You know those moments throughout time that are a big deal? We’re talking about the moments that are in history books—the moments that people look back and say, “This is where everything changed.” It’s the “this is what started it all” moment.
We never know that moment when we’re in the middle of it. Usually it just seems like another story that pops up; it’s only after a few years of perspective that we can truly look back and realize how important it was. We’re starting to get to that point with a hockey transaction that happened a few years ago. When the deal went down, it was a big story—but like anything else it faded away when the next big story grabbed our attention. But looking back, the moment when Alexander Radulov decided take his talents to Russia might have been one of the biggest hockey culture changing moments of the last decade.
It changed the landscape. And whether we know it or not, we’ve been living in a different world ever since.
Since Radulov left for the KHL, we’ve had a new term introduced into our hockey lexicon: The Russian Factor. No longer was a Russian player drafted solely for their merits on the ice. Now, they would be measured against a different standard. Are they talented? That question was just as important as another: Are they committed to playing in the NHL? Some might think it’s a silly question to ask a prospect who wants to play in the best league in the world—but answer that question wrong and a player will have a helluva time trying to find someone willing to take a chance on him.
It didn’t used to be this way.
After Alexander Mogilny started the string of Soviet defections in 1989, the talent seemed to be freely flowing towards the money and prestige of the NHL. When the Iron Curtain fell, the floodgates opened and NHL teams were acquiring Russians as quickly as they could draft them. Even as recently as 2004 when Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were drafted #1 and #2, the focus for Russian players was more on their skill level than their commitment to play in North America.
The situation got a little murkier with the creation of Alexander Medvedev’s Kontinential Hockey League, its hundreds of millions of dollars in oil money, and the lack of an IIHF transfer agreement with the NHL. For years, NHL teams would poach players from the Russian Super League with no pause or remorse for their Russian contracts. But then again, the players were only flowing one-way, so there was no reason for concern. The perception was the only players who went to the KHL after the lockout were aging European veterans who wanted to stay closer to home with one last big payday. Enter Alexander Radulov.
Here’s a quick recap of his exodus from Nashville in the summer of 2008:
“Radulov signed a three-year contract with Salavat Yulaev Ufa on July 11, one day after the NHL and all international hockey leagues under the aegis of the International Ice Hockey Federation agreed that every league would honor existing contracts. Radulov had one year remaining on his Nashville deal. Nashville, the NHL, and the IIHF all released statements that Radulov’s signing with Salavat Yulaev Ufa was a violation of the agreement and that Radulov was obligated to play one more season in Nashville. The KHL countered that Radulov actually inked the deal on July 5, five days before the new agreement was signed.” –Evan Weiner (New York Sun)
Mention his name to any hockey fan in Nashville and you’re liable to hear a few words that could make your kid use the earmuffs. Some fans think he circumvented the system, some think he was a greedy player who only chased money, and some people took it as a slap in the face that he didn’t want to play for the Predators.
If he had gone back to Russia at the end of his 3-year entry level contract, there may have been some hurt feelings, but it would have been a little more palatable. It would have shown that he had respect for the process, employers, and fans to honor the commitment he made—and then he chose to go home. Kids do that. He would have been 23-years-old when his first contract ended and I understand how difficult it would be to be that young and live on the other side of the globe from my family. But that’s not how it went down.
“Radulov had already told the Predators he preferred to play at home, which was a contributing factor in his decision, Grossman said. But the money Ufa offered him was a much bigger factor.” –Jay Grossman (via The Hockey News)
Instead, he chose to leave his NHL team IN THE MIDDLE OF HIS CONTRACT. He chose to leave the team that invested a 1st round pick on him. He chose to leave just as he was showing potential to fill that top-flight scoring winger role that Nashville is perpetually looking for. And he’s the ONLY player to do so.
Even though he said it was to go home, it certainly looked like money played a huge factor. The KHL deal was a 3-year contract worth $13 million. If you take into account that the money is virtually tax-free, it’s actually worth the US equivalent of almost $18 million. What was Thomas Wolfe thinking when he said, “You never can go home?” Radulov had 13 million reasons to go home!
