Arguably the greatest defenseman, perhaps player, in Soviet hockey history, Viacheslav Fetisov is certainly the most important. Fetisov ranks as one of the most accomplished and popular legends of Russian hockey, and should be considered one of hockey's all time greats on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Born in 1958 in Moscow, Fetisov's life has been one of struggle, heartbreak and success. His story is far more than being the captain in the legendary Soviet Red Army, winning seven world championships, two Olympic gold medals, and two Stanley Cups. His story is about his fight for freedom.
Fetisov grew up dreaming of playing hockey. At six, he tried out with the Junior Red Army and two years later earned a spot on the team. But even as a kid he was considered a rebellious non-conformer, something that did not fit well into Soviet hockey philosophy.
"As a kid nobody wants to play defense, everybody wants to score the goals," remembered Fetisov. "But our system was pretty much strict with two defenseman and three forwards. But as a kid I tried to find a way to score some goals, sneak through the back door or join the rush. I faced lots of criticism back then, but I stuck with my belief and kind of created a new system with offensive defenseman."
His talent, size, and hockey intelligence was undeniable, and by 16 he made his debut with the Soviet Red Army's junior squad. At the World Junior Championships the Soviets won three straight gold medals with Fetisov taking home the best defenseman award in 1977 and 1978.
Upon graduation to the national team, he would soon be joined by his now famous KLM line-mates: Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, along with defense partner Alexei Kasatonov. Together they would lead the powerful Soviets to be the most decorated hockey team on the planet, winning two golds (1984, 1988) and one silver (1980) in the Olympics, and 11 medals, including seven golds at the World Championships (between 1978 and 1991). To many Canadians, Fetisov's greatness was best captured in the 1987 Canada Cup, where Fetisov was drawing the highest of praise from all hockey experts, especially Wayne Gretzky.
Just as Fetisov was entering his prime in the mid 1980s, personal tragedy threatened to derail Fetisov's excellence. He was the driver in a car accident that claimed the life of his brother and passenger, Anatoly Fetisov. Viacheslav has always said his brother's death has burdened him and driven beyond anyone's possible understanding.
Fetisov had few peers, be it in international hockey or the NHL. He possessed exceptional mobility and instincts, both offensively and defensively. He was always in perfect position defensively, though never shied from taking offensive chances. He was also a hard hitting and mean spirited defender, setting him apart from most international players of his day. The 6'1", 215 pound blue liner was among the biggest and best-conditioned hockey players in the world. He loved physical contact, setting him apart from others and earned the grudging admiration of even the bitterest rivals.
"He was always a tough competitor because he had great size, he had great vision of the ice and he always made solid plays," said Mike Gartner, a Canada Cup opponent in 1987 and fellow inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001. "Very, very seldom did you ever see him make a bad play and he was a guy that was a lot like Denis Potvin in that he could kind of do it all."
Potvin of course is one of the greatest Canadian defensemen of all time. Though Fetisov was often dubbed "The Bobby Orr of Russia," the Potvin comparison is bang on. They played very similar styles, and excelled so greatly, that it is impossible to rate one ahead of the other.
It's unfortunate that Fetisov and Potvin could not play head to head in the NHL. For most of his career Fetisov, who was drafted by Montreal and later New Jersey, could only dream of playing in the National Hockey League. The Cold War was still on, and there was no way the Communist government would allow their star to leave for America.
As the 1980s came to a close, Fetisov decided to focus his legendary determination in achieving freedom for hockey players and all Russians to pursue work and life in the west. He publicly opposed the totalitarian government, speaking out about injustices at the hands of the coaches and administrators, the terrible living conditions, the ridiculous practice schedule and general lack of freedom. He was faced with inhumane consequences, including false criminal charges, threats of banishment of his family to Siberia, even removal from the national team. Fetisov never backed down. He never took the easy route, such as defection or allowing the NHL to pay the government millions of dollars to release him. He fought for true freedom, for himself and for all Russians.
Thanks to the perestroika movement by Soviet reform leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Fetisov knew his fight would only be a matter of time. In 1989, he became of the first Soviet citizens to receive a work visa that allowed him to work in the west. He and fellow defenseman Sergei Starikov joined the New Jersey Devils that season.
"It was not easy, it sounds easy, but you always have to fight for everything and I fought for everything I have in hockey," said Fetisov. "I also won the biggest fight away from hockey. That was the fight against communism, the fight for freedom of choices.
"I won that fight, but it was not easy. I was all alone, I was not allowed to do anything and I kept battling until I won. I had a big name, which hockey gave me, and that was all. It was probably the hardest fight of my life, but I won. I think winning that battle has opened the door for many European players, especially Russians. "
Fetisov entered the NHL at the age of 31. He struggled with the language and lifestyle changes, as well as hockey philosophy, but emerged as a solid 2nd-tier defender in the NHL, enjoying a 9 year career which included 546 games, 228 points and two Stanley Cups. He was an important figure in early Russian NHL history, as he helped to eliminate any preconceived notions about Soviets. He proved they could play and play well in the NHL.
"When I came here at age 31 I had to change my style if I wanted to help my team," Fetisov said. "I was missing the scoring but I found it to be more fun to help stop the opposition to help the team win. That's key to help the team win games and then ultimately the Cup. It doesn't matter who scores the goals."
Regardless of his career in the National Hockey League, Fetisov should be remembered as one of the greatest hockey players in Soviet hockey history, one of the greatest defensemen in hockey history, and one of the most important sporting figures in political history.