Flyers Alumni Russia Tour: Feb. 17, 2017
8:15 p.m. (St. Petersburg)
We played a friendly game this afternoon on the outdoor rink at the SKA training facility in St. Petersburg. Our tour co-organizer Scotty MacPherson assembled the group. Some real good players on their side. Those guys came to play, too. The facility is very nice.
We've been treated unbelievably well throughout this tour. Scotty has spoiled us rotten. Tonight we are going to a restaurant called "The Rose Mary." It has the Scotty MacPherson Seal of Approval. If last night's dinner was any indication, we're in for another big-time treat.
Now for the real big news of the day: Shjon Podein found his passport!!! Podes misplaced it while we were departing Kazan. It was in his hockey bag. Now he's good to go, that is, assuming Shjon doesn't misplace it again.
This morning, we had some time this morning to take in some of the sights of St. Petersburg. A few of us went to The Hermitage. Even those of us who aren't typically museum people thought it was beyond breathtaking.
Historical note: Today, Feb. 17, coincides with what would have been the 62nd birthday of the first Soviet born-and-trained player to be drafted by an NHL team. In 1975, the Flyers used the 160th overall pick of the draft to roll the dice on the small possibility of being able to bring Viktors Hatuļevs (Viktor Khatulev in Russian) to North America.
Hatuļevs, a Latvian, was a brilliant but deeply troubled player who fell victim to the politics of the era as well as his own personal demons and a series of family tragedies.
Khatulev's story is a convoluted tale. He unquestionably had the ability to be an NHL star but a career in North America was never a realistic possibility under the circumstances.
A supremely skilled and powerfully built (6-foot-2, 220 pound) player who often displayed an aggressive physical game that was more in line with the North American style than Soviet hockey, there was very little Khatulev could not do on the ice. He was so skilled, in fact, that he starred both as a left winger and a defenseman.
Khatulev displayed tremendous skill wherever he played. Primarily a forward in the early years of his career and primarily a defenseman later on, he showed the ability to play all three forward spots and either left or right defense as needed. Apart from his bullish strength, Khatulev was a fleet skater and a good finisher. Unlike most European players of the era, Khatulev distinctly preferred shooting to passing the puck.
In 1975, there were rumors that Khatulev, a rebellious soul who refused to leave his Dinamo Riga club to join the Red Army club (CSKA Moscow), might attempt to defect to the West. At the behest of scout Eric Colville, who had seen the player dominate the 1974 and 1975 World Youth Hockey Championships (the predecessor of the World Juniors), the Flyers chose him in the ninth round of the 1975 Draft. Khatulev was also selected in the 1975 World Hockey Association draft (116th overall) by the Cleveland Crusaders.
At about the same time as the defection rumors spread, the 20-year-old Khatulev was slapped with a five-year-ban from the Soviet league, ostensibly for engaging in several on-ice fights. Khatulev's suspension was lifted before the next season, on the condition that he not be allowed to leave the Soviet Union for any reason, including international hockey tournaments.
It was not until 1978-79 that Khatulev learned of the Flyers' interest in him. Colville was able to get in touch with him through back channels during the NHL-Soviet Super Series in Moscow. Khatulev, who feared that he was under surveillance, said he had never given any thought to defecting and, furthermore, was happy living and playing in Riga.
Excessive drinking was hardly uncommon among Soviet players of that era, and Khatulev's struggles with alcoholism were especially severe. A full-blown alcoholic by his mid-20s, he rapidly spiraled downward after the deaths of his wife in a car accident and father (fatal heart attack). His on-ice performance and off-ice behavior became increasingly erratic.
In the spring of 1979, he was again banned from the Soviet League. In this case, the suspension was for punching a referee. At some point around that time, Khatulev began abusing -- and, eventually, dealing -- drugs in addition to his out-of-control drinking. He was imprisoned and, in 1981, was given a lifetime ban from Soviet hockey.
Virtually penniless and addicted to alcohol and drugs, Khatulev bounced around to different menial jobs for the remainder of his life. For a brief time, he worked as a taxi cab driver. Later, he was employed stacking boxes in a warehouse and also spent stints employed as a bouncer, a grave digger and tombstone engraver.
On Oct. 7, 1994, the 39-year-old former hockey star was found dead in a street near the warehouse where he worked. Foul play was suspected but the case was never solved.
The greatest tragedy of Khatulev's career is that someone who, by all accounts of those who played with him or against him was one of the most gifted players they've ever seen, is scarcely remembered even within the Russian Federation and Russia let alone North America. Nevertheless, he holds intrigue as the first Soviet taken in the NHL Draft. It also shows that the Flyers were way ahead of their time in this regard. The organization's views on tapping into Soviet hockey were much more complex than most people realize.