Following the the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary countries in the eastern bloc began to allow athletes in general and hockey players in particular to leave their countries and move to the western world to play their sports. A perestroika spirit allowed players from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Finland to come to North America for the first time to play in the NHL. High profile defections like that of World Junior star Alexander Mogilny in January 1989 from the world junior championships in Alaska, and Petr Nedved a Czechoslovakian who defected the same month from a midget tournament in Calgary pushed the Soviet Union into allowing any and all of their players to come to North America to play. With the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc the other member countries followed suit.
The famed Soviet Green unit, the number one five man unit from the Soviet National team: Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov,Sergei Makarov and defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, all came over to the NHL the next (1989/90) season. They ranged in age from 29 to 31 when they joined the league. These five were among the best Russian players ever to play hockey.
Krutov was considered by many at the time the most talented of the five. He was dangerously fast and tied with team-mate Makarov at the 1987 Canada Cup as the second leading tournament goal scorer with seven. Krutov though had the least successful NHL career playing a mere 61 games in one season for the very disappointed Vancouver Canucks.
Alexei Kasatonov played 383 career games in seven NHL seasons. He was a useful member on three Devil playoff runs in the early nineties.
Sergei Makarov was a more spectacular NHL player. He won the rookie of the year award in 1989-90. He scored 86 points in 80 games with the Calgary Flames at the age of 31. The NHL subsequently changed the rule for winning the Calder Memorial trophy. Now a player can only be eligible if they are 26 years old or younger by September 15th of their rookie season. That still seems a little unfair to late bloomers who take their time making the NHL.
Makorov was spectacular talent. He was unstoppable on a penalty shot, but again a veteran in the latter days of his career.
It was Igor Larionov and Viacheslav Fetisov who made the most of their NHL careers. Larionov played in over 1000 NHL games, regular season and playoffs combined, and was a member of Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings teams in 2002, 1998, and 1997. Fetisov was a key member of the Red Wings from 1994 to 1998 and contributed to the two Stanley Cup victories in 1997 and 1998.
These were five of the best Russian players ever to play in the NHL. Unfortunately this group only had the opportunity to play half their career in North America. It prevents them from making the list as one of the best 25 NHL players of the last 25 years. They did herald an era that saw all the best Russian, Czechoslovakian and Finnish players play all or most of their careers in the NHL. This was a huge boost of talent for a league that had expanded too far, too fast.
Highly talented individuals like Pavel Bure, Sergei Gonchar, Alexei Zhamnov, Valeri Kamensky, Alexei Kovalev, Jaromir Jagr, Alexander Ovechkin, Jarri Kurri, Sergei Fedorov, Petr Bondra, Sandis Ozolnish, Viacheslav Kozlov, The Stasny's, Pavel Datsyuk, Ziggy Palffy, Dmitri Kristich, Zdeno Chara, Alexei Yashin, and Evgeni Malkin all get an opportunity to play in the NHL now thanks to the greater individual freedoms in the Soviet Union that grew out of Glasnost and Perestroika.
They changed the look of the league and the quality and manner of play over the past 25 years.