1989: Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov Receives Work Visa From the Soviet Union to Play in the NHL

Fetisov was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1978 NHL entry draft, but Soviet officials did not permit him to play there. Circumstances were the same when the New Jersey Devils drafted Fetisov in 1983. Along the way, Fetisov gradually, though quietly, expressed a desire to play in the NHL.

As his requests to play in the NHL became more frequent and intense, and despite repeated assurances that he would be able to leave the Soviet Union, officials took exception and perceived this as an offense to the nation. Fetisov and his family were threatened with punishment, including directly by the Soviet Minister of Defense.

Eventually, in an unimaginable move, Fetisov removed himself from the team. In time, Soviet authorities granted Fetisov an exit visa to work in the United States—the first of its kind. He went to play for New Jersey, where he underperformed. He was later traded to the Detroit Red Wings, where he was reunited with a handful of other Red Army players who followed him to the NHL, and played a leading role on teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in 1997 and 1998.

Fetisov broke the barrier for Soviet players to be granted official government approval to play in the NHL on the other side of the “Iron Curtain.” More noteworthy, Fetisov was using his platform as a great athlete to influence a significant change in strongly held political and social policies in his native country.