Mike Smith is now the Blackhawks' manager of hockey operations. Even today not everyone embraces his point of view, but Smith is no longer viewed as the raving iconoclast who had the Winnipeg media grumbling about the R factor. "They thought the arrival of the Russians was an anti-Canadian conspiracy," Smith says, "and that I was the lead conspirator." Smith told reporters that they had better learn to spell the new players' names because soon every team would have four or five players from the former Soviet Union.
"Scouts were the least resistant to Russians," Mike Smith says. "The coaches, there's still a bit of reluctance. I think it straightened out pretty quickly on the player level. The transition is going to be smooth if a guy can help you on the ice, if he's a good guy, if you can have a beer with him."
If the situation of the players from the former Soviet Union seems no more remarkable than that of many immigrants, imagine 65 Americans going to play in the Russian league—new language, new culture, bigger international rinks. "I don't think people can understand what we went through: the language, the way people do things, the structure of an organization," Fedorov says. "I don't want to sound arrogant about it. We don't even talk about it ourselves. Everybody has tough times adjusting from one society to another, and it was our choice to be here."
There were milestones on the way to acceptance: the 1992 draft, in which seven former Soviet players were selected among the first 17 picks; Mogilny's 76-goal season with the Buffalo Sabres in '93 and his second-team All-Star selection that year; Fedorov's winning the Hart and the Selke trophies the following season; the Rangers' Cup victory in '94 over Bure-led Vancouver in which New York featured Alexander Karpovtsev, Alexei Kovalev, Sergei Nemchinov and Sergei Zubov, its regular-season scoring leader, and Russian names were inscribed for the first time on the NHL's ultimate calling card.
"In our business whoever wins the Cup is accepted as the benchmark," Neil Smith says. "Zubov was a significant part of it, Nemchinov was a role-playing soldier, Kovalev was an untapped talent, and Karpovtsev was a role-playing defenseman. Not only did they contribute, but they were obviously different players and different personalities. On one hand you had Nemchinov, who was almost military in presence, and you had Kovalev, who was Peter Pan. We proved you could win with Russians."
However, even as Detroit stomped to an NHL-record 62 wins in 1995-96, whispers persisted that the Wings relied too heavily on Russians. The endorsement of the Russians by the Lombardi-Auerbach-McGraw of his business, coach Scotty Bowman, who had pushed for the trades that brought Fetisov and Larionov to Detroit and then played them as a unit with Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov, was ignored. Bowman howled throughout the season that officiating was tilted against his Russian Five—NHL referees stoutly denied it—but Neil Smith insists Bowman was not indulging in his typical gamesmanship. "There is no doubt in my mind Russians were discriminated against by refs at the time," Smith says. "I really believe a guy whose name ended in ov had to absorb a lot more slashes to get a penalty called than a guy named Smith."
Not until the Red Wings won the Cup in 1997—captain Steve Yzerman first passed it to Fetisov, a gesture that oozed symbolism—did the Russians' unofficial probation end. "To see Igor and Slava, two guys who grew up in the Soviet system, embrace the Cup, that was the moment," Shanahan says. "It was over."
"Konstantinov was the key," Dryden says of the preternaturally nasty defenseman whose career ended six days after the Wings won the Cup when he was injured in a limo accident. "While Russians always have played a tough style relative to European hockey, it took somebody like Konstantinov to symbolize what the Russians always had been, and to get them over the hump in terms of the last piece of the reputation."
In 2000 the battleground for players from the former Soviet Union has shifted. Russian players have been involved in some of the most high-profile contract wars—Fedorov's 1997-98 stalemate with the Red Wings, Bure's '98 demand that the Canucks trade him, Yashin's refusal to honor his contract with the Senators this season—that have lent credence to a popular theory that Russians are high-maintenance. Yashin's walkout, his third contract dispute in six years with Ottawa, has been ripe fodder for anyone wanting to refight the Cold War.
"High-maintenance? For the most part, no," Detroit general manager Ken Holland says, "but they're very strong-willed. For them to even be here—especially Larionov and Fetisov, who fought the system, and the guys who defected—they had to be. Fedorov left Russia never knowing if he would see his family again. When it comes to negotiations, they have a strong sense of their worth. It's also part of the reason they've been successful as players."