top of page
  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

The start of the Soviet Era in the NHL

The dissolution of the Soviet Union took place during the late 1980s and early 1990s. With this geopolitical shift, many of the greatest Soviet hockey stars of the international scene who had previously been shut out from the NHL were able to make their North American pro debuts. It's hard to believe there was a time when Russian players weren't in the NHL, given that in 2020-21 there were 52 active Russian-borne NHL players. During the 1989-90 and 90-91 seasons, eight different Soviet players made their debuts. However, two other Soviet players made their debuts prior, Victor Nechayev in 1982-93 and Sergei Pryakhin in1988-89.

Many of these players were into their early 30s by the time they came to North America, and their stays can be grouped into two categories. Players who stayed for a year or two and then returned to the Soviet Union/Russia, and those who adapted to the NHL-style of play and stayed for several seasons.

Shorter stays:

  • Viktor Nechayev. The first Soviet player to play in the NHL, the centre played three games at the age of 28 with Los Angeles in the 1982-83 season, one year after being drafted. He played three games, scoring one goal, spending time in the AHL and IHL before returning to Europe and playing in Germany.

  • Sergei Mylnikov. The first Soviet goalie made his debut in 1989-90 at age 31 with Quebec. He appeared in 10 games, winning one and posting a 4.97 goals against. He would return to play in the Soviet Union for a few years after his one NHL season.

  • Sergei Starikov. A defenceman, he played 16 games with the Devils in the 1989-90 season as a 31 year old. He would record one assist during his NHL time, spending the next three seasons in the AHL.

  • Vladimir Krutov. A member of the famed KLM with Sergei Makarov and Igor Larionov, Krutov debuted in the 1989-90 season with Vancouver at age 29. He would play 61 games, recording 34 points. Rumours of his lack dedication to the game and physical training, as well as alcoholism led to his stay in the NHL being a short one. He would go on to play six more seasons of pro hockey in Switzerland and Sweden.

  • Sergei Pryakhin. The second Soviet-born NHLer (and the first to officially be allowed to play by the Soviet government), he made his debut in 1988-89 with Calgary at age 25. The right winger would play 46 games between 1988-91 with the Flames, scoring 11 points.. After his three seasons in the NHL he would play throughout Europe, including one season in Japan, retiring in 2000.

  • Sergei Kharin. Made his debut in 1990-91 with Winnipeg at age 27. He would play seven games, scoring five points. Kharin would play in the minors in North America until 2000.

Long haulers:

  • Slava Fetisov. Originally drafted in 1978 by Montreal, Fetisov would make his NHL debut in 1989-90 with New Jersey at age 31. He would play nine seasons in the NHL with the Devils and Red Wings, winning two Stanley Cups and being part of the famous Russian Five in Detroit.

  • Sergei Makarov. Another member of the KLM line, Makarov debuted in 1989-90 with Calgary at age 31. He would win the Calder Trophy, thereby causing a rule change allowing only players 26 years of age or younger to win. He would go on to play seven NHL seasons split between Calgary, San Jose and Dallas.

  • Igor Larionov. The Professor and third member of the KLM line, Larionov debuted at age 29 during the 1989-90 season with Vancouver. He would play 14 NHL seasons with Vancouver, San Jose, Detroit, Florida and New Jersey, winning three Stanley Cups.

  • Alexei Gusarov. The defenceman would make his NHL debut with Quebec during the 1990-91 season at age 26. He would play 11 NHL seasons split between Quebec/Colorado, New York Rangers and St. Louis, winning a Cup with Colorado in 1996.

Card 184 - Paul Cavallini

A defenceman, Cavallini was drafted 205th overall by Washington in 1984. He would spend one year at Providence College and then 1985-86 with the Canadian National Team before turning pro. One-and-a-half seasons in the AHL would come before Cavallini made his pro debut, playing 30 games with the Caps from 1986-88. During his true rookie season Paul would be traded to St. Louis for a second round pick, uniting with his older brother Gino, playing in 72 games and scoring 16 points.

Cavallini would play six seasons for the Blues, scoring a career high 47 points in 1989-90, leading the NHL with a +38 rating and playing in the All-Star game. In what was his best season numerically Paul would also earn All-Star Team and Norris Trophy votes. 1990-91 and 1991-92 would bring back-to-back 10 goal seasons.

Early in the 1992-93 season Cavallini would be traded back to Washington for Kelly Miller. He would play the remainder of the season with the Capitals before being traded in the summer of 1993 to Dallas for future considerations that would turn into Enrico Ciccone. In his first season with Dallas, Cavallini would score a career-high 11 goals and 44 points. He would last three seasons in Dallas, retiring in November 1996 after playing eight games during the 96-97 season.

