1989-90: Changing History
Devils hold a press conference to introduce Soviet defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov (left, with Lou Lamoriello) and Sergei Starikov.
Two weeks after signing, the Devils newest blue liners were introduced at a historic Meadowlands news conference.
In fact, it was so memorable for the players involved that when Fetisov, who played five full seasons in New Jersey and four more in Detroit where he won two Stanley Cups, found out he made the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001, one of the first phone calls he placed was to Lamoriello.
“I will never forget what he and Dr. (John) McMullen did for me,” Fetisov, a Devils’ assistant coach in 2001, once said. “They fought for me and opened the door for (Eastern) European players.”
Getting here, however, required, as Lamoriello said, “tremendous fortitude and determination,” especially from Fetisov. Lamoriello said upon his initial talks with Soviet hockey ambassadors that Fetisov, who was an army officer and national team captain, was going to be allowed to leave the country in order to play in the NHL. When Lamoriello visited to the Soviet Union, contract in hand, the tune changed and Fetisov was all of a sudden not going to be allowed to leave the country.
Insistent that he wouldn’t defect, Fetisov had to go through the proper channels and get the proper identification to leave the country.
“We had to go through an ongoing process of him trying to work through normal channels for him to come over,” Lamoriello said. “It was very difficult trying to get his freedom. We went through a trying time. He had to prove that he was a citizen to get his rights to do things.”
Fetisov eventually received the historic paperwork. He was the first Soviet citizen to ever have unlimited entry to come in and out of the U.S.S.R. and the United States, and that’s why Lamoriello believes this wasn’t just a groundbreaking moment in the hockey world, but in the political world as well.
“He not only created a milestone in hockey, but even more historic was that he was the first to get unlimited entry,” Lamoriello said. “It was really a historic time, and you see where we are today.”
So many players have come through since, including defenseman Alexei Kasatonov, who later that season joined Fetisov, his defensive partner in the Soviet Union, in New Jersey. Kasatonov played 39 regular-season games in 1989-90 and 257 overall in his four-year Devils’ career.
“In some circles, Fetisov was known as the best defenseman in the world,” ex- Devils’ defenseman Ken Daneyko said. “He’s an icon over there (in Russia). You can really see what he meant to the game of hockey worldwide. He’s quite a pioneer, and certainly a powerful guy who left his mark in a number of areas.”
However, as Daneyko admitted, at first the signings of the Soviet players did not sit well with some of the North American-born players who had already established themselves in the NHL. Daneyko remembers being a healthy scratch in the early parts of the 1989-90 season.
“It was a little bittersweet out of the gate,” Daneyko said. “I was just getting my feet wet, and it cost me some ice time. I started looking at it selfishly, but I figured it out and it worked out for me. “I know around the league guys were wondering about the Europeans coming over to take jobs,” he added. “Obviously it turned out to be instrumental because our league has become better. Their skill level is so high, and you have to commend that. They have made the National Hockey League better, but there was some bitterness around the league.”
Lamoriello said he knew it was a tough time for Fetisov and Starikov, but it wasn’t until years later when he sat down with Fetisov, now a close friend, that he learned of the hardships these defensemen faced.
“Now it’s past tense, but life was made miserable both on and off the ice for those guys,” Lamoriello said. “It wasn’t of a miniscule nature either. It was real. It wasn’t their fault. We asked them to come and we had to take the responsibility.”
After only days of playing with him, Daneyko said he realized why Lamoriello made the move to sign Fetisov. “After all the naysayers regarding Slava, people not wanting much European influx, he made our team better,” Daneyko said. “Knowing what he had accomplished on the international stage, he deserves a lot of credit in the NHL for many different reasons. It wasn’t just us taking a chance, he took a chance. He made the defensemen increase their skill level.”
Fetisov and Kasatonov helped propel the Devils back into the playoffs in 1990 after they failed to make the cut the season before. The Devils went 37-34-9 for 83 points in the regular season, and won their last six to clinch a playoff berth. Kirk Muller led the team with 56 assists and 86 points. John MacLean scored more than 40 goals for the second straight season.
They would eventually fall in six games to the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs, but getting there was another sign of growth for the team. The Devils have since made the playoffs every year but one, and of course, own three Stanley Cup championships.
“It was certainly disappointing because we had such a great run in ’87-88, and not to make it the next year was disappointing,” Daneyko said. “It was our team’s maturation process. You realize how difficult it is to win, and we were no longer doormats. That’s part of the young team going through the process. Fortunately we were able to put it all together. It was a process that also included long-time Devils Craig Billington, Bruce Driver, Patrik Sundstrom, and Chris Terreri. “It took us a while to reach our ultimate goal, but we started approaching it in ’89-90,” added Daneyko.