The 2018 and 2019 Hall of Fame inductions of 1970s international superstars Alexander Yakushev and Vaclav Nedomansky – and especially the 2016 induction of Sergei Makarov, arguably the world’s most talented player in the early 1980s after Wayne Gretzky – were received warmly by historians and international fans. There is a renewed sense of optimism that a few more previously overlooked international greats will get their due in the coming years. If you’re looking for the best international players of all-time who didn’t play in the NHL during their prime, look no further than the 30-year period from 1960 to 1990. That’s because since 1990, most of the best European players at any given time have been in the NHL – and no all-time greats have built a Hall of Fame resume outside of the world’s top league. Before 1960, though there was a burgeoning international scene, the calibre of play was not up to NHL standards. Too many nations’ hockey programs were in their infancies, so pioneers such as Vsevolod Bobrov, Vladamir Zabrodsky and Josef Malecek were not close to the world’s best players and miss this list as a result. The six players below, however, have resumes that can stand up to the Hall of Fame standard and thus deserve serious consideration.
All of these international greats had extensive careers in their home country, but their most important work was done in international tournaments. Most fans consider the Canada Cups, World Cups and 1998 through 2014 Olympics to be the only “best-on-best” tournaments, and technically that’s true, but before the top European players arrived in the NHL, any major tournament was still best-on-best to them, save for a few Swedes and Finns already in the NHL – only Canada and the U.S. weren’t sending their best. (For the purposes of this story, the World Championship, Olympics, Summit Series and Canada Cups are considered major tournaments.)
A phenom and a favourite of legendary coach Anatoly Tarasov thanks to his dedication to training, Firsov almost has too many accomplishments to name. He was a six-time Soviet league all-star, three-time MVP (the award only existed in the second half of his career), voted top forward in three major tournaments, led four tournaments in scoring and finished with 117 points in 67 international games. Seth Martin, a star goalie for Canada in the 1960s, said no other Soviet player could compare with Firsov. Indeed, it was the Soviets’ 1960s dominance that fuelled Canada’s complaints of, “but those aren’t our best players, let’s see them go against our pros” which led to the 1972 Summit Series, and Firsov was the key to that dominance. (He didn’t play in 1972 in protest of Tarasov’s ouster as coach of the national team). Firsov was a versatile forward who could play the wing and centre, and he was not deficient in any area: he was both the fastest skater and fastest thinker on the ice, he could score as well as set up teammates, he played a powerful game down low, was responsible defensively, killed penalties and could hold his own physically. Describing his playing style, he once said, “If the opponents treated me fairly, I never touched them. But if they played dirty, I always kept my stick on the level of their teeth,” while making a cross-checking motion.