The Flyers and Russia: a complicated history

If you’ve seen the recent news, you know that Flyers goalie prospect Ivan Fedotov has reportedly been detained by Russian authorities for “failing to enter the draft.” We don’t know what will happen to him. Will he be released and join the team this fall? Will he spend time in jail? Will he be forced to serve in the army and go to Ukraine? We will have to see.

The history of Russian players in the NHL dates back to 1989 when the USSR allowed Sergei Pryakhin to officially play in the NHL. Later that year, Pavel Bure would defect along with Sergei Fedorov in 1990. Today, Russian players are an important part of the league, with Alex Ovechkin topping the list. But the Flyers’ history with Russian players is a bit…complicated.

Much of it begins with the Summit Series in 1972. The Soviet Red Army Olympic team had toured Canadian cities playing an all-star team of Canadian NHL players. In game six, Flyers captain Bobby Clarke hit Valeri Kharlamov in the ankle, breaking it. Kharlamov thinks Clarke did it on purpose; Clarke said he was unaware that Kharlamov was playing with a sore ankle and that the hit was intentional, but he had no intention of hurting him.

Four years later, the Red Army team toured NHL cities in a series of exhibitions. They beat every team except a tie with the Montreal Canadiens. When they arrived in Philadelphia, it was a different story. It was the Bully era of the Flyers and they were the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. When the Russians came to town, they unleashed all their physical fury against them. Ed Van Impe leveled Kharlamov and threw him on the ice. During the first intermission, the Soviets threatened not to return to play. Flyers owner Ed Snider threatened not to pay them. The Russians came back and the Flyers beat them 4-1.

As the Soviet Union crumbled and Russian hockey stars began to defect to the NHL, Russian teams began auctioning off their best players. Cold War animosities still lingered with Clarke and Snider, and they refused to deal with Soviet officials who pretty much took bribes for players. As a result, the Flyers fell behind in the NHL’s new arms race as teams like the Detroit Red Wings built a dynasty that included five Russian hockey stars.

For a time, the Flyers were reluctant to deal with Russian players. Some of them were motivated by money and would wait for bigger contracts. At times, Cold War prejudices have clouded their judgement.

The first Russian player to play in Philadelphia was Andrei Lomakin in 1991. He scored 14 games in his first season, but only played 108 games in total in Philadelphia before being selected by Florida in the draft. 1993 expansion. The first Russian drafted was Vyacheslav Butsayev in the 1990 draft. The center would make his debut in the 1992-93 season and spend a year and a half in Philadelphia before being traded to the Sharks.

With Fedotov, the Flyers have only had two goalies of Russian origin: Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky. Their history is interesting as the Flyers moved mountains to acquire Bryz while dropping the two-time winner from Vezina in the process. Another Russian, Kirill Ustimenko was drafted in the third round in 2017 and is on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms roster.

In 2021-22, only 19 players have dressed in orange and black, with 12 playing less than 50 games in total. 28 were drafted, the majority of whom never made it out of the minors or never played for the Flyers. Of those draft picks, only two have been first-round picks: Ivan Provorov in 2015 and German Rubtsov in 2016. Provy has played in more games (450 so far) than any other Russian, nearly double.

The next closest is 90s defender Dmitri Yushkevich. Rubtsov only played four games for Philly, before staying in the KHL during the COVID pandemic. He was traded to Florida as part of the Claude Giroux trade while playing for the Phantoms. He spent all of last year in the AHL.

Some of the players who played for the Flyers were players like Alexei Zhamnov, Alexei Zhitnik, Danny Markov, Vladimir Malakhov and Andrei Kovalenko whose best seasons were far behind them. Defender Dmitry Tertyshny was a rising young defender who was killed in a horrific boating accident in the summer of 1999 when he was 22 years old.

Hopefully the Flyers can sort out Fedotov’s situation and, more importantly, that he’s safe. Also, this incident brings back some reminders of the very complicated history between this organization and Russia.

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