September 2nd, 1972
An aura of confidence, almost to the point of arrogance, was in the air as the fans gathered at the Montreal Forum for the first match-up in an eight-game series between the Soviet Union and Canada. Though the Soviets were utterly dominant at the international level, they had never faced a full team of proper professionals. The one occasion that Canada brought any professional players to an international competition was at the 1969 Izvestia Trophy tournament; having brought only five pros, Canada would finish second, playing the USSR to a 2-2 draw. Following a decision by the IIHF to ban professionals from the World Championships, Canada withdrew from the tournament entirely, not returning until 1977. This series in 1972 was thus the very first time that the Canadians were sending their best players to face off against the best from the Soviet Union.
Expectations from North American journalists were expecting Team Canada, comprised solely of top NHL players, to dominate the series, with more than a few predicting an eight-game sweep. The first game in Montreal, however, would go to the Soviets by a score of 7-3. The visitors would take two of four in Canada, with Game Three finishing a tie. After a Soviet victory in Game Five, the Canadians would win the next three, with Paul Henderson’s iconic goal in the last minute of Game Eight sealing the series. Though the Canadians claimed victory, the Soviets still proved themselves to be equal to Canada’s best thanks to their rigorous training and team mentality.
Despite the Soviets gaining more recognition for their team structure, individuals still shone. One of those that gained considerable attention during this tournament was Valeri Kharlamov. Having played for CSKA Moscow (a.k.a. the Central Red Army team) for the past few years, Kharlamov had become one of the stars of both the Soviet league and the national team. Though he would not end up the leading scorer for his team in the Summit Series (that honour would go to Alexander Yakushev, with 11 points), Kharlamov was nonetheless a major threat every time he stepped on the ice. So dangerous was Kharlamov that in Game Six, Bobby Clarke was directed to give the Russian star a two-handed slash on the ankle to slow him down – a slash some would argue changed the fortunes of the series entirely.
Following the Summit Series, several NHL teams were keen on trying to secure Kharlamov’s services. At 24 years of age during the tournament, Valeri was entering his prime years, and had shown that he could not only match up to the National Hockey League’s top stars, but confound them to such a point that it took illegal means to stop him. Despite all of the efforts by professional teams in North America, whether they be WHA or NHL, Kharlamov would return to the Soviet Union, continuing to play at the highest level for both club and country until his untimely death in a car accident in 1981.
Indeed, by the time of his death, no Soviet-trained player had crossed the Iron Curtain, with only a select few Czechoslovak defectors making the switch. There would not be a proper Soviet player in the NHL until 1982-83, when Victor Nechayev made his debut for the Los Angeles Kings. The best the USSR had to offer wouldn’t leave for the NHL until the later part of that decade, either by mutual agreement or by defection. But what could have happened if Kharlamov himself made the jump? What kind of an impact could he have had playing against top North American opposition game in and game out?
WHAT IF VALERI KHARLAMOV PLAYED IN NORTH AMERICA?
WHAT MUST BE CONSIDERED, AND WHAT MUST CHANGE: With many of the scenarios I have done so far, there only needs to be one small change, such as a “yes-or-no” decision or a random tumbling of the lottery balls. This scenario, however, is as outlandish as it gets. The truth of the matter is, Valeri Kharlamov had very few opportunities to defect from the Soviet Union, and even if he had the chance, there was absolutely nothing to suggest that he would even want to do so in the first place. He was treated relatively well in the USSR, and by the time that there was any crack in the relationship between him and the national team (or CSKA), he was 33 years old. In fact, it was shortly after the first crack being formed – his exclusion from the Soviet Union’s 1981 Canada Cup roster – that he would pass away. Simply put, there was never a realistic way for Kharlamov to defect, and there likely wasn’t any reason for him to leave.
In order for this scenario to become remotely workable, the first signs have to pop up immediately after the conclusion of the ’72 Summit Series. As a starting point in this hypothetical scenario, rather than focusing their attention on the rough play of the Canadian team, coaches Vsevolod Bobrov and Boris Kulagin would instead pin the blame on Kharlamov’s lack of fitness in the final two games, having missed Game Seven following the slash from Bobby Clarke. Though he would continue to be a key player for CSKA Moscow, when it came time for him to be called up to the Soviet national team for international events, he wouldn’t be a certain inclusion. He would miss out entirely on the 1973 World Championships in Moscow, which the host team would handily win. After leading the Central Red Army team in goals in the 1973-74 season, Kharlamov would be selected to the Soviet squad for the 1974 World Championships, to be held in Helsinki, Finland.
THE DEFECTION: Now, I cannot possibly predict all the specifics of how this defection would go, but I can make a few guesses based on all of the info that is out there, whether it be about, the hockey world at the time, or the principle of defection in general. (And indeed, there is a ton of guesswork here.)
Firstly, as Kharlamov and the Soviets play the 1974 Worlds, there is a small collection of NHL and WHA scouts making the trip over. Very few of them have any idea that Kharlamov is even entertaining the possibility of defection, and are more concerned with some of the other players at the tournament. The WHA representatives, in particular, are very active in their observation, as they attempt to stock their fledgling league with international talent to become more competitive. Among the heavily-courted players are Sweden’s Lars-Erik Sjöberg and Anders Hedberg, who would both soon sign with the Winnipeg Jets, and Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Nedomansky, who would ultimately be the first-ever Eastern Bloc player to defect in the summer of that year.
Another team that has interest in this tournament is the Cleveland Crusaders, who actually hold the rights to Kharlamov thanks to the 1972 WHA Player Draft. In the 70-round draft to fill out team rosters, the Calgary Broncos, who would become the Crusaders before even playing a game in the league, took Kharlamov with a late pick. Knowing that they are being beaten to key international stars, the Crusaders’ management team makes a desperate play for the Soviet superstar, using all legal channels available. Of course, when they are inevitably told “no” by the USSR, the Crusaders resort to more clandestine measures, contacting Kharlamov through an intermediary. To their surprise, they get a response, indicating that Valeri would consider moving.
