There have been Russian players in the NHL since 1928. However, the birth of the Cold War in 1946, marked the end of Russians in the NHL. There was one exception. In 1982-1983, Victor Nechayev played three games for the Los Angeles Kings. It wasn’t until 1989 when the politics of the Soviet Union were crumbling and the Cold War was nearing its end, that the Soviet Union began to allow some of its players to play for the NHL. In that same year, Alexander Mogilny wasn’t willing to abide by the stringent Soviet government’s conditions so he defected to make a life of his own playing for the Buffalo Sabres.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, more Russian players joined the league. Initially, there was some animosity towards hiring Russians by both fans and players. Most of that came to an end when the Red Wings won back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998, with mostly a Russian team. There have been a total of 234 Russian players that have played in the NHL and presently there are 169 players, roughly 4%.
The Washington Capitals had no qualms including Russian players from the beginning but most did not stay very long. Most players were defensemen or right wingers who often bounced from team to team in the 1990s. Those that did have longer tenures with the team were embraced by the fans. The most notable was Sergei Gonchar who played from 1994-2004 as a defensemen. Eventually, Gonchar would win the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In Malkin’s rookie year with the Penguins, Gonchar gave him a place to stay and mentored him. Andrei Nikolishin played for the Capitals from 1996-2002 as a center and helped propel them to the Capitals first Stanley Cup appearance in 1998. Dmitri Khristich, a right winger played from 1990-1995 and again from 2000-2002. (Although he is Ukrainian, I’m including him as a Russian player because when he was drafted, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union.) Khristich never did win a championship but did receive a gold medal in the 2002 Olympics.
A Russian who had a big influence on the franchise was Alexander Semin. After his first year, the NHL had a lockout and he returned to Russia. He was unable to return when the lockout was over due to a requirement for Russian “military service.” The Capitals went to court but lost. Once all his obligations were met at home, Semin returned to Washington and played with Ovechkin as one of the team’s top goal scorers. Eventually he was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. He finished his career in Russia and won the Gagarin Cup, the KHL’s Stanley Cup equivalent.
In 2005, Alexander Ovechkin became a Washington Capital. He is one of the NHL’s all-time greatest goal scorers, now a Stanley Cup champion, and the leader of the team for over a decade. Ovechkin skyrocketed interest in hockey and increased the fan base in the Washington area; the effects that are felt to the present day. Alexander Ovechkin has had much written about him and will continue to do so. Since this is an article about other Russians on the team, I will leave it at that for now.
Two years after Ovechkin’s arrival, Sergei Fedorov joined the Capitals. Even though he was in the twilight of his career, Fedorov had an impact on the team. He helped propel the Capitals past the Rangers in a game 7 in the 2009 payoffs. Ovechkin in an interview said he was the best player on their team during the playoffs. The 3-time Stanley Cup Champion and Hockey Hall-of-Famer returned to Russia the following year.
The Washington Capitals continue to have a strong Russian presence with Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and Orlov. With the signing of Ilya Samsonov and the drafting of Alexander Alexeyev, it appears there will be a Russian influence on Washington for many years to come.
List of Russian Washington Capitals players, position and years played.
Dmitiri Khristich-RW-(1990-1995; 2000-2002)
Alexander Semin-LW-(2003-2004; 2006-2012)
By Andrea Schlegel