No one in Canada knew just how good the Soviets were at hockey until we were stunned by their skill and their speed at the 1972 Summit Series. Canadians watched in open-mouthed dismay as the crafty Russians skated circles around our boys on our home soil. Our team may have come into the series brimming with cocky self-assurance, but by the midway point of the series our team, and we as a nation, had been thoroughly disabused of the notion that beating the Soviets was going to be a walk in the park. We had gained a new-found respect for this utterly foreign team with their utterly foreign style. Respect, and more than a little hatred. Our Canadian team woke up, and dug down to find every ounce of pride, determination and ability they could muster. In the end they came back to win the series, but only by the barest of margins, and it took everything our team had to get it done. This series was the birth of one of the greatest rivalries in international sport, and our humbling introduction to just how good these Russian players were. No Russians were allowed to play in the NHL back then, but since the fall of the Soviet Union they have been arriving on our shores in droves, and the NHL has been made far richer by this immigration of talented hockey players, and though none can rival Gretzky and Orr, they’ve produced some great superstars over the years. Here is my list of the top 10 Russian hockey players of all time:
10 – Pavel Datsyuk
Take a poll of current NHL players and ask them who they think is the most skilled player in the game today, and you’ll hear the name Datsyuk over and over again. Yes, Pavel Datsyuk is possessed of some insanely sick mitts and he puts that skill on display on a nightly basis with the Detroit Red Wings, routinely showing up on the highlight reel. However, it isn’t just his offensive prowess that landed Datsyuk on this list. He is also one of the game’s best defensive players, and his three Selke Trophies prove just how good he is on the other side of the puck. If he can keep injuries at bay in the twilight years of his career look for this slick Russian to move up a few more spots up this list.
9 – Igor Larionov
Igor Larionov had already had a full career in Moscow, and as an international superstar before even joining the NHL, but this super smart two-way hockey player still managed to play more than 900 games in the NHL, racking up 644 points in the process. This prolific passer was a member of the dreaded K-L-M during his hockey playing days in the Soviet Union, a line that is generally regarded as one of the best in hockey history, and one that gave Canada fits on more than one occasion in international competition. Larionov came to the NHL with fellow countryman and linemate, Vladimir Krutov, but after Krutov quickly washed out, Larionov went on to a brilliant NHL career without his wingman, spending time with Vancouver and San Jose, before eventually going to Detroit, where he would be an instrumental piece in helping the Wings to 3 Stanley Cups.
8 – Viacheslav Fetisov
This imposing blueliner was the heart of the Soviet team for many years, and while players like Makarov and Larionov were providing the flash, he was quietly the most dominant player on the team. He is one of the most successful international players of all time, winning 2 Olympic and 7 World Championship gold medals as the captain of the Soviet team. He added a pair of Stanley Cups to his resume as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, where he was reunited with longtime international teammate, Igor Larionov.
7 – Sergei Makarov
The most talented member of the K-L-M line, Makarov was a nearly unstoppable force against Canada in the 1987 Canada Cup finals. His speed, shiftiness, and eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head passing ability gave opposing defenders fits, and though he had lost a little bit of his step when he arrived in the NHL, he still had enough left in the tank to walk away with the Calder trophy as rookie of the year (at age 31, the oldest player to ever do so) in his inaugural campaign. He only played 6 full seasons in the NHL, but managed to average nearly a point a game in the low-scoring NHL of the 90s. One is forced to wonder just what kind of numbers he would have put up had he been playing in the NHL in his prime, during the free-wheeling 80s. His incredible talent makes his inclusion in the list of the top 10 Russian hockey players of all time a no-brainer.
