Heading into the 1989-90 season, hockey fans were intrigued by the arrival of talents from the Soviet Union, but hockey card collectors would have to wait a year – and for the hobby to boom – before adding most of them to their collections.
All told, ten players from behind the Iron Curtain skated for an NHL club in 1989-90 and while some of them were bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame, there were some duds as well.
The ability for these players to come over helped change the game forever and paved the way for some of the greatest players of the past 30 years.
The first player that managed to escape the Soviet Union a play in the NHL was Victor Nechayev. Since he married an American woman, he was able to ply his trade overseas – but the end result was not memorable outside of its historical significance. Joining the Los Angeles Kings for the 1982-83 season, he debuted against the New York Islanders on Oct. 16, 1982 and scored his first goal against the Rangers on night later. His third, and final, NHL game came at home when the New Jersey Devils paid their first-ever visit to the Fabulous Forum – but he was exiled to the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks and the IHL’s Saginaw Gears before playing a final pro season in West Germany with Dusseldorfer EG in 1983-84.
While Nechayev faded into relative obscurity, the first wave of Soviet talent to make an impact in the NHL, and with collectors, will not be forgotten. Let’s take a look at their early cards and discover why it might be wise to make sure these hidden gems are part of your collection.
Sergei Priakin, Calgary Flames
The first player be given permission by the Soviets to jump to the NHL, Priakin (sometimes spelled Pryakhin) was taken by the Flames with the last overall pick in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. While he had been a fixture for the Soviet Wings for most of the decade, he flew far enough under the radar to be allowed to head to North America.
Debuting on March 31, 1989 as Calgary battled the Winnipeg Jets, he was used sparingly (just one game against Vancouver) in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup. His name was not etched into the Silver Mug, but he was at least handed a nice ring for his troubles.
In 1989-90, Priakin found himself going between the Flames and their IHL affiliate in Salt Lake, but at least his first NHL goal was a winner against the Devils on October 10. While he didn’t make the cut for that year’s O-Pee-Chee set, like due to a lack of photography more than anything else, he was selected for the 1989-90 Kraft set which appeared on the back of boxes of Kraft Dinner. The set was made up of the then-seven teams based in Canada and it also included a few notable pre-rookie cards.
Priakin’s only mainstream cards in 1990-91, however, were few. He was strangely added to the already-odd Bowman set (with a Tiffany parallel) and was found in second series Pro Set packs. The photo on the Pro Set card was taken as Calgary faced the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1990. All told, he posted 11 points over 46 career games and was off to Europe and Japan before retiring at the age of 36 following the 1999-00 campaign.
Most of his cards can be found on eBay for under $5.
Sergei Makarov, Calgary Flames
Perhaps the greatest talent playing outside of the NHL throughout the 1980s, Makarov was a three-time Soviet MVP and dominated during international competition – often as part of the dreaded KLM Line. Chosen 231st overall by the Calgary Flames in 1983, he was coming off a seventh World Championship when he was allowed to become an NHL player.
Makarov enjoyed an incredibly hot start in Calgary as he not only notched three points in his debut against the Detroit Red Wings on October 5, 1989, but followed it up with a four-point performance against the New York Islanders two days later. The offense kept coming in subsequent weeks and he was named the league’s Rookie of the Month for October.
His most incredible effort during that first season took place on February 25, 1990 against Calgary’s biggest rival, the Edmonton Oilers. While he scored twice that night, he also added an impressive five assist in a 10-4 victory for the Flames. Finishing 1989-90 as the NHL’s rookie scoring leader with 86 points, he was awarded the Calder Trophy as well. This was a controversial decision as he was 31 years old at the time and had a well-established reputation at the international level. Due to public outcry, the age limit to be considered a rookie was capped at 26.
Since Pro Set was the first new NHL trading card maker to hit the market before the 1990-91 season was set to begin, Makarov was a natural inclusion. Additionally, he appears on the back of the card featuring the Calder Trophy and received a Rookie Scoring Leader card as well.
As more sets were released, there was a flood of new Makarov rookie and subset cards. For those busting the Canadian and American versions of 1990-91 Score, there were four different to collect in each release (base, All-Rookie Team, League Leaders, and Trophy Winners). An alternate version of the basic Score card (numbered #99 instead of #71 on the back) was part of the 100-card Hottest Rising Stars release which came with a book.
Upper Deck had the best base card photo of Makarov, but only added Trophy Winners and All-Rookie Team cards to their checklist.
