When the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War thawed away in the late 1980s, one of the last segments of Soviet society to gain ultimate freedom was hockey.
The Soviet hockey federation fought tooth and nail to keep their ridiculously loaded national team together, but to no avail. The players had had enough, and wanted to go west. Most wanted to try their skills in the National Hockey League, lured by big dollars and North American life.
Reform Slow To Come
The Soviets tried to appease everyone with promises of eventual outright release but they did not want to lose everyone all at once. Essentially that happened anyways, despite the federation's best attempts.
The federation initially held back it's brightest stars, names like Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Viacheslav Fetisov. But they did allow Sergei Priakhin to be the first Soviet player allowed to play in the National Hockey League.
Priakhin was a big, strapping forward with Krylja Sovetov Moscow, better known in North America as the Soviet Wings. On the national team he was a third or fourth liner, but given the depth of the Soviet national teams that was hardly a slight. He played in the 1987 Canada Cup and in two world championships. He was no superstar, but he was a respectable player with good size for the NHL game, something a lot of early Russian exports did not have.
Essentially Priakhin's release was little more than a small Russian move in a chess game to retain their top players. They knew Priakhin was a replaceable piece of the national team puzzle, someone that they could afford to lose. At the same time it was felt he would represent Soviet hockey favorably over here in the NHL. They also planned to use Priakhin's release as a motivating factor for other Soviet players. Play well and win us world championships and Olympic gold, and you too can play in the NHL.
The Calgary Flames drafted Priakhin in the 12th round of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft. The 25 year old would join the Flames toward the end of the 1988-89 NHL season, making his debut on March 31, 1989. Although he played in only three NHL games with the Flames that season, he brought good karma with him. Calgary won its first and still only Stanley Cup that spring with the Soviet player on the roster. Priakhin never got his name on the Stanley Cup, however, because he hadn’t played enough games to qualify.
Praikhin remained with the Flames for two more seasons, playing 44 games and scoring 11 points. In 1992, he returned home to the Soviet Wings but later continued his career in Zurich, Switzerland and Espoo, Finland.
Priakhin didn’t have any major impact on the NHL, but his arrival was of historic value. Ultimately the Soviet hockey federation's reforms were too slow. As communism crumbled and the Soviet Union fell apart, within a couple of years virtually every Soviet hockey player was able to freely come to North America.