option for skilled Europeans — 21 of 24 teams are based in Russia.
Which leads us to the current geo-political climate. Russian-backed separatists downed a civilian aircraft in Eastern Ukraine last week, killing all 298 people on-board. President Barack Obama threatened Russia with harsh sanctions if former KGB-head Vladimir Putin doesn’t reign in the separatists.
A number of questions pop to mind.
Will President Obama really impose sanctions against Russia? Will any of these sanctions affect Russians playing in the NHL, such as Evgeni Malkin? Will Russian players feel more comfortable playing at home during a cooling off time between the super powers?
The Ukraine’s sole entry in the KHL will go on sabbatical for one season, according to the The Star.
A couple summers ago, Malkin stated that he would like to finish his career in Russia in an international article. He’s shown to be a patriot to his homeland. Few players took the Olympics’ loss harder than did Geno. Whether his pictures with Putin were more public relations in nature or heartfelt, there’s no denying he feels strongly about his homeland.
That’s not to say he doesn’t want to play against the best players in the world. Penguins fans will remember Malkin went to great lengths to come to the NHL as a rookie in a clandestine operation which involved his player agent.
Most likely, Malkin and other Russians such as Pittsburgh prospect Anton Zlobin will play in North America in the fall.
But the international situation is fluid and continues to develop and change on a daily basis. Many folks don’t want to believe that there is a new cold war between the East and the West, but there’s little denying the chasm is growing.
Links ‘n At
New Penguins coach to meet Malkin, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports.