By Denis Gibbons
If all Soviet players who died before their time or under tragic circumstances had been spared, the statistical history of hockey would have to be rewritten.
Evgeny Belosheikin, named best goalie at the 1986 World Junior Championship, took his own life after battling the bottle. Anatoly Fetisov, the younger brother of legendary national team captain Slava Fetisov and a prime prospect for the 1985 draft, was killed in a car accident. New York Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov died from a heart ailment during a game in 2008.
Perhaps the best talent of all, Viktor Khatulev, was found dead at the age of 39 in 1994. It’s believed he was murdered, but the case was never solved.
The 2015 draft marks 40 years since Khatulev, a left winger turned defenseman, became the first Soviet drafted into the NHL, when the Philadelphia Flyers took him in the ninth round, 160th overall, in 1975.
It was a stab in the dark, not because Khatulev wasn’t highly skilled but rather on account the Communist government’s policy not to grant exit visas to its star athletes. There was little communication between the North American and European hockey communities then, and Khatulev didn’t even find out he’d been drafted until three years after it had happened. He never played in an NHL game.
No Soviet player made it to the NHL until 1988-89 when the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation finally agreed to release Sergei Priakhin to play for the Calgary Flames late in the season. Columnists of the day wrote that Flyers owner Ed Snider and captain Bobby Clarke disliked the Soviets, and GM Keith Allen said he took a lot of heat for drafting Khatulev. However, today Clarke says he never discriminated against Soviet players. “It was a time when you didn’t know if you would ever get them out of the country,” Clarke said. “The Soviets were producing some great players, but the next level below the greats was below mediocrity. We just thought we would be better off with Canadians.”
Clarke also said he wasn’t even aware he was playing against Khatulev when the Flyers and the Soviet Wings faced each other in January 1979, a game that ended in a 4-4 tie at the old Spectrum. He said Khatulev never attended a Philadelphia training camp.
He was the star of the Soviet team that beat a squad of Western League all-stars 4-3 to win the gold medal at the 1975 World Youth Tournament in Winnipeg. He won the award for best forward in the unofficial international under-20 showcase in what would prove to be a forerunner of the world juniors. The year before, at 18, Khatulev had nine points in just five games at the world youth tournament in Leningrad.
Khatulev died after his hockey career and entire life declined rapidly as a result of a series of unfortunate events. He lost his wife, Inasa, in an auto accident, leaving him to raise a baby daughter, and his father died of a heart attack at a game in Riga.
In 1975, Khatulev was suspended five years for fighting in a Soviet Elite League game, but the suspension was later lifted. Then in 1979, he was suspended again after a fight with Red Army star Vladimir Vikulov, a veteran of the 1972 Summit Series, in which the referee was struck in the face by an errant punch from Khatulev. Two years later, Khatulev was suspended for life due to his off-ice issues. He was only 26.
Some writers say his father-in-law was the only man who could keep him under control to some degree. When his father-in-law died, he went over the edge with excessive drinking and involvement in drugs. Khatulev became a taxi driver after he finished playing and also worked cutting the letters into tombstones for cemeteries with a hammer and chisel and for a time was a bouncer at a bar, but he struggled with alcoholism the rest of his life.
This feature appears in the Draft Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.