The Crusaders’ brass, including owner Nick Mileti and coach John Hanna, would work on a plan to bring Kharlamov over to North America via defection. Originally, the plan would be slowly worked on, with the team aiming to make their move in a year’s time. The targeted event would be the 1975 World Hockey Championships in West Germany, which would be the first realistic opportunity for the plan to be executed. As news of several European signings in the WHA break over the next month or so (including the defection of Vaclav Nedomansky to the Toronto Toros), the plans are sped up. Instead of taking place in 1975, the plan is targeted for the WHA’s version of the Summit Series in September of ’74 against the Soviets.
The first two games of the ’74 Summit Series go off without a hitch. The first game on September 17th ends in a 3-3 draw, but the Canadians win the next fixture in Toronto two days later. In that game, Kharlamov is given little ice time, playing only 8 minutes as the WHA players win 4-0. Not wanting to arouse even the slightest hint of suspicion, Kharlamov remains quiet, but the intermediary employed to convey the Crusaders’ messages to him signals that the team believes now is the time for him to make his move. Only two games remain in Canada: one in Winnipeg on the 21st, then another one two days later in Vancouver. Kharlamov, unbeknownst to anyone but those in on the plan, decides to make his move in Winnipeg.
I know not how the defection itself would go. It could be a frantic escape from Soviet officials through the streets of Winnipeg a la the Stastny brothers, or it could be as simple as taking a wrong turn off the team bus, like Sergei Fedorov did. All that matters is that it be executed perfectly, without so much as a mistake. It was certain that several Soviet officials would be present to make sure nobody even dared to try and defect, and there would possibly be a heightened sense of security within the USSR’s camp, considering their fellow Eastern Bloc members Czechoslovakia had lost a key player due to defection. No matter the specifics of the plan, it ends with Kharlamov, against all conceivable odds, managing to end up with Nick Mileti and John Hanna in Cleveland a few short days later.
CALCULATING KHARLAMOV’S STATS: In projecting how Valeri Kharlamov would perform in North America, I stuck to a few rules to translate his regular season stats in the Soviet Union to the NHL and WHA.
Firstly, the main rule I stuck to was that Kharlamov’s total of games played mirrored the percentage of games that he had actually played in real life. If he played 90% of games in a season in the Soviet Union, then he would play 90% of games in the North American season. Goal, assists, and PIM totals were also scaled up similarly.
Secondly, I adjusted Kharlamov’s assist totals by 150% prior to the above conversion. The Soviet leagues, as far as I understand, did not count second assists (see Post #9), and so in order to compensate, I assumed that Valeri would have half as many second assists as first assists.
Thirdly, I made two basic assumptions for conversion to NHL and WHA points. My first assumption was that Soviet totals would be converted 1:1 to the WHA. To get the NHL figures, however, I looked at every season in which a player ended up in the top 10 in points in the WHA, then went to the NHL the next year. The average amount of NHL points compared to WHA points came to about 68.67%, and so I would use that figure to convert Kharlamov’s totals to the NHL. (There were some outliers, such as Andre Lacroix going from an 88-point season in the WHA to a 17-point year, and Wayne Gretzky’s total actually rising from 104 to 137, but in my mind, the average listed above is fair enough.)
KHARLAMOV’S NORTH AMERICAN CAREER
1974-75 (CLEVELAND CRUSADERS, WHA): Though not quite a heavy hitter in the hockey world, Cleveland has, for one brief moment, become the centre of the hockey universe.
Sure, the Toronto Toros were the first to successfully bring over an Eastern Bloc player, having acquired Vaclav Nedomansky following his defection from Czechoslovakia in June, but even he was small potatoes compared to the Crusaders getting Valeri Kharlamov. Kharlamov wasn’t from just any Eastern Bloc country, but the Soviet Union itself. Managing to get a player straight from the USSR was almost unthinkable, and yet the Crusaders’ management team found a way to pull it off. Having been a middling team in the attendance standings, the Crusaders would rise very near to the top of the league in 74-75’s rankings. The intrigue surrounding a Soviet player was strong, and enough of a draw to make the Crusaders a potential powerhouse at the gate.
The anticipation of seeing Valeri Kharlamov play on North American ice soon turns into a source of pride for Cleveland fans, and a source of dread for opponents. Kharlamov turns out to be just as good as advertised, and even the hard checks of North American skaters – many of whom are targeting him due to his Russian heritage – aren’t enough to stop him. Though he isn’t even in the top 20 in goals in the WHA, his impressive playmaking makes him a constant threat on the ice, and his linemates see their goal totals drastically rise as a result. The Crusaders as a whole benefit as well, finishing 2nd in the East Division with 87 points. This not only clinches them a playoff spot, but puts them 7th in the overall standings.
