They hated him. He understood why the men in the other uniforms, the ones who slashed him and elbowed him and finished their checks head-high, acted the way they did, but his teammates? They wore the same jersey and shared the same goals he did, but during the dreary 1989-90 season, Slava Fetisov thought that if he were to have a heart attack in the dressing room, some of his New Jersey Devils teammates would be as likely to call for takeout as they would an ambulance. Fetisov, a man who skated backward all his life but never retreated, would slink home after practice, awash in self-pity and self-doubt, wondering why he even bothered trying to fit in. Fetisov was the most celebrated defenseman since Bobby Orr. He had won Olympic gold medals, world championships, a Canada Cup. He was 31 years old and finally free to play anywhere he wanted. He also was weary. He'd assumed the battle to control his own destiny was over when, in May 1989, the Soviet hockey federation told him he could leave the U.S.S.R. to play in North America. Fetisov, one of eight Soviet players to arrive in the NHL 10 seasons ago, never imagined he'd have to fight through the loathing and mistrust of NHL players scared red.
"A lot of guys, mostly older players and a few fringe guys who felt their jobs were in jeopardy, were really anti-Russian," says Brendan Shanahan, a teammate of Fetisov's with the Devils that season and later with the Detroit Red Wings. "It wasn't overt. When a teammate makes a mistake, you want to cover for him, support him, but you had the sense that some guys wanted to see Slava fail. You had to be a real jerk not to like him, because he was a real gentleman and so gregarious, but think about the context. Slava came over in 1989. [The Soviet invasion of] Afghanistan was not all that long before. Growing up in Canada and the United States, we'd been taught that Russians were the enemy. The 1980 U.S.-U.S.S.R Olympic hockey game was more than a game, right? In the 1987 world juniors the Canadians had a bench-clearing brawl with the Soviets. We couldn't understand them; they couldn't understand us. Now they were coming here and taking our jobs in our league?
"That's why I have so much respect for Slava. If he'd fought every guy who threw an extra elbow at him that year, he would've been fighting every shift. For Russians, he was the Jackie Robinson of hockey. He opened doors. He took all the cheap shots and played with a smile on his face."
The past is dead. Today the treatment Fetisov, now a New Jersey assistant coach, received from teammates when he arrived seems as if it occurred sometime before the Paleozoic Era. There are now about 65 players from the former Soviet Union—Russians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Lithuanians and a Kazakh—in the NHL. They occupy about 10% of the league's roster slots. They include the most thrilling performer ( Florida Panthers right wing Pavel Bure), the most venerable ( Detroit's 39-year-old center, Igor Larionov), the most daring ( Colorado Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh) and the most pugnacious ( Pittsburgh Penguins defense-man Darius Kasparaitis). Every team in the NHL except the Phoenix Coyotes and the St. Louis Blues has at least one player from the former U.S.S.R. In the last decade ex-Soviets have been named league MVP ( Sergei Fedorov of the Red Wings, in 1994) and won Stanley Cups. They've been captains. They've been stars, role players, goons. They dump the puck and chase it. They have contract disputes. They have been accepted. "The stereotypes have been broken," Penguins coach Herb Brooks says. "It might have been easier to put a man on the moon than to change NHL thinking, but it happened."
On Feb. 6 in Toronto the NHL played an All-Star Game that for the third straight year matched North American stars against World stars. Among the 25 World All-Stars were five Russians and Ozolinsh, a Latvian. The revolution is over. Hockey won.
The NHL game in 2000 is a rich stew: a dash of crisscrossing, a pinch of digging along the boards and a sprinkling of dump-and-chase. The ingredients have been simmering for more than a quarter of a century, and if the former Soviet players were the last to follow American collegians and Swedes and Finns and Czechs and Slovaks into the pot, they were also the impetus for the arrival of those other Europeans. The Soviets lit the fire in the 1972 Summit Series against Canada, when the supposedly outclassed U.S.S.R. stunningly beat the Canadians in three out of eight games. "They were the trigger," says Toronto Maple Leafs president Ken Dryden, a goalie in that series. "In the years after that series, we were measuring ourselves against them."
If the NHL seems a duller place than it did 10 years ago, don't blame the Russians. The successors to Fetisov and Larionov—Bure, Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny of the Vancouver Canucks—are bold spices in the NHL kitchen and have perhaps even forestalled the dead-puck era by a few years with their offensive gifts. "Fedorov, Bure, [ Ottawa Senators holdout center Alexei] Yashin, [ Chicago Blackhawks center Alex] Zhamnov—these guys have style," Larionov says. "Skating, stickhandling, vision, unpredictable moves. That's what Russians gave this game."
They also helped give the NHL enough talented players to expand from 21 teams in 1979-80 to the 30 that will skate next season. "At first Russians were cheap labor," says NHL vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy. "You could pay them $200,000 a year, and they'd be delighted"—hardly shocking considering that Larionov made $200 a month before the Soviet hockey federation freed him to come to North America.
The price of today's Russians has jumped considerably, because they have come to see that their services in a talent-starved league are invaluable. "There's a direct correlation between expansion and the influx of Russians," New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith says. "You could field three teams with those players if you wanted to."
The question was, Who wanted to? In the early 1990s the Mogilny-led second wave was arriving, and the paranoia that New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello contends was being perpetuated by owners and general managers had begun to subside. Still, many NHL higher-ups were reluctant to entrust a Stanley Cup quest to players who had been reared on Olympic medals. "The guy I remember most from that era was [ Winnipeg Jets general manager] Mike Smith," says Neil Smith, who's no relation. "Basically he told everybody to get bent. His answer to 'How many Russians can you have?' was 'Twenty, if they're your best players.' "