The Flyers and Russia: A Complicated History

Mar 20, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov (9) defends against the New York Islanders during the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 20, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov (9) defends against the New York Islanders during the first period at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

If you saw the recent news, you know that Flyers goalie prospect Ivan Fedotov has reportedly been detained by Russian authorities for “failing to register for the draft”. It is unclear what will happen to him. Will he be released and join the team this fall? Will he spend time in jail? Will he be forced to serve in the army and go to Ukraine? We’ll have to see.

The history of Russian players in the NHL dates back to 1989 when the USSR allowed Sergei Pryakhin to officially play in the NHL. Later that year, Pavel Bure would defect with Sergei Fedorov following in 1990. Today, Russian players are a major part of the league, with Alex Ovechkin topping the list. But the Flyers history with Russian players is a bit….complicated.

Much of it starts with the Summit Series in 1972. The Soviet Red Army Olympic Team had made a tour of Canadian cities playing an all-star team of Canadian NHL players. In the sixth game, Flyers captain Bobby Clarke slashed Valeri Kharlamov in the ankle, breaking it. Kharlamov believes Clarke did it on purpose; Clarke said he was unaware that Kharlamov was playing on a sore ankle and while the hit was intentional, he didn’t intend to injury him.

Four years later, the Red Army Team did a tour of NHL cities in a series of exhibitions. They defeated every team, except a tie with the Montreal Canadiens. When they rolled into Philly, it was a different story. This was the Bully Era of the Flyers and they were the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. When the Russians rolled into town, they unleashed their full physical fury on them. Ed Van Impe leveled Kharlamov and knocked him to the ice. During the first intermission, the Soviets threatened not to return to play. Flyers owner Ed Snider threatened not to pay them. The Russians returned and the Flyers defeated them, 4-1.

As the Soviet Union crumbled, and Russian hockey stars started to defect to the NHL, Russian teams began to auction off their top players. Cold War animosities still lingered with Clarke and Snider, and they refused to deal with the Soviet officials who pretty much took bribes for players. As a result, the Flyers lagged behind in the new NHL arms race as teams like the Detroit Red Wings built a dynasty that featured five Russian hockey stars.

For a while, the Flyers were hesitant to deal with Russian players. Some of them were motivated by money and would hold out for bigger contracts. Sometimes, Cold War prejudices impaired their judgement.

The first Russian player to play in Philly was Andrei Lomakin in 1991. He scored 14 games in his first season, but would only play 108 total games in Philadelphia before being selected by Florida in the 1993 expansion draft. The first Russian drafted was Vyacheslav Butsayev in the 1990 draft. The center would make his debut in the 1992-93 season, and spend a year and a half in Philly before being traded to the Sharks.

Along with Fedotov, the Flyers have had only two goalies of Russian descent: Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky. Their history is an interesting one as the Flyers moved mountains to acquire Bryz while giving up on the two-time Vezina winner in the process. Another Russian, Kirill Ustimenko was drafted in the third round in 2017 and is on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms roster.

As of 2021-22, only 19 players have suited up in orange and black, with 12 of them playing less than 50 total games. 28 have been drafted, with the majority of them never making it out of the minors or never playing for the Flyers. Of those draft picks, only two have been first round picks: Ivan Provorov in 2015 and German Rubtsov in 2016. Provy has played in more games (450 thus far) than any other Russian by almost double.

The next closest is 90s defender Dmitri Yushkevich. Rubtsov played in only four games for Philly, before he would stay in the KHL during the COVID pandemic. He was traded to Florida as part of the Claude Giroux trade while he was playing for the Phantoms. He spent all of last year in the AHL.

Some of the players who played for the Flyers were players like Alexei Zhamnov, Alexei Zhitnik, Danny Markov, Vladimir Malakhov, and Andrei Kovalenko whose best seasons were far behind them.  Defender Dmitri Tertyshny was a young rising defender who was killed in a horrific boating accident in the summer of 1999 when he was 22.

Hopefully the Flyers can get the Fedotov situation settled and more importantly, hopefully he will be safe. Likewise, this incident does bring up some reminders of the very complicated history between this organization and Russia.