The Crusaders would be drawn in the first round of the WHA playoffs against the Quebec Nordiques, who had finished 2nd Overall in the League. Though the Crusaders had Kharlamov, the Nordiques had two major scoring threats of their own in Serge Bernier and Rejean Houle. If Kharlamov was shut down, the Crusaders were toast, but the Nordiques would still be dangerous if only one of their two stars was neutralized. As it turned out, Quebec could do nothing to slow down the Russian rookie, as Valeri would notch eight points in what would be a five-game series win for the Crusaders. Cleveland would have no such luck in their second series, as they were pitted against the defending champions, the Houston Aeros. The high-flying Aeros, with playmaker Larry Lund and three members of the Howe family (Gordie, Mark, and Marty), would run roughshod over the Crusaders, claiming the series in five games.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 67 GP, 33 GOALS, 78 ASSISTS, 111 POINTS, 76 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 10 GP, 9 GOALS, 6 ASSISTS, 15 POINTS, 8 PIM
At this point, one NHL team had seen all they needed to see of Kharlamov: the Philadelphia Flyers. Having scouted the Russian extensively over the past year, General Manager Keith Allen and head coach Fred Shero plead their case to the team owner, Ed Snider, who is extremely reluctant to agree to any deal for Kharlamov. After several meetings, Snider eventually relents, and allows the team to make a rare trade between the NHL and WHA. Going to Cleveland would be winger Gary Doernhoefer and an undisclosed amount of cash, while Valeri would join the NHL’s defending Stanley Cup champions.
So, why Philadelphia? Firstly, they were actually the first team to take a chance at drafting a Soviet player in the OTL, selecting Dinamo Riga player Viktors Hatulevs in the 9th Round of the 1975 NHL Amateur Draft. Secondly, Fred Shero, himself the child of Russian emigrants, was one of the very first North American coaches to travel to the USSR and scout the Soviet teams extensively. Finally, owner Ed Snider, of Jewish Russian descent, wasn’t completely against bringing over a potential defector, believing that anyone who does leave the Soviet Union is doing so for a better life.
1975-76 (PHILADELPHIA FLYERS, NHL): Kharlamov had already made history just by stepping on the ice for the Cleveland Crusaders, but now, he was on an NHL team, becoming the first Eastern Bloc-trained player to do so. In the immediate aftermath of the trade, Kharlamov would face hostility from within the Philadelphia locker room, especially from the captain, one Bobby Clarke. While Kharlamov seemed to publically want to move on from what happened in the ’72 Summit Series, relations between him and the team started off poorly. Valeri would have one backer in particular, that being Fred Shero, who remained confident that the Russian would be a key player for the defending Cup winners.
Though he has clear talent, Kharlamov would start the season on the second line with Orest Kindrachuk and Don Saleski. Not only did Clarke have two fantastic wingers in Bill Barber and Reggie Leach, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with Kharlamov when placed on a line with him. As time went on, Valeri would prove that while not quite a world beater at this point, he was still a sure-fire NHLer, racking up 68 points over 76 games. By the end on the year, while not everybody was warm to him, Kharlamov had at least cemented his spot on the Flyers.
One of the biggest factors for Kharlamov winning over the other players on the team would be the infamous game in January of 1976 against CSKA Moscow, his old Soviet club team. The Red Army team had complained about Kharlamov’s presence on Philadelphia, and nearly boycotted the game; only the threat of their tour money being withheld could force CSKA onto the ice. Though Valeri, through his interpreter, stated that he had no grudge against CSKA themselves, he maintained that he wanted to prove his worth as a Flyer, and would not hold back against his former team. Indeed, Kharlamov would shine in the game, and eventually delivered a massive hit to his former linemate, Vladimir Petrov. The hit caused CSKA, who had been angry all game about the physical play and laissez-faire officiating, to leave the ice and never come back.
The Flyers would be dominant in the Campbell Conference, claiming 119 points to top the table. This gave them a bye to the quarter-finals, where they would face the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto, though not quite the powerhouse of the previous decade, still had some top talent in the likes of Lanny McDonald and Darryl Sittler. Indeed, Sittler had just set a new NHL points record with 10 in a single game against Boston in February. Lanny and Darryl, however, were no match for the multiple weapons that Philadelphia had in their line-up, and despite fighting hard to bring the series to a seventh game, it would be Philly who prevailed.
The Flyers would face the Boston Bruins in the semi-finals, and Boston seemed to gain the upper hand after a 4-2 away win in Game One. Once Fred Shero put Wayne Stephenson in net, however, fortunes changed drastically. Philly would win the next four in a row, including a 6-3 win in Game Five that saw Reggie Leach put up a quintet of goals. Philly now had the Montreal Canadiens to deal with in the Stanley Cup Final, and if one team could quiet the Flyers’ attack, it was the Habs. Ken Dryden led the league in wins (42), goals against average (2.09), and shutouts (8) in 75-76, and had become more consistent in the playoffs this year. Indeed, Philadelphia would not have an answer for him, as the Habs rattled off four wins in a row to claim the Stanley Cup.
For Philadelphia, it was a bitter disappointment not to claim their third Cup in a row, and immediately, fingers began to be pointed at Kharlamov. According to a writer in the city at the time, Valeri, being Russian, did not understand what the Stanley Cup really meant to the North American players, and thus couldn’t be trusted in the playoffs. Immediately, Fred Shero would defend Kharlamov, saying that he showed “the heart expected of a Philadelphia Flyer”. Having finished 2nd Overall in the league, Philadelphia would get the 17th pick in the 1976 Amateur Draft, selecting blue-liner Mark Suzor.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 76 GP, 27 GOALS, 41 ASSISTS, 68 POINTS, 13 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 16 GP, 3 GOALS, 7 ASSISTS, 10 POINTS, 22 PIM
1976-77 (PHILADELPHIA FLYERS, NHL): With reaction to his first year in Philadelphia mostly negative despite his stats, Valeri Kharlamov would concentrate on improving for the upcoming season. Already being used to year-round training thanks to his time in the Soviet Union, Kharlamov would work directly with Fred Shero to get himself more acclimated to the Flyers’ style of play. He had already showed some flashes of the grit that had defined the “Broad Street Bullies”, especially in the game against his old team, CSKA Moscow. He would have to continue to fight back, however, to deal with the myriad slashes and cheap shots that he had received since his defection. Even if he had left the USSR, he was still hated by the North American players, who felt their jobs were now in danger of being given to any European players that might want to take their chance in the NHL or WHA.