As for ol’ reliable O-Pee-Chee and Topps, there were some compelling cards produced – and one which created a tiny bit of confusion with some collectors. Both 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee and 1990-91 Topps had a basic rookie card, but O-Pee-Chee added in a Trophy Winners subset card. There was also a card of Soviet Wings player Sergei B. Makarov produced by O-Pee-Chee, but thankfully, they added the middle initial on the front! There was a box bottom card for him with both O-Pee-Chee and Topps as well which has a blue-ish border and different photo than the regular card.
Topps included Makarov in the inaugural Bowman release, but what collectors really wanted was the Tiffany version of both the Topps and Bowman rookie cards. Limited to 3,000 copies each, the number is high by modern standards, but they can be a challenge to track down today.
Alexander Mogilny, Buffalo Sabres
One of the world’s top young stars in the late 1980s, Mogilny shocked the hockey world by defecting after the 1989 World Championship to join the Buffalo Sabres. Drafted 89th overall the previous year, he scored his first goal against Quebec on October 5, 1989 – a mere 0:20 into his first game. It was a sign of things to come as he evolved into one of the game’s top offensive talents over the next few seasons.
With so much potential, there was definite interest in his rookie cards once they hit the market in 1990-91. Included in every regular mass-market base set (Bowman, O-Pee-Chee, Pro Set, Score, Topps, and Upper Deck), he also had the distinction of being the only player from the initial group of former Soviet stars to be part of the landmark 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier set and the send-away Score Young Superstars boxed set.
Following a strong career, Mogilny often gets into the Hall of Fame discussion – and for good reason thanks to 473 goals, 1,032 points, a Lady Byng Trophy, and sharing the league lead with 76 tallies in 1992-93. Most of his cards can be found cheap on eBay and the better ones might be good to pick up in case he gets the Hall call.
Viacheslav Fetisov, New Jersey Devils
If it were not for the Soviet Union adopting the glasnost policy and opening itself and its people to the western world, Fetisov and many of his contemporaries would have been forced to stay behind the Iron Curtain.
Even under threats to be sent to Siberia made by officials, Fetisov managed to convince the powers that be that he, and many of the players listed in this article, would still play for the country at the international level once they started skating for NHL clubs.
Originally drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1978, the team’s claim on him expired and the Devils snagged him late in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft. He would enjoy a strong first season in the swamp at age 31, posting 42 points – a total he would only match once more during his career.
A fixture in New Jersey for several years, he was a no-brainer to be part of 1990-91 hockey card sets. His cards could be found in Bowman, Score, O-Pee-Chee, Topps, and Upper Deck, but his Pro Set card has two versions since his first name was incorrectly spelled “VLACHESLAV” on the front before being corrected. The second version is slightly tougher to find, but at least the photo can be dated to New Jersey’s game against the Buffalo Sabres on March 25, 1990.
Fetisov was ultimately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and he won two Stanley Cups playing for the Detroit Red Wings.
Sergei Starikov, New Jersey Devils
The hype behind the NHL’s Soviet invasion was huge and even Sports Illustrated put Sergei Starikov and teammate Viacheslav Fetisov on its cover – a rare feat for hockey during any era. However, while Fetisov delivered, Starikov struggled to make it in the NHL.
Appearing in just 16 games with New Jersey, the two-time Olympic gold medal winner was off to the team’s AHL affiliate in Utica by early December. His lone point at the NHL level was an assist on Sylvain Turgeon’s empty net goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on November 22, 1989.
There are a handful of European-issued cards for Starikov, but he never made it onto NHL cardboard outside of a Devils team issue. There were two ProCards releases (1990-91 and 1991-92) which depict him with Utica and the IHL’s San Diego Gulls.
Alexei Kasatonov, New Jersey Devils
Throughout the 1980s, Kasatonov was once of the Soviet Union’s best defenders and his collection of gold medals was the envy of many. The Devils selected him 225th overall in 1983, but it would be a long time before he hit the ice for the club.
Finally, that moment came on January 4, 1990 as New Jersey hosted Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. Over half a season, he proved to be a much better fit for the team than Starikov and made some decent offensive contributions. This was more than enough to ensure he would be a part of the core 1990-91 hockey card sets as he can be found on the checklists for Pro Set, Score, O-Pee-Chee, Topps, and Upper Deck. The latter card shows him in action against the Minnesota North Stars and the photo can be dated to New Jersey’s 3-1 victory in Bloomington on March 13, 1990. Kasatonov is another player whose cards are very inexpensive.
While he would eventually be selected by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the 1993 NHL Expansion Draft and become the club’s first representative at an All-Star Game, he was out of the league by the end of 1995-96. In 2009, the IIHF International Hockey Hall of Fame welcomed him to their ranks.
Igor Larionov, Vancouver Canucks
The “L” in the KLM line, Larionov had been playing at a high level since the late 1970s and thrilled fans throughout the world as he won Olympic gold in 1984 and 1988 along with being a part of the Soviet squad that won the 1981 Canada Cup. Showing some foresight, the Vancouver Canucks knew social change would eventually allow Soviet players to come to North America and they claimed his NHL rights with the 214th overall pick in 1985.
