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Viktors Hatuļevs: The Flyer that never was

He was the first Soviet draft pick in an era of political tension

Viktor Khulatev (THN Archives) | The Hockey News
Viktor Khulatev (THN Archives) | The Hockey News
Viktor Khulatev (THN Archives) | The Hockey News

Over the course of their 50+ year history, the Flyers have drafted a multitude of players, some of which have proven to be great and others who were not successful. However, what about the players who never make it at all? What about the prospects that never make it to the NHL, or even those who never even see AHL action? Not all of their stories will be heard, however, there is one particular prospect who because of his place of birth, was never able to prove himself in North America. I had previously mentioned Viktors Hatuļevs in an article last February, however, I wanted to take a deeper dive into his story.

Hatuļevs was born on the 17th of February, 1955 in Riga, Latvia where he excelled at the sport of ice hockey playing for hometown team of Dynamo Riga. He made his debut for the club in 1973-74 as an 18 year old, and they competed with CSKA Moscow for the league title. He also established himself on the international stage during this time period. Hatuļevs, playing for the USSR, took part in the first ever (but unofficial) World Juniors tournament in 1974, hosted in Leningrad, where he was joint top scorer. He also played in the 2nd World Juniors hosted in Winnipeg and Brandon, Manitoba and was voted MVP. He helped the tournament become successful enough to merit the creation of an official Juniors tournament in 1977.

In 1975, at age 20, Hatuļevs was attracting attention from NHL scouts, though there was doubt as to whether or not a team would take a chance on the versatile LW/D. No Soviet born and trained player had ever been drafted into the NHL, and premonitions about Soviet talent permeated the league. After all, during 1975, the world was in the midst of the Cold War, and the NHL’s attitude towards the Summit Series and the Red-Army (CSKA Moscow) games bordered on nationalistic contempt. Therefore, it was surprising that the very club that would beat the Soviet Red-Army team a year later would draft the first ever Soviet skater. The then defending champion Philadelphia Flyers made history when they took Hatuļevs with the 160th overall pick.

The Flyers certainly took a risk when they took Viktors in the 9th round. Soviet players, whether drafted into the NHL or not, were barred from leaving the Soviet Union as most citizens were. Under Soviet rule, athletes were denied visas to play in the rest of Europe and North America, and no Soviet player had ever defected to the NHL at this point, and it was dangerous to do so. Risks included a ban from hockey, arrest, and even death. Suffice to say, the path to the Flyers for Hatuļevs, coming from the Soviet Satellite State of Latvia, was fraught with danger. Ultimately, however, Hatuļevs was robbed of the opportunity to even attempt a defection. There was little communication between North American and European hockey executives, and accidental or not, Hatuļevs was not told of his draft selection until 1978, three years later.

Shortly after, Hatuļevs received a five year ban from Soviet Hockey for fighting. The Soviet brand of hockey was marketed as a more graceful, less heavy type of game, and as such, fighting was discouraged and cracked down upon. However, many question the nature of suspension. Though the ban was eventually lifted and Hatuļevs was allowed to play in the 1975-76 season, rumors circulated that the ban was levied to discourage NHL clubs from drafting Soviet players, and to discourage Soviet players from attempting to defect.

Hatuļevs continued to play in Riga for the remainder of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s. Though he never played with the Flyers, Hatuļevs did play against them with the Soviet Wings Hockey Club in 1979. Though Flyer Captain Bobby Clarke was aware of Hatuļevs’ draft status, he was unaware that the Latvian was a member of the opposing club that night as they fought to a 4-4 draw. Hatuļevs played well enough in Riga to merit interest from CSKA Moscow, the biggest Soviet side where the best Soviet players earned transfer to. Earning a move to the club was seen as a duty for both club and country, and refusing a move there could even result in a punishment. However, despite this, August Voss and Jurijs Rubenis (Latvian Communist Poltiicans), denied Hatuļevs a potential move to CSKA.

Ultimately, Hatuļevs’ career would end abruptly. In 1979, he was suspended after incidentally striking a referee during a fight with CSKA’s Vladimir Vikulov. Hatuļevs displayed many off ice issues including struggles with alcoholism and drug dealing. Whether these issues were related to his vacant NHL stat-line is unknown, but regardless, pressure was building on the now 26 year old. The final straw would fall when in 1981, he was banned from Soviet Hockey for life after his off-ice issues became too immense. After his hockey career ended, Hatuļevs spent his days as a taxi driver, and continued to struggle with alcoholism. He would face prison time for his drug dealing, and would ultimately die in 1994 at the age of 39 after a continued downward spiral. Though in the end the Flyers drafted Hatuļevs, the move was less of an attempt to burn bridges and more of a low risk gamble.

While Hatuļevs’ story serves as an indictment of how Soviet players were treated, as is one of personal tragedy, it would be unfair to claim that the NHL and the Flyers were all-righteous during this era. During the famed “Red-Army” game of 1976, NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell famously told the Flyers in their locker room that “Our reputation is riding…you need to win this game” (Quote Via Ed Van Impe in HBO’s Broad Street Bullies. That “our” was not only referring to the NHL, but to the reputations of the United States (with the Flyers being American) and Canada (as most of the players were Canadian).

It was widely known that the North Americans did not like the Soviets due to the socio-political tensions present at the time, and this was just as true with the Flyers. Flyers Chairman Ed Snider oversaw tough negotiations with Soviet hockey officials, and he found his patience tested. At a pre-game meeting, Snider was even instructed to utter a phrase in Russian but found himself unable to do so amiably. Bobby Clarke himself had not made many friends at the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets, where he slashed Soviet Captain Valeri Kharlamov brutally. Clarke said of the Red-Army club that he “hated those bastards”. Clarke would later claim he never discriminated against the Soviets, stating that “the next level below the greats was below mediocrity. We just thought we would be better off with Canadians” However, this statement still actively reveals the prejudice against Soviet players. Even Keith Allen, general manager of the Flyers at the time, said he felt pressure after he had drafted Hatuļevs from other NHL GMs who had predisposed opinions of Soviet players. The NHL’s message of the time was to create a superior product that would actively put Soviet hockey to shame, and symbolically triumph over Communism.