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Radulov, Kostitsyn and the NHL's dwindling Russian influence

Hockey fans flock to a new arena to see the dynamic duo of Pavel Bure (left) and Alexander Mogilny (right), but the Vancouver Canucks have a few problems to solve before being considered NHL championship contenders.

Their numbers have been thinning out almost every year.

Since the so-called Russian invasion began in the late 1980s, fewer and fewer players are coming over from the former Soviet republics to play in the NHL every year.

The creation of the KHL, and the oil money that's been pumped into salaries there, certainly has played a role, but the reputation of Russian players is also under fire.

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Not that that's entirely new.

The notion of "do they really care?" has been around almost from the beginning (and especially in the playoffs), as has the idea of Russian players as "enigmatic" and unknowable entities.

This latest curfew incident with Alex Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn, a Russian and a Belarusian, has merely brought out the criticisms and cynicism that have only grown in the NHL over the past 10 years.

"There is a reason NHL teams are scared of drafting and depending on Russians, and what happened last Saturday night in Phoenix is Exhibit A," Hockey Night in Canada's Elliotte Friedman wrote on Wednesday.

"It's not only Russians," added Sportsnet's Mark Spector. "You've got to admit though, the stigma that has grown on players from that country now far outweighs anyone else's baggage."

Those types of articles drove several Russian members of the media nuts, including Yahoo!'s Dmitry Chesnokov, who voiced his displeasure on Twitter over the articles lumping players from his homeland into one big group.

It's true. Russian players are not all the same. Here in Toronto, the two we in the media see every day are Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski (another Belarusian) and they work harder than anyone on the team.

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Their Canadian and American teammates and coaches are the first to admit it.

First on the ice for practice, the last off and always hanging around the rink long after they have to.

What's undeniable, though, is that Russians (and by extension Ukranians, Belarusians, Latvians and the rest) have a perception problem in this league.

And it wouldn't surprise me in the least if that has played a role in their dwindling numbers in the NHL.

Look at the 16 teams that made the playoffs this year. Leaving out the two Philadelphia Flyers goaltenders, there were only 12 Russian skaters to play in at least one postseason game. (Last year there were six.)

Even when you add in the handful of players from the other post-Soviet states, we're still talking about only roughly 5 per cent of the league.

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So when four of those players are making headlines for either missing curfew or having their ice time dropped dramatically (as with Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin in Washington) people in the hockey world are going to come to conclusions.

<h5 style='border-top: #000 1px solid; border-bottom: #000 1px dotted; font:14px Georgia,serif; font-weight: normal; width: 460px; padding: 5px 0; margin: 20px 0 0'>Russian players in the NHL playoffs </h5><p style='font:12px Verdana,sans-serif; width: 460px; margin: 5px 0 0 0; line-height: 1.4em;'>The number of Russian skaters in the postseason hit a high of 30 in 2000 but has averaged just 13 a season since the lockout</p><iframe src="" scrolling='no' frameborder='no' width='460' height='300' style='border-bottom: 1px dotted #000; margin: 20px 0 0' ></iframe><p style='text-align:right; font: 10px Arial; color: #666; margin: 3px 0 20px 0;'>SOURCE:</p>

As I said above, that's not exactly new. There were similar things said and written about the first influx of Russian players.

The only difference seemed to be there were far more of them 20 years ago, before they were outnumbered by Americans, Finns and Swedes and become such a minority on every team.

Teams were willing to take a chance on Russian players and Russian players seemed more willing to take a chance on getting a fair shake in North America.

It does make one wonder where this trend will stop. This, after all, is a league with almost no Russian influence among decision makers and a natural bias toward Canadian junior and American college players given that's the route most GMs took to the top.

It's easy to blame these falling numbers on only the presence of the KHL, but there's more at work here.

Are we looking at an NHL that is down to only a dozen Russian players a few years from now?

And how much of that comes back to that perception of a group of players as being too much like Radulov and not enough like Kulemin?

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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