Today, Russians playing in the NHL is quite common. Talented Russian players have a chance to come to Canada or the United States at a young age and learn the game through the North American program. This, however, wasn’t always the case. In the 1970s or 80s, back when Russia was the USSR, Soviet players dreaming of coming to the NHL were usually limited to doing just that – dreaming. The government had much stricter rules of Soviets leaving the USSR and many talented Russian players never got a chance to play in the NHL.
But times have changed and Russian players have made themselves a comfortable niche in the NHL, and they’ve done this despite heavy criticism by certain people on their character flaws, their lack of effort on and off the ice, and their overall attitude. This criticism has led to the Russian stereotype that haunts the NHL - that Russian players have bad attitudes and lack the right effort for the NHL.
Over the years, there are a few prime examples that have fed this stereotype, leading to an overall belief by some people that all Russian players suffer from this character flaw, which is of course simply untrue. However, this article will look at the top 15 Russian players that had attitude problems while playing in the NHL. Enjoy comrades.
15 Pavel Bure
Pavel Bure is a household name in the NHL. He’s one of the most prolific, outstanding scorers the game of hockey has ever seen. He was electricity in a bottle, and it really is a shame that his career was ended so abruptly due to injury. Now, why is Pavel being included in this article about Russian players with bad attitudes? Because Pavel spent most of his career in Vancouver, and although he was absolutely adored by the fans, he never showed the love back.
But perhaps that was just how he was, as past teammates and coaches have put it. His performance was always top notch, but he wanted to get traded from Vancouver the second he was drafted there, although it never ended up happening until years later. He never visited Vancouver after he left and never spent his summers there, opting for Los Angeles instead. He was never involved in the community and never really showed an interest to the organization that did so much for his career.
14 Alexander Moligny
What’s particularly interesting about Moligny is how he came to the NHL in the first place. Playing for the Soviet team in Stockholm, Sweden, 20-year old Moligny quietly slipped out of the hotel and met with the Sabres management group, and made his way to the United States, leaving his team behind, He became known as the first Russian defector to go play hockey in the NHL. Of course Soviet Russia was dismantled just a few months later, and the number of Russian players coming to the NHL increased dramatically.
Although Moligny was extremely talented, there were some questions concerning his attitude and dedication to the team. Most alarming was when he was quoted saying this: "Everybody knows it all starts with strength up the middle. I know it's not easy to make trades. But if it doesn't change I hope when they make a trade it's me." For a guy that had been accused of not caring, this isn’t the best way to quell those rumors.
13 Alexei Yashin
Yashin was an all-star player with a lot of offensive punch, but Yashin also had a reputation of being an under-achiever, someone who got a big fat paycheck and didn’t feel the need to earn it anymore. That’s what happened when Yashin joined the New York Islanders from the Ottawa Senators. Despite flashes of brilliance, Yashin was mostly gliding through games showing minimal effort. He was therefore accused of alienating his teammates and became known as a type of locker room cancer for the Islanders.
He was so unpopular on Long Island that when the team looked to bring him back in 2011, the fans voiced their rage and the deal never ended up going through. The Senators ended up buying out his contract in 2007, and Yashin received his last paycheck in the 2014-15 season. In the meantime, he continued playing in the RSL and KHL, earning the big bucks.
12 Alexei Kovalev
All my life I’ve supported the Montreal Canadiens. Naturally then, when I think of a player like Alexei Kovalev, I remember the way he used to glide by people as if they weren’t there, his stellar performances, and his insane hands. However, I also remembered his constant lack of effort. Kovalev seemed lazy to say the least, but when he decided to show up and give it his all, you’d be hard pressed to find a defenseman in the league who can stop him in his stride.
Kovalev has had a few low moments in his career as well and a lot of them came from him not being able to keep his mouth shut. Most notorious is when he went back to Russia for the first time since the lockout year after having signed a two-year deal, he said some things that didn’t sit to well with his previous organization, the Ottawa Senators. When asked about the media, he said that Ottawa journalists “don’t watch hockey at all. When they fly with the team and go through the metal detector at an airport, their bags are filled with beer.” An exaggeration to say the least. He also finished by saying that “in two years (with the Senators) I still don’t understand the ideas of coach Cory Clouston.”
11 Alexander Ovechkin
Finally we get to the great 8. The man who makes the impossible not only look possible, but quite easy. Ovechkin is without a doubt in my mind the most electric, enticing player in the league. It simply wouldn’t be the same league without him. Although Ovechkin doesn’t receive the same flack as some of the other Russians in the league, there are some who have criticized his attitude towards the game and how it’s played.
