The best defense pairing in the world in the 1980s did not play in the National Hockey League. No, that title belongs to Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov of CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national hockey team.
But did you know those two excelled despite despising one another to the point where they refused to talk to each other?
That, as everyone who will watch the soon to be released Red Army film will learn, was because of political differences. Fetisov was the key catalyst in trying to gain more freedoms for hockey players, namely the right to leave Russia and play in the west including in the National Hockey League.
Kasatonov did not agree with Fetisov's efforts and essentially acted as a spy by secretly reporting back to government officials. Fetisov found out, and that completely and understandbly ruined the relationship.
That is the story I have always known, dating back to the late 1980s. Of course Fetisov was eventually allowed to leave, joining the New Jersey Devils in 1989. A few weeks later Kasatonov also left for the West, amazingly joining the Devils.
The two continued to play together in New Jersey. But I've always wondered how that dynamic all played out, in terms of how that affected the dressing room.
In a recent Larry Brooks column in the New York Times, Brendan Shanahan, who was a third year NHLer in 1989, commented on this:
“We had a lot of younger guys on that team, and we didn’t know the details of their rift — or whatever you’d want to call it — but we knew it had to do with Alex not supporting Slava when he wanted to leave by going through the front door,” Shanahan said. “We understood the origin of Slava’s resentment.
“The interesting thing was, they didn’t fight at all. They just didn’t speak. And they played great together,” the Hall of Fame winger said. “They were both great guys, neither of them were locker-room lawyers where they tried to get guys on their side or turn guys against the other one. There was nothing like that.
“They handled it like professionals,” Shanahan said. “It was never a distraction for them and it wasn’t for us, either. I never remember a time when a group of us said, ‘We can’t go out to dinner at a certain restaurant with Slava because Alex is going to be there.’
“Maybe they wouldn’t ride in the same cab, and maybe they sat at different ends of the table, but it wasn’t anything that became a team issue. And for me, I hit it off immediately with Slava, yet I used to ride to practice with Alex.”
Some interesting insight into a bizarre situation. Here's the full article.