Russians in the NHL and the Quest for the Stanley Cup - Part 1

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"Я живу в Америке [I live in America] - Russians in the NHL and the Quest for the Stanley Cup" is a thesis I wrote upon graduating from the University of Virginia in 2009. Originally assigned for a class entitled "Amerika through Russian Eyes", the purpose of the class was to examine the relationship between Soviets or Russians with the American people and culture, from the point of view of Russian writers, artists, politicians, exiles, villains and heroes. In this piece, I explore the unique avenue that ice hockey gave a handful of Soviets seeking freedom, laying the groundwork for young Russians to later come to America in search of a dream. I hope to update this feature soon, as the KHL has developed, and the state of the Russian players on the Washington Capitals has changed since 2009.


The last time I was at Verizon Center, in Washington, D.C., the entire building was shaking. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the geographic placement of Washington, D.C., it is not known for its seismic activity. Nor is Washington D.C. located in Canada or Russia, which will become relevant to you in a moment. For Verizon Center is an ice hockey rink among other things, and these days, it is home to the Washington Capitals, one of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) 30 clubs spanning Canada and the United States. I suppose that’s why I found myself down at the ‘Phonebooth’ – The Capitals, ‘The Caps’, after struggling for years, have taken the NHL by storm. And they have done so in part because of a young man by the name of Alexander. Some call him Alexander the Great, but others still call him Sasha. Alexander ‘Sasha’ Ovechkin is a 23 year old Russian, and he is taking over the American capital as quickly as he is taking over the NHL.So, yes, the building was shaking. The building was shaking because fans in the heart of Washington, D.C. are cheering for a Russian man.

But Alex, as he is called in America, isn’t the only Russian skating for the Capitals organization this season. No, he’s one of five. Alex and this years’ incarnation of the famed ‘Russian Five’ (a unit of all Russian players that first appeared in Detroit in the late 1990’s) represent a near two decades of history on ice – from who were forced to defect from the crumbling Soviet Union in order to pursue their dreams in a free America to players who chose to leave Russia and pursue careers in North America as they pleased. The NHL now represents the largest home to Russian athletes in North America, and they have been coming from the former USSR since the late 1980’s to test their skills against the greatest players in the world. Drawn to North America[1] by the lure of financial rewards, the search for freedom, the desire to be best and the hope to compete for the greatest sports trophy in the world, Soviet and Russian hockey players soon became an important part of the Western incarnation of the fastest game on ice, leaving an undeniable mark on the sport of ice hockey.

But despite the varying motivations why they may have left their homeland in favor of a life in the West, all reasons can be traced back to a long-standing Russian belief in what America represents. As a land of opportunity, America was for so many Russians, the far off place where dreams might come true. And for many athletes, like Alex, America is still the home to dreams, no matter the shape the dream make take. The life of a professional athlete in the United States is well documented in American society, and it is one of the perpetual images of America that still circulates throughout the world: the roar of the American arenas, the show of the American game-time experience, the celebrity, the fortune and fame, but above all, the notion that the American sports leagues represent the best the world had to offer. To chase after an American trophy – whether it means winning the Super Bowl, the World Series, an NBA title or a Stanley Cup – is still widely regarded as the true test of our most elite and hard-working athletes in all the world of sports today.

Sports have always served as a fitting metaphor for the competitive spirit of life. But during the tense era of the Cold War, sports took on a decidedly political color that pitted Eastern teams from the Communist Soviet Union against Western teams from a Capitalist United States.  As Michael Silk writes, sports was a “cultural shorthand delineating particular national sentiments – [and therefore] deployed as an important weapon in the armories of the United States and the Soviet Union.”[2] Athletes were celebrated as national heroes, ‘soldiers’ that would defend and glorify their country’s respective socio-political culture. It is only fitting, and poetically perfect, that Cold War tensions finally came to a head on ice in 1980 when the heavily favored Soviet national ice hockey team arrived in Lake Placid to take on a rag-tag group of American college players in a quest for Olympic gold. The Americans would actually go on to win that game, in a victory that was not only proclaimed as a “miracle”, but as a victory of ‘West over East.’
Riding the high of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” victory, mass culture in American began to embrace sports as a telling barometer in the heated competition with the increasingly militaristic Soviets. The win over the fabled Soviet team seemed to show Americans what kind of competition they valued, as well as what kinds of values were worth competing for. But this practice of sport as life, or sport as representative of life, was relatively new to the Americans. To the Soviets however, they might just have well invented it.

As a culture that has always celebrated and rewarded athletic excellence, the Soviet Union and then Russia, have long prided itself on producing generations of some of the world’s most gifted sports stars. The Olympics – both the Summer and the Winter Games – regularly served as a reminder to the rest of the world that the Soviet Union possessed the world’s most elite athletes. Track and field stars, nimble gymnasts, towering female basketball legends, and balletic skaters became heroes in Soviet society, and their victories and medals translated to lives of relative privilege while most Soviet citizens were forced to live lives of depravation.[3] But the most powerful group of sports stars in the Soviet Union was its warriors of the ice: the famous Soviet national ice hockey team. With its impressive, near unbeatable record in international competition, the hockey team was the pride of the Soviet sports system. Famous for their deep, Soviet red jerseys, emblazoned with the letters CCCP, Soviet hockey players inspired both fear and awe as they tore across international ice sheets with unmatched speed and finesse. Stacked with a roster engineered from the ranks of the USSR’s best team, Red Army (technically a branch of the Soviet military), these athletes were real soldiers who did their military service on the ice; yet they were not trained to slay foreign enemies. These soldiers were trained to slay opposing goalies.

  The Soviet team was about winning and winning alone, and between the 1950’s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviets had won seven Olympic titles and twenty-one world championships. By the early 1980’s, with a near three million youngsters lacing up the skates, hockey was the country’s most popular sport.[4] Moreover, the winning ways of the feared Soviet team had come to be closely identified with Soviet power, and even the Russian character. Alexander Kozhin, a small town coach in Voskresensk, even years after the fall of the Soviet Union, still sees this game on ice as forever linked with his country. Speaking to Sports Illustrated writer Allen Abel, he said “but hockey is so close to the Russian character – so close to our soul.”[5] But Russian hockey had not always been the fearful force that it represented in the 1970’s and 80’s. No, it was the expert engineering of essentially one man that revolutionized Russian hockey, ensuring success at any cost, and therefore cementing the close link between the classically complex Russian soul and the game of hockey. His name was Victor Tikhonov.

Read Part 2. 


[1] For the purposes of this paper, North America – while it includes Canada – is largely meant to signify the United States, the values of the United States and the lifestyle of the United States (however I recognize fully that Canada and the United States are separate and different nations). Although Canada and Canadian teams represent a unique and important part of the NHL and the tradition of ice hockey world-wide, Canada will be considered part of the Western world and values attributed to America and the United States, unless otherwise noted.

[2] Michael Silk, Bryan Bracey and Mark Falcous. “Performing America’s Past.” East Plays West: Sport    and the Cold War. Routledge: Oxford, 2007. 292.

[3] Jeff Merron. “Russians Regroup on the Other Side of the Red Line.” ESPN.com, Winter 2002.

[4] Merron. 

[5] Allen Abel. “Escaping Hockey’s Gulag.” Sports Illustrated. April, 20 1998.

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