For example, before Barry Trotz took over in Washington, Ovechkin was a defensive nightmare despite his scoring abilities, proving he had one of the worst back checks in the league and ending the season with a dismal +/-. Things have changed in recent years under the new coach, but his defensive abilities aren’t the only things keeping his critics busy.
Ovechkin has a carefree attitude that can occasionally hurt him on and off the ice. He celebrates wildly, and hockey being the conservative game that it is, he was bound to rack up of some critics for that. Although things have changed since Trotz came, Ovechkin was known to skip occasional practices and party pretty hard when he was captain of the Capitals under coach Boudreau. So many questioned his attitude and accused him of not taking his role seriously. Needless to say, everyone as good as Ovechkin will receive their fair share of criticism, but nonetheless he’s still one of the best forwards in the league.
10 Nikita Filatov
Nikita Filatov, only 26 years old, still plays professional hockey in the KHL. When he was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets sixth overall in 2008, there was a lot of hope that Filatov would be an elite NHL player, although that was never really the case. There were situations during his time here where his attitude and outlook on his role in the organization were painted very negatively. Allen Panzeri from the Ottawa Citizen even reported that Filatov refused to play the Blue Jackets style during his time there, telling his coach that “Filly (Filatov) don’t do rebounds.” I mean the guy referred to himself of Filly, that should have been a red flag.
Most alarming is what Alain Chainey, a former recruiter for the Ducks said, who sat in on an interview with Filatov before the draft. According to him, the interview was horrible and lasted less than two minutes. Filatov asked them if he was wasting his time here, and that was pretty much it.
9 Nail Yakupov
Selected 1st overall, there was a lot of expectation from NHL fans, especially Edmonton Oilers fans, when Yakupov was selected 1st overall in 2012. Now it’s 2016, and we know that the Yakupov ordeal was pretty much a bust. The Russian forward never lived up to a shred of what was expected of him, and he’s been struggling to rack up the points in the NHL.
His occasional arrogance and impatience, especially with members of the media, is somewhat inexplicable. Sure you were selected first, but a professional athlete should always show respect and restraint, even in a situation where a normal person wouldn’t. He’s called reporters “stupid” and brushed off valid questions as “not interesting.” Hopefully the Russian and the Oilers can find their game in the upcoming season, because Yakupov’s future in Edmonton is looking anything but secure.
8 Ilya Kovalchuk
There’s no denying Kovalchuk’s talent. The Russian forward was powerful and decisive in the NHL, not to mention extremely talented. For a coach, on paper Ilya Kovalchuk is the perfect player. But is he the best team player? I think not.
The Russian superstar is used to being treated in just that way – a superstar. So when he was acquired by the Devils and Lou Lamoriello was quoted saying at the initial press conference: “He [Kovalchuk] can do things that a lot of people can’t do, and put him into our lineup, he will become a part. He will be no different than any of our other players. He’ll be a part of who we are and help the team win.”
But Kovalchuk’s attitude was never one of buying in to the coach’s notion of teamwork. For most of his playing career he boasted a horrid +/-, and would allow himself longer than usual shifts when he probably shouldn’t have. His attitude was simply not a fit with a teamwork oriented Devils team.
7 Nikolai Zherdev
Zherdev had a brief and quite unpopular stint in the NHL, before exiling himself to the KHL until this day. He was drafted fourth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets. His first season with the team was a breakout year for the Russian, but the following season was a constant struggle, where Zherdev repeatedly clashed with coaching staff, starting rumors of him being traded. Zherdev was apparently also threatening to go back to Russia unless his contract demands were met. Not exactly the healthiest attitude to have around the locker room. Doug McLean, who was the Columbus general manager at the time, even hired a private investigator to follow him around because of his off-ice issues.
It seems to be much of the same for Zherdev in the KHL. In 2013 he made headlines for getting into a bar fight in a suburb of Moscow and then crashing his Bentley afterwards. Apparently people scrawled obscenities all over the car because of how much of a jerk he was that night.
6 Ilya Bryzgalov
There was a time when you associated the name Ilya Bryzgalov with 'best goalie in the league'. But as the 2016-17 season is coming closer and closer, the name Bryzgalov simply makes me chuckle, as I remember that TSN interview years ago where we went on about the moon, the stars, and the universe in general.