6 – Pavel Bure
The Russian Rocket is without question one of the most electrifying hockey players to ever strap on skates. Few players in the history of the game have been able to stick-handle like Bure could while rocketing full speed up the ice. From his first game as a member of the Vancouver Canucks he was an instant sensation, and though he didn’t score, several highlight reel moves served notice that this player was going to be a force to be reckoned with in the NHL. He wound up potting 34 goals in just 65 years in that rookie season, could enough to net him the Calder trophy, but the Russian Rocket was just counting down to launch. His next 2 seasons he burned opposing defenders and goaltenders alike, netting 60 goals in each year. Knee injuries kept him from realizing his full potential, but he still went on to record three more 50+ goal seasons, and when his bad knees forced him to retire after just 702 games he had bulged the twine 437 times, an incredible .623 goal per game ratio.
5 – Boris Mikhailov
Mikhailov is one of the few players on this list that did not play a game in the NHL, but his international play is enough to earn him the number 5 spot on the list of the greatest Russian hockey players of all time. Before the K-L-M long started tearing up the ice in international competition there was the equally dreaded K-P-M line, consisting of Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Vladimir Petrov. He played on the Soviet National team for 14 seasons, most of those years serving as the team’s captain. He scored a record 427 goals in just 572 during league play, and chipped in more than 200 more goals in international competition. Though many in North America did not get to see much of this great sniper, his numbers prove he is one of Russia’s hockey greats.
4 – Alexander Ovechkin
Only halfway into his NHL career and already this guy already merits the number 4 spot on this top 10 list. Few who have seen him play could argue the point. This explosive, passionate sniper has already proven himself to be one of the best power forwards the game has ever seen. Not only does he score goals, he can skate, stick-handle, and physically punish his opponents with devastating bodychecks. In his rookie year he scored 52 goals, and 106 points, beating out superstar peer, Sidney Crosby for the Calder Trophy. His second year he netted another 48 goals, giving him an even 100. Then, in his third year, he really hit his stride, turning on the red light 65 times on his way to capturing the Rocket Richard trophy, the Art Ross trophy, and the Hart trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Now, having just turned 29 he already has well over 400 goals and 800 points. No, he doesn’t have a Stanley Cup (yet) but with three Hart Trophies it is hard to deny his spot on this list.
3 – Valeri Kharlamov
The most talented member for the K-P-M line, Kharlamov was a magician on the ice. He was such an offensive threat that Canada could not seem to contain him during the 1972 Summit Series, prompting Bobby Clarke’s infamous slash that broke Kharlamov’s ankle, and as hard as it is for this Canadian to admit, might be the reason Canada came back to beat the Russians. He won an amazing 8 World Championship gold medals and 2 Olympic gold medals during his playing days, and despite never playing in the NHL he was inducted posthumously into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005. Sadly his playing days were cut short when he was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 33.
2 – Sergei Fedorov
One of the best two-way forwards of any nationality to ever play in the NHL. This smooth-skating, slick-passing, sharp-shooting forward was a star in his junior days, and didn’t miss a beat when he defected from Russia to join the NHL in 1990. He averaged more than a point a game in his rookie season, and impressed media, fans, and coaches alike with both his offensive flair and his defensive responsibility. He went on to help Detroit win 3 Stanley Cups during his playing days there, earning 2 Selke trophies as the league’s best defensive forward and a Hart trophy as the league’s most valuable player along the way. He amassed 1,179 points in his NHL career, and was an important mentor for a young Alex Ovechkin in the twilight of his career.
1 – Vladislav Tretiak
When compiling my list of the top 10 Russian hockey players of all time, I really only had to concentrate on filling the 2 through 9 slots. Even Ovechkin will have his work cut out for him if he wants to overtake this guy in the hearts and minds of Russian hockey fans. A national hero, Tretiak is without a question the most well-known, well-respected player who never played an NHL game. His performance in goal at the 1972 Summit series against the NHL’s deadliest snipers goes down in history as one of the best goaltending displays of all time, and he was just getting started. He tended the nets for the Soviets until 1984, backstopping them to 10 World Hockey Championships, 2 Olympic Gold Medals and a Canada Cup. He was only 34 when he retired, young for a goaltender of his caliber. It’s a shame he never got to suit up in the NHL. Oh, what might have been.
Featured image by Dan4th