Russia has remained a hotbed for NHL prospects since Alexander Mogilny defected from the Soviet Union in 1989 to join the Buffalo Sabres.
That legacy, which includes current and future Hockey Hall of Fame members Sergei Federov, Pavel Bure, Pavel Datsyuk, Alex Ovechkin, and Evgeni Malkin, is now in jeopardy according to experts.
It’s not due to a lack of prospects or talent however, it’s a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent bans on Russian participation in sport. Russia’s war has led to bans from international competition, which will result in less developmental opportunities, loss of funding, and an inability for NHL clubs to scout Russian players.
“All of this will have a long-term impact on Russian sport – less money for development and the inability to compete internationally,” University of Guelph professor Dr. Ann Pegoraro said.
Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the International Ice Hockey Federation announced the “suspension of all Russian and Belarusian National Teams and Clubs from participation in every age category and in all IIHF competitions or events until further notice.”
For hockey scouts, the absence of Russian players from the 2022 World Junior Championships, and the U-18 World Championships, creates greater risk in the assessment of players. Travel bans involving Russia could also limit scouting.
“When I digest them not playing in the World Juniors, which is developmental, and the World Under-18 team, the media rights that will be gone, and the funding that comes through those, all of this can have long term impacts on the development of their system,” says Pegoraro, who is also the co-director of the National Network for Research on Gender Equity in Canadian Sport.
“The developmental funding they’ve stuck into their systems, I’d imagine, is going to dry up with the need to fund a war. Long term I think we may no longer have the visibility of Russian hockey players being some of the best in the world or playing with the best in the world, and no longer see the development opportunities for Russian hockey players to test themselves at younger ages.”
This lack of visibility and the impact of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine could be felt as soon as the July 7 NHL draft in Montreal.
Currently, two prospects, Ivan Miroshnichenko and Danila Yurov, are considered top 10 talents. NHL teams, however, may question the ability to bring these players to North America similar to Soviet Union era prospects like Mogilny.
During the Soviet Union regime, Russian prospects, including greats such as Igor Larionov and Viacheslav Fetisov, were unable to compete in the NHL, and were forced to stay in Russia.
“We could see the absence of Russian hockey players like we saw during the Cold War,” Pegoraro states. “During the Cold War, Russia said, ‘let’s keep our players home.’ Now they have the ability to play in leagues, and the International federation and leagues themselves are saying, ‘no you don’t.’ It’s the opposite. Now that Russia has freed themselves up we’re saying that for reasons of what is happening with Russia and the invasion of Ukraine, you cannot participate, we view this participation as a privilege, not a right.”
According to Pegoraro however, the greatest long-term impact to the development of hockey in Russia could be felt by women. When funding eventually shifts from war back to sport, Pegoraro fears the emphasis will be placed on returning men to elite leagues, while Russia’s women will be left behind.
“I am most fearful for women’s athletes,” she explained. “When you’re trying to build back, the focus will be on those men and trying to get them those opportunities again. Whatever money they have available for sport will not be for women athletes, and I think that will potentially be a longer impact. How long will it take a women’s team in hockey to come back and try to be competitive on the international scene after losing these opportunities?”
Whether it be financial support, scouting opportunities, or development paths, the door for Russian players, both in men’s and women’s hockey is closing, and the path to the NHL and other elite leagues is becoming riddled with barriers not seen since the Soviet Union era.