Given the assignment of left wing on a line with Rick MacLeish, Kharlamov would thrive. The Russian would see his goals total rise to 47, second only to MacLeish on the Flyers. Valeri would not grab as many assists as he had the previous year, but 37 was still a respectable amount. So effective was Kharlamov that he would be selected to the Campbell Conference team for the 1977 All-Star Game. He would be the second European player to be nominated to an All-Star team, the first being Swedish blue-liner Borje Salming of the Maple Leafs. Salming and Kharlamov seemed to get along well during the break, with the Swede giving Valeri some extra tips on how to better deal with North American players.
Once again, the Flyers come out of the regular season with top spot in the Campbell Conference, recording 114 points. And once again, they get a bye to the quarter-finals, where they face the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bernie Parent is back in as starter for Philly, but this doesn’t last long, as he is pulled in Game Two, the Flyers’ second straight loss. And just as it went the previous year, Wayne Stephenson would come in and turn the team’s fortunes around as Philadelphia would win the next four to take a six-game victory.
Next up, once again, were the Boston Bruins. Boston was reeling from no longer having superstar defender Bobby Orr, who was now in Chicago; even with the injuries he had accrued, Orr was still a sure bet to tilt the game in his team’s favour whenever he took the ice. Boston still had the likes of Brad Park, Jean Ratelle, and Peter McNab to lead the way, and they also had Gerry Cheevers back full-time in goal. Cheevers would learn from the mistakes of the year prior, and put up a scintillating .934 save percentage in the series, which would end in a four-game sweep for Boston. For the first time since the 72-73 season, the Flyers would not play in the Stanley Cup Final, instead forced to watch from their homes. Philly would get the 17th Pick in the 1977 Amateur Draft, selecting Winnipeg Monarchs blue-liner Kevin McCarthy.
It had been two years without a Cup, and despite the improvement in Valeri Kharlamov’s regular season stats, he just couldn’t keep it up in the playoffs. Once again, the calls for Kharlamov to be dumped were being sounded in local media, and hockey writers across the continent were holding him up as an example of how European players would never be able to adjust to the North American game. Even Philadelphia players – Bobby Clarke chief among them – were beginning to publicly state that Valeri wasn’t a good fit for the team. Once again, though, the off-season would pass without a deal made, as the management group held firm on having the Russian as a member of the club.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 80 GP, 47 GOALS, 32 ASSISTS, 79 POINTS, 63 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 9 GP, 1 GOAL, 2 ASSISTS, 3 POINTS, 11 PIM
1977-78 (PHILADELPHIA FLYERS, NHL): At this point, Kharlamov knew that the knives were out for him in Philadelphia, and the only way he could secure his place on the squad going forward was to have a very good year. It was (literally) painfully obvious that no one would step up to defend Valeri as they would a Canadian or American player, and it resulted in some injury troubles for the Soviet winger. Kharlamov’s determination would not allow him to back down, and he racked up a career-high 78 penalty minutes, but that same determination allowed him to set personal NHL bests in both assists and points. His 82 points actually put him second on the team behind Bobby Clarke, despite being relegated to the second line.
With the boost in production from Kharlamov, the Flyers remain in the thick of the race in the Patrick Division, and eventually claim the division title with 113 points. They once again get a bye to the first round, where they square off once again with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite having faltered in the playoffs in the past two years, Bernie Parent is once again given the starting job to open the series, and once again, he is pulled in favour of Wayne Stephenson in Game Three. Stephenson turns the team around in Game Four, but Toronto claims the next two to win the series in six games. The Flyers’ consolation prize is the 15th Overall Pick in the 1978 NHL Amateur Draft, which sees the team take Steve Tambellini of the WCHL’s Lethbridge Broncos.
Kharlamov, once again, proves poor in the playoffs, only recording a pair of assists. The local media is now at their limit, and calls for boycotts of the Flyers began to surface if the team kept the Russian around. With the team being unable to reach the semi-final for the first time in six years, Kharlamov’s last defender in the city, Fred Shero, would be sacked, as owner Ed Snider and GM Keith Allen bowed to public pressure. Kharlamov himself would see his three-year contract expire, as the Soviet defector would leave the team to become a free agent.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 64 GP, 27 GOALS, 55 ASSISTS, 82 POINTS, 78 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 6 GP, 0 GOALS, 2 ASSISTS, 2 POINTS, 10 PIM
Kharlamov’s NHL future was, for a very brief period of time, uncertain. That period of time would come to an end with the hiring of Fred Shero as GM and head coach of the New York Rangers. Shero, one of Valeri’s most vehement defenders in Philadelphia, would convince the ownership group that Kharlamov was worth a shot. Fred’s pitch was that while his playoff numbers seemed bad, he was a regular season threat, and had he played a full year in 77-78, he could have been a 100-point player. His regular season totals, Shero argued, would be more important, considering the Rangers had missed out on the playoffs entirely last year; if they were going to make it to the post-season at all, they would need somebody who could produce in the first 80 games.
1978-79 (NEW YORK RANGERS, NHL): Immediately, the signing of Valeri Kharlamov by the New York Rangers is met with some skepticism by the Rangers’ faithful. Kharlamov, after all, had been run out of town by the Flyers, and if New York was going to go anywhere in the playoffs, they would need someone who would step up in big games. Skepticism would only increase when it was reported that Fred Shero would start Kharlamov on the first line with veteran centreman Phil Esposito and former WHA star Anders Hedberg. Shero proclaimed that though Kharlamov could score goals, he was best suited to be a playmaker for the other two.
