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50 years of the NHL Draft - Russian talent goes mainstream

Shane McNeil, TSN.ca

6/19/2012 11:45:59 AM

To commemorate the 50th NHL Draft which takes place Friday in Pittsburgh, TSN.ca looks back at 10 memorable storylines from the history of the event in 10 days. Today, we look back at promising young Russian talents that have come through - and continue to come through - the draft.

Russian-born players have an intriguing history at the NHL Draft.

The first 27 drafts were held under the shadow of the Cold War, with almost no opportunities to be found for players born in the Soviet Union to play in the league.

It didn't prevent teams from trying to draft Russian players. But until the late 1980s, the dream of them suiting up for an NHL season was largely that - just a dream.

Teams drafted elite Russian players throughout the 1970s and 1980s on the off-chance that they may one day be permitted to play in the NHL.

The Montreal Canadiens used a 12th-round pick in 1978 to draft future Hall-of-Fame defenceman Vyacheslav Fetisov. But his move to the NHL was blocked by the Soviet government. They would also use seventh-round pick in 1983 on goaltender Vladislav Tretiak and while he was willing to play for them, the Soviet government blocked that move as well.

That all changed in 1989 when players began defecting from the U.S.S.R. to play. The first wave of Russian players including Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, Alexei Kasatonov and young Alexander Mogilny hit the NHL and teams that had drafted their rights on a whim were rewarded with an immediate influx of talent.

Young Russian stars would trickle into the league over the coming years with elite talents like Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov leading the charge. Teams began drafting more Russians in the knowledge that they no longer would be kept out of the league by their home country.

As the years went by, players like Alexei Yashin, Viktor Kozlov, Andrei Zyuzin and Alexandre Volchkov were taken early but it would still take a while for a Russian to go first overall.

Going into the 2001 draft, one player was on the top of everyone's draft projections and for the very first time a Russian-born player went with the first pick in the Draft.

The Atlanta Thrashers took Ilya Kovalchuk with the No. 1 selection and he would make an immediate impact in the league. While he would lose the Calder Trophy race to teammate Dany Heatley in his rookie season, he would eclipse the 25, 35 and 40-goal plateaus in his first three seasons in Atlanta.

The 2003-04 season would see the emergence of another Russian sniper destined for first overall.

Seemingly a wire-to-wire consensus choice for the first pick in the 2004 Draft, Alexander Ovechkin would turn heads playing in his third season against Russia's best players in the Super League's Dynamo Moscow.

The Washington Capitals won the honour of selecting Ovechkin with the first overall pick and the Pittsburgh Penguins would take another Russian right behind him - nabbing future Hart Trophy nominee and Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Evgeni Malkin with the second overall pick.

The draft would mark the first and only occasion (to date) Russian-born players would go first and second on draft day.

And Russian talent will be on the forefront again on Friday, as the consensus No. 1 choice for this year's draft is Russian-born Sarnia Sting forward Nail Yakupov.

Follow the TSN Quizmaster on Twitter and get more from this story as the draft draws closer. TSN and TSN.ca have exclusive coverage of the 2012 NHL Draft on Friday at 7pm et/4pm pt live from the CONSOL Energy Centre in Pittsburgh.