But his longest legacy looks like it’s going to be the “The Russian Factor.” It’s a new term that is something all hockey fans hear around draft time. Basically, it’s to say, “Well he’s worthy of being draft in Spot A, but since he’s Russian and we’re afraid of him pulling a Radulov, we can’t justify drafting him above Spot B.”
Take a look at the 3 best Russian prospects in the recent 2010 NHL Draft in Los Angeles. The top 3 represented the top of the best Russian class in years—and there were questions as to where teams would select them. Any team picking at the top of the draft that would be associated with the prospects would be forced to answer questions about signability and doubts from outsiders wondering if they would be in for another Radulov situation. All 3 went in the 1st round, but there’s no doubt they would have gone earlier if their last name was Swedish instead of Russian.
Alexander Burmistrov was the first Russian selected when he went to Atlanta with the #8 pick. A guy who patterns his game after Pavel Datsyuk, he was impressive with the Barrie Colts of the OHL last season. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the first Russian player taken was also the guy who showed the commitment to start his North American career a year BEFORE he was drafted?
“I really wanted to play in OHL and Canada. It’s my dream to play NHL. My father played before hockey and told me, it’s okay, you want play NHL, you go play hockey in Canada.” –Alexander Burmistrov (NHL.com)
Vladimir Tarasenko was picked at #16 when St. Louis traded up to select him. This is a guy who has actually been compared to Ovechkin and Malkin, so we’re talking about elite skill here. He’s been playing in the KHL for 2 years already and impressed everyone at the NHL combine with his physique.
To recap, he’s a physically mature, highly skilled athlete who is already playing in the 2nd best league in the world. So how did half of the teams in the NHL pass on him? I’m going to venture that this comment from his father didn’t help matters.
“I think it’s important for my son to stay [in Russia] for awhile, gain experience and become a respected hockey player. CHL – is a junior league. In Russia he plays against men. I think it’s better even comparing to Canadian juniors. Again it’s very difficult to be abroad without any relatives or close friends. There’s got to be someone to lend a hand or advice when he needs it. Vladimir is a kind of guy that needs somebody to support him.” –Andrei Tarasenko, Vladimir’s Father (Hockey’s Future)
The last member of the Russian trifecta to go in the 1st round was Evgeny Kuznetsov. Selected #26 by the Washington Capitals, he was Central Scouting’s #3 ranked European player and 4th overall in ISS’s January report. So how can someone with so much promise fall to the end of the 1st round? Well, just looking at his skill alone would only be half of the story. He’s currently under contract for the next two seasons in Russia. That was enough to scare most of the teams off. Clearly, the Capitals aren’t afraid of drafting Russians early.
It seeps into other parts of the draft as well. When the Kings drafted Maxim Kitsyn in the 6th round, the first thing I was surprised about was that he was in attendance. Consciously or sub-consciously, I related that to feeling that he wanted to play in North America. More than anything McKeen’s or ISS could tell me, seeing him at Staples Center made me feel more comfortable with the pick than anything they could have written. All of that, and I had no idea what kind of player he was without a quick glace and some scouting notes. He was there, which made me feel like he wanted to play in the NHL, which also made me think the Kings got a good value in the 6th round. Needless to say, I don’t have the same concerns when a kid is drafted out of Sweden or Sault Ste Marie.
The way Russian prospects are perceived can be directly attributed to the circumstances around Alexander Radulov when he bolted to the KHL. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I don’t see David Poile drafting any Russians for the Predators at the top of the draft any time soon.
Looking back, Valeri Kharlamov and Vladislav Tretiak taught us how good players outside of North America could be. Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, and Vladimir Konstantinov showed us that players outside North America could be successful in the NHL. Then Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Fedorov, and Pavel Bure showed us they could superstars in the NHL.
If we’re going to add to this list, Alexander Radulov showed us that they don’t HAVE to play in the NHL.