As the season went on, the nervousness from Ranger fans surrounding Kharlamov would disappear, as the Kharlamov-Esposito-Hedberg line proved to be effective. As predicted, it was the Russian doing most of the playmaking, while his linemates grabbed the bulk of the goals. Valeri’s 49 assists would lead the entire team, while his 76 points would put him two behind Esposito and Hedberg for the team lead. Valeri wasn’t the only player having a solid season, as second-line and third-line players stepped up in a big way for the Rangers. The team’s heavy scoring depth played a huge part in New York managing to finish in 2nd in the Patrick Division (and 4th in the NHL) with 97 points.
The Rangers, due to their 4th-place finish in the league, would be granted a bye to the quarter-finals, where they would be drawn against none other than the Philadelphia Flyers. The return of Kharlamov and Shero to their former home was most certainly the big story of the series, with the two getting distinctly different receptions from the Philly crowd. While Shero was given a hero’s welcome, the Soviet star was greeted with a shower of boos, and even a battery or two chucked from the stands. Once again, Kharlamov would be stymied in the post-season, with Flyer players making sure to finish checks on him, legal or not. As it turned out, Philadelphia paid so much attention to Kharlamov that they forgot about the other players on the team. New York would win the first two at home, then follow those up with two on the road for a four-game sweep.
Next up for the Rangers were their city rivals, the New York Islanders. The Islanders had been the top team in the league in the regular season (both in points and in goal scoring), and had the second-lowest goals against total. While the Rangers could compete with the Islanders in their attack, their weak goaltending would be the major factor that the Islanders could exploit – or so everyone thought. John Davidson would manage to outduel both Glenn Resch and Billy Smith, keeping the Rangers in every game, while the Rangers’ offensive units would grab goals in key moments to give their team a shock six-game series win.
It was time for the Stanley Cup Final, and the Rangers were out to break a 39-year drought. Standing in their way were the Montreal Canadiens, one of the two dynasties of the 70s alongside the “Broad Street Bullies” in Philly. Montreal was much like the New York Islanders in that they had great offence and great defence, but the Rangers knew that if they could take down the Islanders, they could do the same to the Habs. The Canadiens learned from the mistakes of the Rangers’ cross-town rivals, however, and after a Game One loss, the Habs would never let New York get comfortable again. Montreal would end up with yet another Stanley Cup, winning the series in five games.
For Fred Shero, it wasn’t quite a perfect start to his Rangers tenure, but he took the team to the Cup Final – not a bad achievement at all, considering the team had finished out of the playoffs altogether the previous year. And as for Kharlamov, he had immediately become a relied-upon player, connecting well with his Rangers teammates. Once again, he was less effective in the playoffs, as teams continued to put pressure on him in key games – none more so than the Flyers, with several dirty hits going unnoticed by on-ice officials. His 9 assists in the post-season showed that at the very least, Valeri had something to offer at all times of the year. The Rangers, thanks to their finish in the regular season standings, would select 14th Overall in the 1979 Entry Draft, taking winger Brian Propp out of the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 75 GP, 27 GOALS, 49 ASSISTS, 76 POINTS, 65 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 15 GP, 1 GOALS, 9 ASSISTS, 10 POINTS, 4 PIM
1979-80 (NEW YORK RANGERS, NHL): The 1979-80 season presented a new wrinkle across the entire National Hockey League. The NHL, after having 17 teams the past few years following the absorption of the Cleveland Barons by Minnesota, would expand to 21 teams following the inclusion of four teams from the WHA: The Edmonton Oilers, the Winnipeg Jets, the Hartford Whalers, and the Quebec Nordiques. Though there were some new teams added to the mix, the regular season schedule would stay the same length at 80 games.
This was good news for Valeri Kharlamov. Now 31 years of age, injuries incurred thanks to being targeted by North American players had started to take their toll. Though Valeri was still a solid player for New York, his point totals were starting to dwindle. For the first time in North America, he would be unable to crack the 20-goal mark, and his point total had dropped to a career low of 60. He would still be a top-6 player for the Rangers, but his spot on the first line had been taken by rookie Brian Propp. Propp would go on to finish second on the team in points with 75, and would also finish 4th in Calder Trophy voting for Rookie of the Year.
Propp’s ascension helped the Rangers stay competitive in the new NHL landscape, as they would finish with 98 points, good for 2nd in the Patrick Division, and 5th in the NHL. As a result of all the new teams added, the playoff format would be changed, with the top 16 teams getting in. 1st seed would play 16th, 2nd would face 15th, and so on in the first round, with teams getting reseeded in each round so that the highest seed faces the lowest. Because of their finish, this would pit the Rangers against the Los Angeles Kings in a best-of-five series.
The perceived biggest key for the Rangers in facing Los Angeles was shutting down the Kings’ superstar, Marcel Dionne. Dionne had finished atop the NHL scoring table alongside rookie Wayne Gretzky with 137 points, and if he was allowed to create a chance in New York’s zone, the Rangers were screwed. Fred Shero, however, decided that it was too much effort to contain Dionne, and instead told his team to focus on overwhelming L.A.’s defenders. What resulted was a wild, high-scoring series, which the Rangers would win in four games.
The Rangers’ first best-of-seven series would be against the Boston Bruins, who had some trouble in beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the previous round. Boston was in no way interested in an offensive series, and showed it by winning the first two games at home, holding the Rangers to a pair of goals in each contest. New York would respond by taking the next two games, before the two sides split Games Five and Six, each side winning on home ice. The deciding game would be exactly what the Bruins didn’t want – an offensive slug-fest that saw Brian Propp score with only 24 seconds left to give the Rangers a 6-5 win, and the series.
