With the NHL joining the other sports leagues on hiatus, we thought it would be a great time to take a look at how an international presence has changed the game for the Vancouver Canucks. Just talking about the Vancouver Canucks best ever Russian is to amplify how much geopolitics has changed from the birth of the team. The Canucks were born into a world of Cold War and paranoia – often justified – between the West and the USSR.
The legendary Summit Series happened just two years after the NHL premiered in Vancouver. It was a mix of Canada’s emotional core and was heavily politicized. Emotions were high enough that Team Canada was booed off the Vancouver ice after their loss in Game Four. It was nearly two decades before the Canucks would welcome their first Russian players.
Vancouver Canucks Best: Russian
The first Russian to play in the NHL joined the Calgary Flames for two games in the 1988-89 season, and once in the playoffs. Sergei Priakin may not have had much of a career, scoring just eleven points in 46 games. However, he did win a Stanley Cup. It was still unknown exactly how the Russians would be able to come to North America, but teams started drafting them with ‘flier picks’. In the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth rounds, just in case. Vancouver’s first such choice struck gold… kind of.
When Canucks scout Mike Penny started scouting Russia, he noticed a smaller player skating with the CSKA Moscow team. You might know them better as the Red Army, the team that got the best players from around the USSR filtered to it. It was then coached by the legendary Viktor Tikhonov, a man who preferred his veterans. Yet somehow a 16-year old Pavel Bure made the team. I mention Penny because of how he scored the Vancouver Canucks best Russian with a sixth-round pick in 1989, 113th overall.
And, with apologies to the Russians who follow here, this is an easy decision.
The Russian Rocket’s first year was electric. Fans in Vancouver had never seen the speed he showed off right from Game One. His 34 goals in 65 games during the regular season was followed up with 10 points in 13 playoff games. In the next two years, Bure scored 60 goals in each, which is still a team record. He is one of two Canucks to reach 50 goals in a season, and he did it three times. In total, his Canucks career finished after 254 goals and 478 points in 428 regular-season games. He was just as amazing in the playoffs with 34 goals and 66 points in 60 games. Bure holds or shares team single-season records for power-play goals, even-strength goals, and short-handed goals.
He sat out after demanding a trade in 1998, eventually getting sent to the Florida Panthers. Bure is the only Canuck to play more than 100 games for them and maintain more than a one-point-per-game average. Despite the acrimonious parting, the retirement of his Canucks number was well deserved.
Alexander Mogilny has an amazing story. He didn’t want to wait for permission to join the NHL and made the decision to defect from the 1989 World Championships. That decision made the relationship between the Soviet Union and NHL very tense for a few years, but the Buffalo Sabres never regretted it. The whole story is too big to include here, so we’re keeping it to his time in Vancouver.
The Canucks traded for Mogilny at the 1995 entry draft to play with Bure as a deadly pairing. Unfortunately, Bure was injured for most of the 1995-96 season. Fortunately, Mogilny stepped up with the third 50+ goal season in team history. He finished that first year with 55 goals – 40 at even strength – and 107 points. He wouldn’t reach that level again, but in 312 games in Vancouver, he scored 139 goals and 308 points. Mogilny never really worked with Bure as both preferred to play the same side, and there wasn’t much other talent available to get him. The Canucks only reached the playoffs once when he was there, but he did get nine points in those six games.
The first Russian drafted by the Canucks – 214th overall in 1985 – is also one of their great regrets. Not as much as Vladimir Krutov was, perhaps, for very different reasons.
Igor Larionov was known as “the Russian Gretzky” in international competition and as “The Professor” in the NHL. He and former KLM linemate Krutov were introduced to Canucks fans before the 1989 season when they had permission to join the North American team. Larionov was an immediate hit: relaxed, articulate, and eager to challenge himself in the new league. Krutov, alas, never felt comfortable in the new world and returned after a single season.
But even Larionov took a while to get his footing. Hailed as a saviour with the phenomenal skill set he showed internationally, the first season was a disappointment. The 29-year old managed just 17 goals and 44 points, dropping even lower the next year when Krutov left. In year three, however, he helped shepherd in a young rookie named Pavel Bure to the team. With 65 points in 72 games that year, and playing an important role in Bure’s development, you would think the Canucks would do everything they could to hang onto the veteran.
Larionov insisted on playing for a year in Europe as a way to break free of an exploitative transfer payment system. He could return the next year as a true free agent, without the Russian Hockey Federation taking a cut of his contracts. GM Pat Quinn agreed, but after Larionov joined HC Lugano, Quinn needed the contract room. He believed that Larionov’s skills would be diminished with age and waived him. Larionov’s Canucks career ended eleven seasons before his NHL one did.
He played 210 games with Vancouver, scoring 51 goals and 143 points.
There are few options for the Vancouver Canucks best Russian. Even two of the three listed here left in unfortunate circumstances. Only eighteen have played for Vancouver so far, and just two lasted 300 or more regular-season games. But there is a reason to hope the bad luck (or bad management, whichever you want to blame) will end soon. Former Canuck Nikita Tryamkin wants to make a return after a Krutov-like first season. Whether a second chance will work out better this time, or happen at all, remains to be seen. But it does help reassure fans that Vancouver hasn’t been “blacklisted” by potential free agents from Russia.
Even better is the delayed arrival of Vasili Podkolzin, finishing out his contract in the KHL. While his numbers may not be blinding, it is well worth remembering that he is one of VERY few teenagers in that league. He’s going to be worth the wait.
Right now? The answer’s obvious. Bure’s blinding speed, deadly shot, and fierce determination make him stand out in any list of greats. That he has little competition does nothing to diminish his accomplishments.