With Cold War tensions screaming at high decibels in 1979, it would have been absurd to think that a Russian hockey player would ever have the opportunity to skate in the National Hockey League. But when Soviet stars Sergei Priakin, Sergei Makarov and Viacheslav Fetisov were allowed to jump to North America, the door opened for other talented Russian skaters to compete in the NHL.
One such player that enjoyed a chance to prove himself in the NHL was Russian all-star forward Anatoli Semenov. He was an intellectual and an artist on the ice, but in a big man's body. His combination of grace and size earned him the title of the "Russian Jean Beliveau" by some keen North American observers.
Semenov may not be a household hockey name to North American fans, but he is well-respected in Russia where he played for a solid decade with Moscow Dynamo, earning USSR First-Team All-Star honors in 1985 for his fine play. That season, the crafty forward, possessing good playmaking abilities and a keen sense of on-ice awareness, notched 17 goals and added 12 assists in only 30 games.
Semenov, a Moscow native, had his most productive season for Dynamo in 1986-87 when he scored 15 goals and 44 points in 40 games played. In all, Semenov amassed 154 goals and scored a total of 303 points as a member of Dynamo.
North American fans only really saw him a handful of times during this time. He played in the 1984 and 1987 Canada Cups, the 1988 Olympics and Rendez Vous 87. I'll always remember legendary play by play broadcaster Dan Kelly's pronunciation of "Sem-yawn-ov's" name.
The NHL Is Interested
Meanwhile, as Semenov was completing his last season in a Moscow Dynamo uniform, the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers selected him with their fifth choice (120th overall) in the 1989 Entry Draft. Semenov debuted for the Oilers in the 1989-90 postseason, playing two games and earning an etch on Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Semenov enjoyed one of his best seasons in the NHL as a member of the Oilers when he notched 20 goals in only 59 games during the 1991-92 season. Unfortunately for Oilers fans, the Semenov was claimed by the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 1992 NHL Expansion Draft.
Semenov played only 13 games with the Lightning before he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for Dave Capuano and a fourth round draft pick. Semenov played well in Vancouver but only stayed long enough to finish the season. He filled in admirably on a line with Russian superstar Pavel Bure, filling in for the departed Igor Larionov. The duo started the season on fire, but by the end of the year Semenov was bumped off the top line in favor of newly acquired Murray Craven.
The journeyman center enjoyed stints with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Philadelphia Flyers, and Buffalo Sabres before leaving the NHL after the 1996-97 season. Despite hints of greatness in practically every NHL stop, Semenov ultimately arrived in the NHL too late to make an impact. He was on the downside of his career, and couple that with the tough adjustment to western life most older Russian players had in the early 1990s, and Semenov never truly got untracked. He was a very clever playmaker, reminding me in glimpses of Larionov.
In his NHL career, he appeared in 362 games, scoring 68 goals and adding 126 assists for 194 points. He also appeared in 49 playoff games, scoring 9 goals and recording 13 assists for 22 points.
Life After Hockey
The only organized hockey Semenov played after his eight-year NHL career was a short eight game stint with Yekaterinburg in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Otherwise, Anatoli Semenov has been involved in numerous hockey-related ventures such as developing ice skating rinks in conjunction with some former Soviet star players and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Dimitri Yushkevich. Semenov is also involved with a hockey school near his home in Anaheim, California