September 29, 2008

Famous Firsts: First North American To Play In Russia

The times, they are a-changing
- Bob Dylan.

With the Russia's oil-rich Kontinental Hockey League attracting talent away from the National Hockey League, times are definitely a-changing. We're used to the NHL stealing away hockey talent, not the other way around.

This season the KHL has lured away the likes of Ray Emery, Jaromir Jagr, Jozef Stumpel, Alexander Radulov, Branko Radivojevič, Andrei Zyuzin, Wade Dubielewicz, Niko Kapanen, Sergei Brylin, and Ladislav Nagy. Alexey Morozov, Marcel Hossa, Magnus Johansson, Jan Bulis, Dmitry Afanasenkov, Nils Ekman, Oleg Kvasha, Oleg Saprykin, Tyler Moss, Andy Chiodo, Robert Esche, Alexei Yashin, Mike Fountain, Mika Noronen, and Ben Clymer are some of the former NHL names over there this year, as well.

Most of the names are Russian or European, but it is becoming more and more common for North Americans to find employment in Russia, particularly if you are a goaltender.

Which begs the question: Who was the first North American to play pro hockey in Russia?

Most will tell you the answer is Vincent Riendeau, best remembered with the St. Louis Blues. He would bounce around the league with Detroit, Boston and Montreal before packing up his pads and extending his career in Europe. Stops in included stays in Great Britain, Switzerland and Germany, but also Russia. In January 1999 he signed on with HC Lada Togliatti of what was then known as the Russian Superleague.

By doing so Riendeau became the first North American with NHL experience to play in Russia. But several years earlier a North American player ventured off to Russia.

Tod Hartje was his name. He grew up playing hockey outdoors in Minnesota. He became so good that he was offered a full scholarship to Harvard University and was later drafted by the Winnipeg Jets.

Upon graduation from Harvard, he agreed with Winnipeg Jets general manager Mike Smith, a noted believer in Russian hockey, to spend one season developing his hockey skills in Russia as opposed to the minor leagues. With the help of Smith's contacts in Russia, Hartje joined Sokol Kiev for the 1990-91 hockey season.

The cultural shock was immense. North American fans have always under estimated the transition shock of moving from Europe to Canada or the United States. Hartje chronicled his entire experience, both on and off the ice in his book From Behind the Red Line: A North American Hockey Player in Russia. The book is written with the help of Lawrence Martin.

Hartje would return to North America after that one season. He would never get into a NHL game, but he did have a long if unnoticed career in the minor leagues of North America.

By The Way: How is Jaromir Jagr doing over in the KHL this year? At the time of this writing the world's highest paid hockey player is just 15th in league scoring, with 7 goals and 10 points in 11 games. Another Czech, Jan Marek, leads the way with 16 points. Count Alexey Morozov, Marcel Hossa and Magnus Johansson as former NHLers with more points than Jagr this season, too.

Is The KHL A Big Threat? That's a great question. The NHL publicly does not subscribe to the idea that it soon will be a rival league, but that's what they said about the WHA back in the 1970s. There seems to be no shortage of money over in Russia these days, and the various Russian Leagues this decade have kept a number of very talented stars home and far away from the NHL.

I'm not knowledgeable enough to know how big of a threat the KHL will be, but I know it is a growing threat, and one that should not be taken lightly by the NHL. The NHL is lucky the KHL have not been successful in prying away someone like Alexander Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin. Yet.

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