The Capitals and the “Russian Spies Era” in DC?

The second half of the 20th century was marked by the Cold War, a dispute between the United States and the Soviet Union. The relationship between the White House and the Kremlin was tense, making the world fear nuclear war for such a long time. The dispute, which lasted from the end of World War II until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, also had its impact on hockey for many of the players were born in the old rival power of the USA did and continue making history in the NHL.

The year was 1974. Two historical events took place that year in Washington, DC: the capital saw a city team debut: The Washington Capitals during NHL’s 1974-75 season. Before that, another historical fact in the context of the Cold War that year was the resignation of President Richard Nixon of the Republican Party, following the Watergate scandal. Another element of the Cold War Era was the conflict known as the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955-1975. The following year, the United States was defeated in the Asian country, with many casualties of US soldiers, prompting protests across the country.

The Washington Capitals emerged at a time of great difficulty and tension that the country was experiencing, and was just what Washington needed.

Speaking of hockey and the Cold War, it is impossible not to forget the 1980 Winter Olympics, when the young and amateur United States hockey team defeated the legendary Soviet Union hockey team in the semifinals 4-3. The “Miracle on Ice”, as it became known, gave the USA the way to the final and the team defeated Finland two days later, winning the gold medal.

The Capitals have a long history of bringing in players for former Soviet-bloc countries, as well as Russia. Lets take a look back as some memorable contributors to the success of the Caps.

Former Players

Milan Nový became the first player born in then Czechoslovakia, which was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, to play for the Capitals, joining the team in the 1982-83 season. At the time, few players from these countries were selected in the draft because it wasn’t sure they would be allowed by their countries to play for the NHL franchises – the United States and Canada. Just a few players were allowed to play in the West, like Nový, by the authorities of Czechoslovakian hockey.

Rod Langway, known as “Secretary of Defense”, was captain and defenseman of the Capitals, playing in the team from the 1982-83 season until the 1992-93 season. One of the greatest legends of all time in the team, his jersey # 5 was immortalized by the franchise, becoming the second of the four to receive such an honor. But… what does Langway have to do with the subject matter? Another country of ideology opposed to the US comes into the picture in the context of the Cold War: China. Langway was born in Taiwan because his father was a US soldier on duty, becoming the first and only player to have been born in China/Taiwan to play in the league. The insular country served as a refuge for Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party, when he and his forces were expelled by the troops commanded by Mao Tse Tung in 1949. Since then, Taiwan has approached to the United States. Langway is the Caps player with the best plus-minus in a season, with +117.

Michal Pivoňka, like Nový, was also born in Czechoslovakia, becoming one of the main players of the sport in his country. However, unlike Nový, he had to defect from his homeland to play in the NHL. It was the 59th overall pick in the draft in 1984, but his debut for the team was from the 1986-87 season. Before Nicklas Backstrom, Pivoňka was the player with most assists in the Capitals history, with 418.

Peter Bondra was born in Ukraine, but moved to Czechoslovakia. “Bonzai”, as he is known by the fans, was the 156th overall pick in the 1990 draft as a Soviet citizen. Already at the end of the Cold War, he became a citizen of Slovakia in 1994, with the separation of the former country. Bondra became one of the biggest players in the franchise’s history and was part of the cast that won the 1998 Eastern Conference. Prior to Alex Ovechkin, Bondra was the player with the highest number of goals (472) and points (825) in the Franchise by which he played 961 games. Playing for Slovakia, he scored twice, including a 4-3 win in the memorable final against Russia at the 2002 IIHF World Cup in Sweden, giving his country the first and only gold in its history. He still has the franchise records for shorthanded goals in a season (6) and career (32) and greatest number of game-winning goals in a season (13). He often participates in Alumni Games, being always remembered as one of the greatest idols in the team’s history.

The 14th overall pick in the 1992 draft by Capitals, Sergei Gonchar, born in Soviet Russia, was a defensive who was part of the 1998 Eastern Conference conquest. He also placed his name in the franchise history as the defenseman with most power play goals (53). In 2009, he won a Stanley Cup playing by the rival Penguins, team, for which he is currently the defense development coach.

In 2001, the Capitals tried a high bet: hired Jaromir Jagr, trading three young prospects for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jagr was one player more born in Czechoslovakia. Jagr signed the then-largest contract in NHL history – $ 77 million over seven years, earning an average salary of $ 11 million per year (over $134,000 per game), with an eighth-year option.  However, the expensive contract was not reflective of a great performance by him in the team. The player, who won two Stanley Cups (1991 and 1992) for Penguins, the Capitals’ greatest rival, was traded to the New York Rangers in the 2003-04 season. In total, Jagr has played in eight league franchises and is the oldest active player in it.

The Hall of Famer Sergei Fedorov, was born in Pskov, Soviet Union and had to defect to play in the NHL. Named one of the top 100 players in NHL history, the Russian played for the Capitals alongside compatriot Ovechkin for two seasons (2007-08 and 2008-09). Among the achievements in his great career are three Stanley Cups for the Detroit Red Wings, one of them in 1998, against Capitals. Also against the Capitals, he had a very rare record: scoring five goals in a single match when Red Wings beat the Caps in the overtime by 5-4 on December 26, 1996. Also on Red Wings, Fedorov was part of the Russian Five, sometimes known as the Red Army or The Wizards of Ov. For the first time in the league, a whole line was made up of Russian players: in the offensive zone. Fedorov played alongside Igor Larionov and Vyacheslav Kozlov while the defense was composed by Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov. For the Soviet Union, they won the 1989 and 1990 World Cups. For Russia, they won the 2008 World Cup. For the Capitals, they scored the series-winning goal against the Rangers in Round 1. Caps won Game 7 by 2-1 (Alex Semin scored the first goal).

Alexander Semin was born in Krasnoyarsk, Soviet Union. A close friend of the current Caps greatest player, Alex Ovechkin, Semin was drafted by Caps in 2002 as the 13th overall choice, but there was a controversy over compulsory military service in which Russian men should serve for at least two years. For those who play hockey, Russia allows players to devote themselves exclusively to the sport, but it must be in the home country. Curiously, Ovechkin, only a year younger than Semin, managed to play in the NHL without having to do any military service. Semin made his debut for the Capitals in 2006 and did a good job alongside Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. He went to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2012-13 season, then to the Montreal Canadiens and now plays for Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League).

Check back tomorrow when we take a look at the current players from Russia and the Czech Republic. 

Photo by Hooked on Hockey

Multiple sources were used for the writing of this article.

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