Larionov had a slow, but steady, adjustment to NHL life once he joined the Canucks and posted 44 points as a 29-year-old rookie in 1989-90. His first notable card came that year in the Kraft food issue, but his rookie issues were plentiful in 1990-91. Since the Bowman, O-Pee-Chee, Score, Topps, and Upper Deck cards remain so easily accessible, they can usually be had for pennies – a steal for a player of his stature.
Larionov only spent three seasons with Vancouver before heading to Switzerland in 1992-93. He returned the next year with the San Jose Sharks, but eventually became a part of the Russian Five in Detroit thanks to a trade early in 1995-96. He went on to win three Stanley Cups there and became a member of the Triple Gold Club. In 2008, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Vladimir Krutov, Vancouver Canucks
The third member of the KLM line, Krutov was one of the world’s top players in the 1980s and had the hardware to prove it with two Olympic gold medals along with five World Championship titles. He starred in the USSR for the legendary Red Army club, but he was on a downward swing when given the chance to play in the NHL.
The Vancouver Canucks had shrewdly picked Krutov 238th overall in 1986 with the optimism that he might join them sooner or later. Well, later became the operative word there as his physical conditioning had deteriorated by the time he arrived in time for the 1989-90 campaign.
Called a “proverbial fish out of water” by former Canucks teammate Paul Reinhart in the 2012 interview with the Vancouver Sun, Krutov only managed 34 points over 61 games and his overall performances was underwhelming compared to the high expectations fans had after his strong performances during international tournaments a few years earlier.
Homesick, he left Vancouver after one year and was still included in 1990-91 hockey card sets. Like Larionov, Priakin, and Makarov, he was part of the 1989-90 Kraft set, but the uncertainty of whether or not he was coming back may have played a factor in him being included by O-Pee-Chee, Pro Set, Score, and Upper Deck with the standard variations being available as well.
Since he only paid one visit to Long Island during his NHL days, the photo on his Upper Deck card can be connected to the battle between the Canucks and Islanders on January 16, 1990. The man known as “Tank” passed away at age 52 in 2012.
Helmut Balderis, Minnesota North Stars
Known in some circles as “The Electric Train”, Balderis was a top star in the USSR in the 1970s and early 1980s for Dynamo Riga and Moscow Dynamo. A three-time gold-medal winner at the World Championship, he was also part of the Soviet team that walked away with silver at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Hailing from Latvia, he was a top scorer and took Player of the Year honors in 1977.
While he had retired after the 1984-85 season to coach in Japan, he was strangely drafted by the Minnesota North Stars (238th overall in 1989) with the hope of bringing him over. At 36, he was the oldest player ever drafted by an NHL squad and debuted against the Islanders on October 5, 1989. He made history against on November 2 by becoming the oldest player to score their first NHL goal – at 37 years and 94 days of age. All told, he was used only occasionally throughout the season and retired once again.
Since Balderis had headed back home at the end of the year, none of the NHL’s trading card licensees put him into their 1990-91 releases. Granted, he had several European issues earlier and was part of Panini’s Hockey ’79 sticker collection and the 1970s Sportscaster cards, so there is at least something out there for die-hard collectors. He eventually returned to action once Latvia gained its independence and is a member of the IIHF International Hockey Hall of Fame.
Sergei Mylnikov, Quebec Nordiques
Mylnikov gained fame after leading his country to a gold medal at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The Quebec Nordiques, who gained experience getting players out from behind the Iron Curtain when they brought over the Stastny brothers in the early 1980s, took a flyer on the talented goaltender with a seventh round pick (127th overall) in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. He became the first Soviet goalie to play in the NHL.
Here’s the thing, though, he was coming into a horrible situation in Quebec. Fresh off a last-place finish the year before, things actually got worse in 1989-90. He debuted in Boston on October 26, 1989 and the 31-year-old only appeared in 10 games that season. He cobbled together a brutal 1-7-2 record and posted a shocking 4.97 goals-against average and an appalling .857 save percentage behind a defensively weak club that managed to trade away Hall of Famers Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet along the way to another last-place finish.
Mylnikov’s only victory came on March 17, 1990 as he somehow found the luck of the Irish in a 6-3 triumph over Philadelphia. Incredibly, he was one of seven goalies the Nordiques used that year and he returned home once the season concluded and was consoled with a second straight gold medal at the World Championship. He passed away in 2017 at the age of 58.
Mylnikov doesn’t have a lot of cards, but has appeared on some international issues and In The Game sets which can usually be found on eBay.