In 1989, Soviet Red Army defenseman Slava Fetisov left his home country. He had played 13 seasons for the Red Army club, CSKA Moscow, forced into what was essentially military service (with sticks and pucks instead of guns) at age 16.
He didn't defect from the USSR -- instead, with patience and help from Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, Fetisov waited and pressured Soviet leaders until they caved.
It was the fall of hockey's Iron Curtain, and it paved the way for hundreds of Russian players to leave and play -- professionally and for millions of dollars, something the communist system never allowed -- hockey anywhere in the world. In a lot of ways, every Russian NHL player that's ever played -- from Igor Larionov to Sergei Fedorov and beyond -- owes something to Fetisov, who was the first to have enough courage to repeatedly demand his release from the Red Army.
If you've seen the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Of Miracles And Men, or if you were a diehard hockey fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, you know Fetisov's struggle well -- how coach Viktor Tikhonov was a tyrant, how he made many of his great Soviet players yearn for a the freedom to love hockey again, and how the NHL opened up those opportunities for Fetisov and so many of his countrymen.
In a March interview with NHL.com, Fetisov talked about his 1989 defection.
... my story of leaving the Soviet Union; when I left, how I left, the fight against system and I beat the system. I could run, defect, but I think it was for the people of my country, to do something for them, to use my name and what I gain from the hockey. Finally I beat the system.
I opened the gate not only for the hockey players and by extension the NHL and the 30 clubs and to improve the quality of the game at the same time, but also you know it pulled down the Iron Curtain for the rest of the world. Any Soviet can go sign a contract with the acknowledgement of the government. This is no more evil country or system.
"This is no more evil country or system." You don't need the government's permission to go to another country and take advantage of opportunities to play hockey, if you're skilled enough to be wanted overseas. Fetisov's story is a great one -- for himself, for his nation, for the sport.
And then you wake up on a Friday morning in 2015 and see this:
Slava Fetisov (who is a Senator in Russia now, BTW) proposes to forbid KHL players from joining the NHL until the age of 28.— Slava Malamud (@SlavaMalamud) May 22, 2015
KHL boss says Putin has ordered him to make hockey the most popular sport in Russia. We can only hope the body count can be held low...— Slava Malamud (@SlavaMalamud) May 22, 2015
It makes sense that Russians want their players to stay and play in the KHL, of course. The Russian economy is garbage right now, and it's reportedly been hard for some KHL teams to pay their players.
Even when they do get paid, the ruble is just not worth anywhere near what it was when most of these guys signed their contracts. Why do you think a 32-year-old defenseman who has played in Russia his whole life suddenly decides to come to play in Philadelphia, or why Aaron Palushaj takes the NHL league minimum on a two-way deal with the Flyers to leave the KHL?
The KHL would be a much better league if Vladimir Tarasenko, Sergei Bobrovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov and any other number of Russians under the age of 28 were still there. There's no doubt about that, and Russians have a sense of duty to make their national league the best it can be.
But the irony of Fetisov, now an object of the government, being the one outlining a proposal to limit the choice of its hockey players, is pretty rich. And entirely depressing, honestly.