In a 10-year career Cavallini appeared in 564 games, scoring 56 goals and 233 points and recording a +116 career plus/minus rating. From 2014 to 2017 he coached midget hockey in the St. Louis and Michigan areas.

YouTube clip: Cavallini scored the first ever playoff overtime goal for the Dallas Stars franchise, scoring in Game 3 of the 1994 Western Conference semi-finals. He would score nine points in nine playoff games that season, finishing tied for second in team playoff scoring.

Card 185 - Alexei Kasatonov

First, let's appreciate the front of Kasatonov's card - I think it's a trick of perspective, but it looks like he is a micro-second away from getting hit in the face with the puck. Talk about timing!

Drafted 225th overall by New Jersey in 1983, the Soviet defenceman was a star on the international scene and in his home country. Kasatonov had played for CSKA Moscow since the age of 19 and represented the Soviet Union at top international tournaments throughout the 1980s, winning two Olympic gold medals and five world hockey championships.

He would make his NHL debut in 1989-90 at the tender age of 30, scoring six goals and 21 points with the Devils. The following two seasons would be his best statistical seasons in the NHL, scoring a career-high 12 goals in 1991-92 and 41 points in 1990-91.

After four seasons in New Jersey, Kasatonov was left unprotected in the 1993 expansion draft and was scooped by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. He would play 55 games for the Ducks in their inaugural season, scoring four goals and 22 points; he would also be the Ducks’ representative at the 1994 all-star game. In March of that season he would be traded to St. Louis for a draft pick and prospect Maxim Bets.

Kasatonov would last eight regular season games with the Blues before signing as a free agent with Boston for the 1994-95 season. He would play the lockout shortened season and 19 games in the 1995-96 season with the Bruins, spending some time in the AHL as well. Those would prove to be his final NHL games, as for 1996-97 he would head back to Russia for one final season before retiring.

Over seven NHL seasons Kasatonov played in 383 games scoring 38 goals and 122 points. Internationally, Kasatonov would win ten gold, two silver and three bronze medals across various international competitions and was named to the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2008-09.

Since retiring, Kasatonov has served as the general manager of Russia’s international men’s team (1997-2000 and 2011-2014) and was the GM for SKA St. Petersburg from 2011-14.

YouTube clip: scoring his last career playoff goal for Blues in Game 3 of Western Conference Semi-Finals. And yes, this is the same game in which Paul Cavallini, listed above, scored the OT winner. Small world eh?

Card 186 - Kevin Lowe

A defenceman, Lowe was the Oilers’ first ever NHL draft pick, taken 21st overall in 1979. He was fresh off his third season in Quebec in the QMJHL, having scored 86 points in 68 games.

Lowe would make his NHL debut in 1979-80, playing in 64 games, scoring two goals and 21 points. The following season he would score a career-high 10 goals, and from 1981-1984 would record 40+ points per season. As the defensive specialist on the Oilers blueline, he would win five Stanley Cups during their dynasty years, finish fifth in Norris Trophy voting in 1988 and win the King Clancy Trophy in 1990. From 1980 to 1991 Lowe showed remarkable durability, playing in 70+ games each season.

After 13 seasons with the Oilers, Lowe would be traded to the New York Rangers in December 1992 for Roman Oksiuta and a third round pick. He would play four seasons on Broadway, winning a sixth Cup in 1994 with former Oilers teammates Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Esa Tikkanen, Jeff Beukeboom and Craig MacTavish.

For the 1996-97 season he would re-sign with the Oilers as a free agent, playing two more seasons in Edmonton before retiring seven games into the 1997-98 season due to an inner-ear virus.

In 19 NHL seasons Lowe played in 1254 games, scoring 84 goals and 431 points and played in seven all-star games (1984-86, 1988-90 and 1993). Lowe was assistant captain with the Oilers from 1986 to 1991 and captain during the 1991-92 season. He owns the franchise record for most games played by an Oiler and 22 years after retiring he was inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2020.

In his retirement Lowe has had many different roles in the Oilers’ front office including assistant coach (98-99), head coach (99-00), general manager (00-07), executive vice-president of hockey operations (00-08) and finally president of hockey operations (08-15). During this time he was also the assistant general manager for Team Canada for the 2002 & 2014 Winter Olympics and 2004 World Cup, as well as general manager for the 2012 World Cup.

YouTube clip: scoring the first goal in Oilers' franchise history on October 10, 1979.

Card 187 - Gino Cavallini

The left winger was signed as a free agent by Calgary in 1984 after winning an NCAA title at Bowling Green.