His best two seasons were with the Phoenix Coyotes, where he won the Vezina Trophy there and also had his highest winning percentage since being in the NHL. It was also around this time that we started seeing the ugly side of Bryzgalov’s fat ego. When there were rumors circulating that Phoenix might relocate to Winnipeg, Bryzgalov was quoted saying “If the team moved during my tenure I will not play there.” He ended up being traded to the Flyers and signed to a nine-year, $51 million contract. The whole move was a bust, and the Flyers are still paying Bryzgalov $23 million to not play for them. If that doesn’t scream locker room cancer, I don’t know what does.
5 Andrei Kostitsyn
Andrei Kostitsyn is a former Belarusian (at the time of his birth, Belarus was a part of the Soviet Union) player that was selected 10th overall by the Montreal Canadiens, managing three 20-goal seasons with the Habs before being traded to Nashville, and eventually ending up back in Russia. His biggest incident was missing curfew before a playoff game with fellow Russian bad boy and former Predator Alexander Radulov. He was suspended for games 3 and 4 by Nashville, and went straight to Russia when they were eliminated, and has not played in the NHL since.
Although he was looking for a NHL contract in like 2015, teams realized the potential baggage that can come with an attitude like that of Kostytsin’s, especially considering how he left things with his last NHL team. There was also a lot of smoke as to why he was traded from Montreal along with his brother – rumor has it that they weren’t the most cooperative duo in the dressing room for the bleu-blanc-rouge.
4 Alexander Radulov
As Alexander Radulov is poised to make his return to the NHL in a Montreal Canadiens uniform, let’s look back at his history in the NHL, and his supposed flaws that forced him to say that “he’s matured and changed as a person” the second he set foot in Montreal. His past behavior in the NHL was sometimes questionable. Radulov always had a “I can do whatever I want" type attitude. He broke his contract with the Predators after his first two seasons in the NHL to go back to Russia, leaving the Predators in a sticky situation and not seeming to care much about it.
Radulov then returned to the Predators line-up a few years later for nine regular season games and eight playoff games. In that tiny span of time, he partied past curfew before a playoff game and was consequently suspended by the Predators, along with his fellow Russian teammate Andre Kostitsyn. Incidents such as these have given the Russian stud forward the reputation of having a bad attitude, but he seems determined to put that behind him in the next season.
3 Sergei Kostitsyn
Brother of Andrei Kostytsin, Sergei had his bouts of attitude problems during his stint in the NHL. During his time in Montreal, he and his brother were known to hang out and speak very regularly to accused criminal and drug trafficker Pasquale Mangiola, according to a TVA report. The two brothers were often seen partying at bars and nightclubs with Mangiola, and apparently police even found financial statements of the Kostytsin brothers at Mangiola’s house.
The two were never accused of anything, but what they would do while hanging out with such a person, as well as their brusque trade away from Montreal, leads you to wonder what was really happening behind closed doors. Near the end, Kostytsin had an obvious lack of interest and bad attitude towards the organization had him at odds with many of the players in the dressing room as well.
2 Alexander Semin
Where to start with Alexander Semin. The skillful Russian forward played for a long time in the NHL before his slow and steady decline into nothingness, where he is right now. Russian players have been accused of lacking effort on the ice and only showing up on occasion. This may not be true for all Russian players, but it was especially true for Alexander Semin. For a player of his talent, his attitude and effort on the ice was nothing short of disturbing.
His former teammate Matt Bradley probably put it best when it came to Semin, saying that “he has so much talent he could easily be the best player in the league and just for whatever reason, just doesn’t care.” His reputation and attitude have become so well-known throughout the league that for the last few years since he’s left Washington he’s kept teams at bay, before signing a woeful one-year contract with Montreal last season that didn’t exactly pan out.
1 Mikhail Grabovski
The Islanders forward is another who feeds the stereotype that Russians are the laziest players in the game. Grabovski (another native Belarusian under the Soviet Empire) has the talent but never the consistency to turn heads in the NHL. The Islanders center also has a bit of a hot shot attitude and has been known not to always get along with his coaches, which is what originally sent him from Montreal to Toronto in the first place.
In Toronto, under coach Randy Carlisle, his contract was eventually bought out, and Grabovski didn’t shy away from the media once he heard the news. Here is a quote from Grabovski on his coach after he was bought out: “Don’t put me on a (bleeping) third line and then play me six minutes in a game. I play in the KHL. I make lots of (bleeping) points and what’s going to happen? He make me play on the fourth line and he puts me in the playoffs on the fourth line and third line again.”