Slava Kozlov’s luck ran good and bad

Slava Kozlov was a key part of the Red Wings' Stanley Cup titles in 1997 and 1998.

It takes a certain kind of insouciance to wear No. 13 on your jersey, as Red Wings forward Slava Kozlov did during his decade of play in Detroit.

After all, up to that point only one other player in the club’s history had sported those unlucky digits. However, Russians are, by and large, a fatalistic bunch.

For Kozlov, who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s in Voskresensk, near Moscow, it was an attitude born of seeing countrymen paying a year’s wages for a 1973 Pacer with a broken heater or waiting six hours in line only to be told that the guy in front of you had just bought the last ring of sausage.

But even Kozlov admitted that there were times during the early part of his hockey career when it seemed that if it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. Dr. Chet Regula, the Wings’ longtime dentist, recalled the game when the little winger took a stick to the mouth, splitting his lip and knocking out four teeth. The accident happened so late in the period that before someone could go back out onto the ice during intermission and retrieve the missing pearlies, the Zamboni had innocently rumbled right over them.

“I said, ‘Slav, I’m sorry, buddy; they’re back in the parking lot right now. They’ve been dumped,’” Regula said. “But he’s a tough, tough kid, that Kozlov.”

Nobody aware of Kozlov’s background would dispute that. Early one November morning in 1991, he and a teammate, a promising young defenseman named Taras Kirilov, were driving to the Red Army training camp when a bus turned a corner, straight into the path of Kozlov’s little white Lada. There was a tremendous crash.

Kirilov broke his neck and was dead at the scene. Kozlov telescoped through the windshield, suffering massive head and facial injuries. By all rights, the slightly built teenager should have been killed. It was two whole weeks before he was able to eat solid food and months before he could seriously resume skating. His recovery amazed medical officials and pleased the Detroit organization, which in the 1990 entry draft had made him its second choice and 45th overall pick. At the time, it was the highest a Russian player had ever been drafted.

Kozlov, whose father was a coach, originally had no intention of leaving his homeland for the National Hockey League. But then the Red Army stopped paying his salary while he was in the hospital. After that, a little post-Cold War intrigue, including documents and cash payments by the Red Wings to the right people, brought the still-weak forward to Detroit in February 1992.

Kozlov made his NHL debut on March 12, 1992, at St. Louis. On his very first shift, 97 seconds into the game, the shifty 19-year-old assisted on a goal by Sergei Fedorov. He later added a second assist. He was on his way. He spent most of the following season with Adirondack. By the 1993-94 season he was fully recovered, racking up 34 goals and 39 assists in 77 games with the Wings.

Kozlov’s point-a-game pace dipped once the team shifted to a more button-down, defense-oriented style of play, but he remained a clutch performer in the playoffs as the Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and ’98. With success came fatter contracts. Like his fellow Russian teammates, Kozlov reveled in his unaccustomed prosperity. “I have money to enjoy life,” he said at the time time. “In Russia my money went toward food.” Now he was driving an Audi and a Jeep, wolfing down lamb chops at expensive restaurants, and flying to Key Largo on breaks.

In the summer of 2001, the Wings sent Kozlov and a first-round draft pick to Buffalo for netminder Dominik Hasek, a trade that paid off in a Stanley Cup title for Detroit. Kozlov, meanwhile, suffered through an injury-plagued season before being traded to Atlanta, where he was good for 20 to 25 goals a season during his six years with the Thrashers. Today, the 39-year-old Kozlov plays professional hockey in Moscow while another gifted Russian named Pavel Datsyuk has assumed his jersey number – and nifty scoring touch – on the Red Wings.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.