Vyacheslav Kozlov was a 19-year-old kid when he put on a Detroit Red Wings jersey and made his first appearance in the National Hockey League. Four days from now, that will have been exactly 18 years ago as the Russian entered the league on March 12, 1992. Back then, younger players weren't receiving the chances to thrive among the world's finest professionals as they are today but Kozlov had a very fancied set of goods to bring.
For a winger who is under the six-foot mark in height, he had to have the hockey IQ, playmaking efficacy and a misleading shot to bring himself to success. Certain people must own the drive and effort to make a living from the sport while the other group is based around the players whose talents are simply natural. Kozlov belongs in the latter; while he clearly has elements of hard work in his genes, he wouldn't have earned such a long NHL stay without his abilities.
The aging veteran has been in a position he's not very accustomed to in the past month which is on the outside looking in as a healthy scratch. Atlanta head coach John Anderson has opted to keep Kozlov out of action for 12 of 14 matches. Coming up is an analysis of Slava's brilliant career and how much he has fought through in his life.
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Before he created a home in North America, Kozlov almost lost his life as a teenager in Moscow, Russia. He and Central Red Army teammate Kirile Tarasov were involved in a car accident with a bus, one that took the life of the 17-year-old defenseman. Kozlov suffered a serious brain injury, a fractured skull, a broken cheekbone and broken ribs. Thankfully, he survived but lost a friend.
Nick Polano, who was a head coach and assistant general manager in Detroit, was the first person to notice Kozlov at the tender age of 16 during a tournament in Lake Placid, New York. The competition was intended for players who were born in 1972 and Kozlov stood out as the superior over other participants including Keith Tkachuk, the second-best performer in the tournament.
Polano talked the organization into selecting the Russian in the 1990 Entry Draft and they elected to do so in the third round. But it wasn't that simple to pull Kozlov from a communist country that wanted to maintain their top players as much as NHL teams wanted to pry them away. Defection was the answer and the winger wasn't prepared for such a plan immediately.
Once, he announced he was ready to defect but changed his mind after considering what the Russian government might do to his family if he left. Deciding to join the Red Army instead, the tragic accident that he narrowly escaped occurred shortly after these events.
"It's still too painful to talk about," Kozlov said. "I know I'm going to live with that the rest of my life. It's tough. I talked to his parents and they told me, 'You have to play for both of you.' His mom told me, 'You have to play for my son and yourself.'"
"It's still too painful to talk about," Kozlov said.
"I know I'm going to live with that the rest of my life. It's tough. I talked to his parents and they told me, 'You have to play for both of you.' His mom told me, 'You have to play for my son and yourself.'"
In Detroit, he had 24 games in two years awarded to him before becoming an everyday representative in 1994 and soon became a member of Scotty Bowman's Russian Five attack where he, Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov epitomized the puck-controlling, smooth skating and consistent team the Red Wings are.
With a pair of Stanley Cup victories, Kozlov did his part in the postseason collecting 79 points in 114 career playoff games. Two records he still holds with Detroit are his 12 postseason game-winning goals and two overtime winners in the Stanley Cup finals.
Surrounding Detroit's first of back-to-back championships was a limo accident in 1997 which left teammate Konstantinov and team masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov disabled. What was meant to be a celebration transformed into a reminder of the awful incident in Russia years earlier for Kozlov.
A trade in 2001 sent Dominik Hasek to Detroit with Kozlov being the significant exchanged piece. Injuries limited his one campaign with the Sabres to just 38 contests and his disappointment of leaving a team he spent ten years with was obvious. Refusing to sell his home in the first city he lived in away from Russia, Kozlov drove from Buffalo to Detroit on weekends while being unfit to compete.
The 37-year-old went to Atlanta in 2002 and would experience heartache yet again one year later. Dan Snyder died in a career accident involving Dany Heatley and Kozlov, knowing fully well how it affects a person, consoled Heatley as much as he could. Three life-changing events have arrived in his life and yet he hasn't allowed them to diminish his career; a clear sign of how strong he is as a human-being.
Although Kozlov's best offensive years came with the Thrashers, he hasn't seen the ice very much recently and wasn't moved at the trade deadline despite his request to be and willingness to waive his no-trade clause. Scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next season, a change of scenery could renew the value of someone who just last year, recorded 76 points.
Regardless of what happens, something tells me that Vyacheslav Kozlov isn't too worried and will get through it just fine.