The semi-final round was a re-match with the Philadelphia Flyers, who had clearly paid attention to what the Rangers were capable of in their first two series, and looked to slow the game down in order to prevent New York from getting their attack in gear. The plan worked to an extent, as the two sides split the first four games, each side winning once at home and once on the road. Philly would win Game Five, but New York would take a high-scoring Game Six 6-5. Game Seven would go back to the Spectrum, where the Flyers would finally put the nail in New York’s coffin with a 5-2 win. The Rangers were out, having mounted a respectable run in the new NHL.
After a few seasons of being a playoff bust, Valeri Kharlamov had finally proven that he could be effective in the post-season. His genius was infrequent, but it seemed like at any point, he could single-handedly take over a game for the Rangers. This was evident in both of the first two series, particularly in Game Four against Los Angeles and Game Five against Boston, both of which ended with Valeri potting a goal and adding two assists. Naturally, Kharlamov was once again targeted by his former teammates in Philadelphia, and was thus less able to have an effect on the scoresheet.
Having finished in 5th in the NHL, the Rangers would get the 17th pick in the 1980 NHL Draft, which they would use on Red Deer Rustlers centreman Brent Sutter.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 75 GP, 19 GOALS, 41 ASSISTS, 60 POINTS, 72 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 18 GP, 4 GOALS, 10 ASSISTS, 14 POINTS, 2 PIM
1980-81 (NEW YORK RANGERS, NHL): The 80-81 season for the New York Rangers got off to a terrible start, as several players went down due to injuries. Valeri Kharlamov was not immune, as he would leave the team’s game against Toronto on October 11th thanks to a questionable hit by Rick Vaive. The compounding injury problem led to a terrible first twenty games, and Fred Shero would resign from both the GM and coach positions in Late November. Craig Patrick would step in as GM/coach, and managed to right the ship enough to get the team in the playoffs. The Rangers would finish the season in 10th place in the NHL with 82 points.
The Rangers’ aging line-up was set to face off with the newly-relocated Calgary Flames, who had many of their players in the prime of their careers. New York was basically limping in to this series, with all of Kharlamov, Ulf Nilsson, Ron Duguay, and Walt Tkazcuk missing significant amounts of time. Phil Esposito, meanwhile, had retired mid-season, playing only 41 games. The Flames would take advantage of their energy (and the Rangers’ fragility), and claim the series in five games. Kharlamov, who one Calgary beat reporter had described as “enigmatic”, had yet another flash of brilliance in the lone Rangers win in Game Three, recording a hat trick, and adding an assist.
For their regular season finish, the Rangers would receive the 12th Overall Pick in the 1981 Entry Draft. They would use it on yet another forward, claiming Oshawa Generals winger Tony Tanti. Tanti had just come off an 81-goal season, good for second in the OHL.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 54 GP, 11 GOALS, 30 ASSISTS, 41 POINTS, 25 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 5 GP, 3 GOALS, 3 ASSISTS, 6 POINTS, 0 PIM
1981 OFF-SEASON: The 1981 off-season is a pivotal one for Valeri Kharlamov, both in this timeline and the original. After three years in New York, Kharlamov has declined physically. He has spent a year plagued by injuries, most of which have come from enduring years of dirty hits in the WHA and NHL. The time is coming for him to think about ending his career, and according to local sources in New York, he is planning on calling it a day after the 81-82 season. He has signed a one-year contract extension with the Rangers, allowing him to make the choice at the end of the campaign whether to continue playing or not.
In real life, he had been planning to retire following the 81-82 season with CSKA Moscow, but would never get that chance. Kharlamov would be one of the passengers in a fatal car accident, alongside his wife Irina (who was driving), and a cousin of hers. News of the accident shook Soviet hockey to the core; even as he was approaching the end of his playing career, he had become one of the symbols of the game in the USSR, and his contributions for the national team made him a God-like figure following the accident.
Even if his family, particularly Irina, had been allowed to join him in the United States following his defection, it would be extremely unlikely for this accident to happen; in fact, his defection allows him an opportunity that most would find unthinkable in this new timeline. In late August, Kharlamov is invited to the Team United States training camp in preparation for the upcoming Canada Cup. The news is taken by Soviet hockey officials as a slap in the face, and they threaten to boycott the tournament if Valeri is included in the U.S. roster. Whether out of respect for his country of birth, or due to wanting to be healthy for the NHL season, Kharlamov declines the offer, and instead heads to training camp with the Rangers.
1981-82 (NEW YORK RANGERS/QUEBEC NORDIQUES, NHL): Despite being healthy enough for the beginning of the season, Kharlamov would quickly find himself dropped to the third line, and occasionally even scratched. His spot on either of the top two lines had been taken by Brian Propp and Don Maloney, both of whom were producing at point-a-game paces. Valeri, to his credit, would make no fuss over his spot in the line-up in public, although he did seem to have concerns over whether his future was in New York – or whether he had a future on the ice at all.
Kharlamov’s expendability would be highlighted on March 8th, 1982, when he was awarded to the Quebec Nordiques to complete a trade from late December. Dean Talafous, who was supposed to be sent to the Nordiques in that trade, refused to report to the team, and after a stand-off of more than two months, his place would be taken by the Soviet winger. Kharlamov, unlike Talafous, would be more than willing to report, hoping for a chance to prove he was still capable of being a solid NHLer. Unfortunately, Kharlamov would find himself in another third-line role, thanks to Quebec having an extremely strong offensive core. Nonetheless, even as a third-liner, Valeri would show occasional flashes of brilliance, and would be first in line to sub in for any of the three Stastny brothers whenever they got injured.