Cavallini would split his 1984-85 rookie pro season between Moncton and Calgary, playing in 27 NHL games, scoring six goals and 16 points. In February 1986 he would be traded to St. Louis as part of a six-player deal that landed the Flames Joe Mullen.

In his first season with the Blues the squad would make the Campbell Conference Finals, losing to his former team Calgary in seven games. Cavallini scored four goals and eight points during the '86 playoffs.

In 1986-87 he would score a career-high 18 goals and 44 points, following up the next three seasons with 15 goals each year. After seven seasons with the Blues, Cavallini would be claimed off waivers by Quebec late in the 1991-92 season. He would go on to play 85 games for the Nordiques between 1991 and 1993.

From 1993 to 1996 Cavallini would play in the IHL with Milwaukee, recording seasons of 43, 53 and 53 goals, captaining the Admirals in his final two seasons. For the 1996-97 season he would head across the pond to Europe, playing the next five seasons split between Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, winning an Austrian league title in 1999. Cavallini would retire from pro hockey after the 2000-01 season.

In nine NHL seasons Cavallini played in 593 games, scoring 114 goals and 273 points. In 2013 he began coaching elite youth hockey with the Chicago Mission program, where he still works today.

YouTube clip: scoring the game winning goal for Bowling Green to win the 1984 NCAA title

Card 188 - Doug Gilmour

A centre, Gilmour was drafted 134th overall by St. Louis in the 1982 draft. The year after he was drafted he scored 70 goals and 177 points for Cornwall, although there were concerns that his relatively small size (5’11”) would hinder his game in the pros.

In his rookie season (1983-84), he scored 25 goals and 53 points, showing signs of his scoring touch from juniors. Gilmour’s scoring would remain consistent over the next two seasons, and he would be recognized for his all-around game earning some Selke Trophy votes. The 1985-86 playoffs was where Gilmour broke out offensively, scoring 21 points as the Blues made it to within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Carrying over from the playoffs, Gilmour scored a career-high 42 goals in 1986-87, to go with 105 points. He would also finish fifth in Hart Trophy voting and sixth in Selke voting. After five seasons with St. Louis, Gilmour was sent to Calgary just prior to the 1988-89 season in a seven-player swap.

In his first season in Calgary Gilmour would win the Stanley Cup, scoring 22 points in 22 playoff games. In his three full seasons in Calgary, he would score 20+ goals and 80+ points each season.

Halfway through the 1991-92 season he was traded to Toronto in a historic 10-player swap that would change the two franchises fortunes forever. Gilmour would score 26 goals and 87 points that season, earning Hart and Selke votes once again. The next two seasons would be Gilmour’s best in his career: in 1992-93 he put up a 32-95-127 scoring line, finishing second in Hart voting and winning the Selke Trophy. In 1993-94 he would post a 27-84-111 scoring line, finishing fourth in Hart voting and runner up for the Selke. Both seasons would see the Leafs make the Campbell Conference Finals, with Gilmour recording a league-high 25 playoff assists and +16 rating in 1992-93 and 28 points in 18 playoff game in 1993-94.

Late in the 1996-97 season Gilmour would be traded to New Jersey with Dave Ellett for Jason Smith, Steve Sullivan and Alyn McCauley. He would finish that season and play one more for the Devils before signing with Chicago as a free agent for the 1998-99 season.

In March 2000 he would be traded to Buffalo with JP Dumont for Michal Grosek. In his split season between the Hawks and Sabres, Gilmour would score 25 goals, the 14th and final time he would crack the 20-goal barrier. 2001-02 would see Gilmour sign with Montreal, playing parts of two seasons with the Habs before a late season trade back to Toronto in 2003. Sadly, Gilmour would blow out his knee in his first game back with the Leafs, which would prove to be his final pro hockey game.

Over 20 NHL seasons, Gilmour played in 1474 games, scoring 450 goals and 1414 points (19th all-time); he also ranks 14th all-time in assists with 964. Surprisingly Gilmour played in only two all-star games (93 & 94), but the totality of his career was recognized with his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011.

From 2006-2008 Gilmour was a senior advisor with the Leafs, and spent a season in 08-09 as an assistant coach with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL. He left the Marlies to take over as the head coach of his hometown Kingston Frontenacs, holding the position until 2011 when he was promoted to general manager. In 2017 he was promoted to president of hockey operations, a position he still holds to this day.

YouTube clip: a three-minute segment from Rock em Sock em 5 (1993): It's fun to note that most of his highlighted hits are now illegal (launching, clipping), and Cherry only mentions the straight stick 3 times!

4 views0 comments


bottom of page