November 21, 2015

Sergei Starikov

Sergei Starikov is remembered more as a notable blip in NHL history rather than his long career on the ice.

Starikov was a Soviet trained defenseman who, despite being a regular on the Soviet national team throughout the 1980s, remained largely anonymous by North American audiences. 

That was until Starikov joined superstar defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov as the second and third Soviet players allowed to leave Russia to play in the NHL, following in the skate marks of Calgary's Sergei Priakhin. Their arrival made international headlines, including, most famously, Sports Illustrated making them cover boys.

Fetisov would go on to become a NHL regular and Stanley Cup champion. But Starikov, like Priakhin before him, disappeared quickly. He played just 16 games in New Jersey before disappearing to the minor leagues.

For Starikov, a native of the Ural Mountains region, life in North America was a tough adjustment.

“Social life and hockey, too. Every step was like a surprise,” he said, citing the smaller rinks and more physical play as the toughest adjustments on the ice. Culture and language were even bigger adjustments, both inside and outside of the dressing room.

"Sergei was a pioneer that doesn't get the recognition he should. He was one of the first," said New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoreillo, who drafted Starikov 152nd overall in the 1989 NHL draft.

Starikov ended up toiling in the minor leagues, primarily with the San Diego Gulls of the IHL. It must have been a bit surreal for the Red Army veteran who played at the 1980, 1984 and 1988 Olympics, winning silver, gold and gold. He also won nine Soviet league championships and played in the 1979 Challenge Cup against the NHL All Stars.

Of course, as with all Russian players from 1980, that Olympic silver medal was nothing to celebrate. That was the "Miracle On Ice" American victory over the Soviets, the most celebrated sporting event in American history. But for Starikov, who was caught flat-footed on Mark Johnson's game-tying goal, it was the start of the worst days of his life.

Starikov was cut from the national team and did not return until 1984. He considered giving up hockey as he described this time as "the most difficult time in my life." But he had a young family to support.

Starikov returned to the national team in time to win the 1984 Olympic gold medal and repeat in 1988. He also represented the national team at the 1984 Canada Cup, Rendez Vous '87 and five world championships.

Starikov, like his father before him, turned to coaching, finding obscure positions such as in Kazakhstan and even a New Jersey high school. He also has coached at a private hockey clinic in New Jersey for a number of years despite his still-broken English.

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