The Nordiques would finish 4th in the Adams Division with 83 points, pitting them in the first round against their provincial rivals, the Montreal Canadiens. Because of a change to the playoff format, the top team in each division now face the 4th-place team, while the 2nd-place and 3rd-place team squared off. Montreal may not have been as dominant as they were in the 70s, but they were still a formidable foe, led by future Hall-of-Famer Guy Lafleur. The series would require all five games, as the two split each of the first four games. Game Five would end only 22 seconds into overtime, as Dale Hunter would score to give the Nordiques a shock win, eliminating the Habs.
The Division Finals would see Quebec face off against the Boston Bruins, who had eliminated Buffalo in the first round. Once again, the series would go the distance, only this time it was seven games that were played. The seventh game would be a close one, but Quebec’s two power-play goals would seal the deal, as the visiting Nordiques claimed a 2-1 victory, and a 4-3 series win. Having advanced out of their division, Quebec’s next test was against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, the New York Islanders. Though the Nordiques were not short on confidence due to eliminating two strong teams in Montreal and Boston, knocking off the Islanders was too tall an order; New York would go on to win the series in a sweep, advancing to their third-straight Cup Final.
KHARLAMOV SEASON TOTALS: 68 GP, 14 GOALS, 35 ASSISTS, 49 POINTS, 54 PIM
With the New York Rangers: 57 GP, 12 GOALS, 29 ASSISTS, 41 POINTS, 34 PIM
With the Quebec Nordiques: 11 GP, 2 GOALS, 6 ASSISTS, 8 POINTS, 20 PIM
KHARLAMOV PLAYOFF TOTALS: 16 GP, 1 GOAL, 5 ASSISTS, 6 POINTS, 8 PIM
The Nordiques were certainly disappointed, but none more so than Valeri Kharlamov. Given a chance to prove he could still make a difference in the NHL, Kharlamov was instead relegated to a depth role in the playoffs. When it was announced that the Nordiques would not re-sign the Russian, Kharlamov would choose to hang up the skates, ending a career that spanned sixteen years: eight in the Soviet Union (including seven at the highest level with CSKA Moscow), one in the WHA, and seven in the NHL. There was little attention paid to the announcement that Kharlamov would retire, but within hockey circles, there was certainly an understanding that by showing up in North American hockey in the first place, he had blazed a new trail.
KHARLAMOV CAREER TOTALS
Cleveland Crusaders, WHA (1974-75): 67 GP, 33 GOALS, 78 ASSISTS, 111 POINTS, 76 PIM
Philadelphia Flyers, NHL (1975-1978): 220 GP, 101 GOALS, 128 GOALS, 229 POINTS, 152 PIM
New York Rangers, NHL (1978-1982): 261 GP, 69 GOALS, 149 ASSISTS, 218 POINTS, 186 PIM
Quebec Nordiques, NHL (1982): 11 GP, 2 GOALS, 6 ASSISTS, 8 POINTS, 20 PIM
FULL NHL TOTALS: 492 GP, 172 GOALS, 283 ASSISTS, 455 POINTS, 368 PIM
ON THE HOCKEY WORLD AS A WHOLE
VALERI KHARLAMOV AFTER HOCKEY: Though his playing career would come to a close in 1982, Valeri would not be finished making an impact in North American hockey.
His experience playing in the Soviet Union affords him a wealth of knowledge that North American coaches would not have, for the most part. (There would be exceptions, notably Fred Shero, who took the time to go over to the USSR and examine the style of play in person.) Of particular interest to bench bosses in the NHL would be the advanced conditioning techniques that Soviet players, particularly those in the Red Army team, had trained under. In the years following his on-ice retirement, Kharlamov would be employed by NHL teams to help develop their training regimes. As the decade goes on, year-round training and nutritional plans become the norm across the entire NHL.
Of additional interest to NHL teams is Kharlamov’s status as a Soviet defector. Having seen that Kharlamov could come over and acquit himself well against North American talent (and hold his own in the face of extreme aggression from NHL players in those years), the USSR would actually be scouted out further, as teams hoped to lure more talent over to Canada and the United States. Valeri would be used by the New York Rangers to help lure a few players over, but very few Soviet players would be willing or able to make the same move that Kharlamov himself had done. Only one player would make the jump to the Rangers, that being Nikolai Drozdetsky, who would play two uninspiring years for the team from 1987-89 before heading over to Sweden to resume his career.
And speaking of the Soviet Union, his reputation in his homeland would be forever changed. As it stands in the OTL, Kharlamov is held up as one of the shining jewels of the Soviet era, a player who dominated both in the USSR and internationally. His early death would contribute heavily to his mystique, marking him forever as a hero who left this world far too soon. With his defection, just about everything that makes him a demi-god is erased. For the rest of the Soviet Union’s existence, he is branded a traitor and an egomaniac, who turned his back on his country for his own benefit. There is no trophy named after him, no division in the Kontinental Hockey League bearing his name, and no dramatic film in his honour. Indeed, after his defection, it is uncertain whether he would ever return to Russia at all, even after the Soviet Union’s demise.
As for his reputation in North America, he is primarily remembered as the very first to make the jump directly from the Soviet Union. His one WHA year marks the coming of a potential superstar, but his seven NHL seasons tell the story of a player that certainly could be a good NHLer, but not quite the dominant force that the ’72 Summit Series makes him out to be. A good chunk of this is due to him being a target of Canadian and American players, who feel resentful of the continuing influx of European players coming over to North America; thanks to the constant cheap shots and close checking, Kharlamov’s effectiveness is dulled. Nonetheless, his status as the very first defector in the NHL, and his flashes of amazing talent shown during his time there, are enough to warrant Hockey Hall of Fame consideration. After years of debates over his merit, Kharlamov would finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, 35 years after his defection.
KHARLAMOV’S EFFECT ON HIS TEAMS: Having a Soviet defector on their roster was a big enough change for the teams that employed Valeri Kharlamov. But team-by-team, there were different reactions to his presence, and different outcomes in this timeline.
The first team that Kharlamov joined was the team that drafted him in the inaugural WHA Draft, the Cleveland Crusaders. Having a player of Valeri’s skill level is obviously helpful to the team’s on-ice efforts, but the fact that he suited up for the Crusaders made the Cleveland team a brief powerhouse in the WHA attendance rankings. That effect would not last, however, as the Crusaders would transfer him to Philadelphia in exchange for Gary Dornhoefer and cash. Though the cash kept the team afloat for a few years, and Dornhoefer was a top player in the WHA in this timeline, it just wasn’t enough to compare to the impact that Kharlamov had. The Crusaders would not move to Minnesota this time around, but they would not be one of the teams selected to migrate to the NHL after the WHA’s closing in 1979.
Kharlamov in Philadelphia would be a study of just how difficult it can be to play in the city. Valeri went in and played solid hockey in the regular season, managing just over a point per game in three years with the Flyers. He played with the grit expected of a “Broad Street Bully”, not shying away from contact; he was even willing to deliver a huge hit on his former line-mate Vladmir Petrov when the Flyers faced off against CSKA Moscow in 1976. Despite how well he had played in the regular season, however, the fact that he couldn’t keep it up in the playoffs would be his lasting legacy in the city of Philadelphia. It would also sour the management group on former USSR players entirely, until the drafting of Lithuanian-born Dainius Zubrus in 1996.
While not quite as powerful a regular season force in New York as he was in Philadelphia, Kharlamov would finally find his game in the post-season, at the cost of his health. He would end up helping the team make a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1979, and kept the team competitive throughout his tenure. Most importantly, however, because of the effect of having Valeri on their team, the Rangers move back in the draft, and instead of getting Doug Sulliman and Jim Malone, they get Brian Propp and Brent Sutter. Sutter doesn’t stay long (taking Sulliman’s place in a trade with Hartford in 1981), but Propp would become the symbol of the 80s Rangers. This also counts as a sort of parting shot from Kharlamov to the Flyers, who drafted Propp in the OTL; Kharlamov moving indirectly deprives Philly of a player who would help the team to two Cup Final appearances in the decade.
His short time in Quebec is of little consequence. He only plays for the team for all of 11 games, and isn’t very effective in the playoffs due to his health deteriorating over the years. Instead, following his career, he returns to New York to take a role as an off-ice advisor; not only does he help the Rangers improve their strength and conditioning programs as mentioned earlier, but he also works as a go-between for the team as they look to reach out to other potential defectors from the Soviet Union.
DEFECTION IN HOCKEY: As it stood, the defection of Vaclav Nedomansky was something of an early warning shot to the Czechoslovak hockey world. Though defections would be rare over the years immediately following the switch, the late 70s and early 80s would see a collection of players make the move over to North America, with the Stastny brothers at the top of the list. Czechoslovakia, however, was merely a Soviet satellite state; not a single player would directly move from the USSR itself to join a North American team without any kind of government approval. By the time Russian players started to arrive en masse in the NHL in the late 80s, they were almost all approved transfers, with only Alexander Mogilny (1989) and Sergei Fedorov (1990) choosing to defect – a point in time when the end of the Soviet Union was almost inevitable.
With Valeri Kharlamov now choosing to make the jump, the situation changes somewhat. Having lost out on one of their stars, the Soviet Union becomes much more militant in dealing with top hockey players, as they cannot risk another talent like Kharlamov fleeing for North America. For the Yakushevs, Tretiaks, Mikhailovs, and Petrovs, defection is outright impossible, as the government pulls out all the stops to make sure that they stay in the country. Players on the periphery of the national team, particularly those who are cast out before their 30s, are most tantalizing to NHL and WHA scouts. Though some more resources would be spent on monitoring the stars, those periphery players could possibly slip through the cracks, as bolting for North America is seen as a superior option to playing in a country where the national team has cast them aside.
Even with this in mind, the list of potential defectors is incredibly small – probably enough to count on one hand. Though some players were certainly cast off by the national team in their prime, quite a few of them were either part of a Red Army club (which included CSKA Moscow and SKA Leningrad) or a KGB-sponsored club (primarily Dynamo Moscow), and thus there was no way to contact them about defection without their respective forces knowing about it. Instead, players from Soviet clubs with no direct connection to Russian armed/police forces would be contacted.
Though I could not predict everybody who would make the move in this timeline, I can give an example of someone who may be targeted: defenseman Yuri Fedorov. Fedorov played for Torpedo Gorky, and only made sporadic appearances for the national team in his late 20s. Whether he would actually make the move is uncertain, but as a low priority for the Soviet national team, he would be more likely an option than the star players, who would be extensively monitored so as to intercept any attempt by NHL or WHA team personnel to communicate with them.
In the 80s, the dam wouldn’t burst, but it would spring a few leaks. Soviet players would begin to pop up in the NHL via different methods. Some would outright defect, some would find workarounds to get out of the Soviet Union (such as Victor Nechayev, who married an American woman who had been studying in Leningrad), and some, particularly later in the decade, would be granted permission by the government to play in North America (such as Sergei Priakhin, Slava Fetisov, and the KLM line). When at the beginning of the 80s, there would be only enough Russians to count on one hand (or even one finger, if nobody follows Kharlamov to the NHL), Soviet players would become much more common by the end of the decade.
This one is the article that I’m least confident about, less due to writing style than the subject matter. I’ve tried to cite as many sources as I could, but if there is something I missed or got terribly wrong, please let me know.
Also, I’m sorry for linking to HFboards, but that was the best source I could find for the Soviet league not counting second assists.
Next month, a more recent Russian superstar, and a classic Mike Milbury blunder – What if the Alexei Yashin trade never happened?