His nickname was “The Mangler”. And if you ever saw Igor Ulanov play, you would certainly understand why. Ulanov’s playing style ranged from rugged to downright mauling. Hailing from Krasnokamsk, Russia, Igor Ulanov manned the NHL bluelines for fourteen seasons with eight different franchises. At an intimidating 6’3″ and 220lbs., Ulanov had no problem clearing the front of his own net or putting opposing players on their backside.
Ulanov was always one of my favorite defensemen. I remember once a November 19th, 1993 game in Buffalo, when Ulanov began pushing around a much smaller (but no less willing combatant) Donald Audette in front of the benches at the old Memorial Auditorium. Ulanov easily had half a foot on Audette, and at least 40lbs. There was no other reason for Ulanov to mess with Audette, other than the fact that he could. Audette was a very speedy sniper for the Sabres, and could really be dangerous in tight areas around the net. What better way to get a sniper off of his game than to give him a “love tap” across the mouth and sling him around a bit by the collar. Though when it came to the scrap, Audette arguably got the better of the punches in against Ulanov, but Igor had done his job – he got Audette off of his game, and both sat 5-minutes each for fighting. The Sabres (although they would win the game 6-0 over Ulanov’s Winnipeg Jets) certainly came up on the short end of the coincidental penalties by losing Audette for five. Ulanov finished the 1993-94 season with no goals in 74-games, while Audette found the back of the net 29-times in 77-games – you be the judge. That is just one example of Igor Ulanov doing his job; the dirty work. Ulanov even received accolades from teammate and legendary scrapper Tie Domi who gave him a few pats on the back and some “‘Atta boy”s at the end of the tussle.
This was by no means an isolated incident. In fact, this was typical Ulanov. Do a YouTube search on Igor. You will find him going after the likes of Eric Lindros, Mike Peca, Chris Simon and Keith Primeau – all talented stars of the 1990s and early-2000s whom Ulanov was able to get the better of, and get them thinking about revenge instead of scoring or making a good play.
Take Lindros for example. During the 1995-96 NHL season, Ulanov was traded in March of ’96 from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Tampa Bay Lightning (along with Patrick Poulin and a 2nd-round pick in exchange for Enrico Ciccone and a 2nd-round pick). Ulanov would help lead the Lightning into their very first playoff appearance in a 1st-round showdown with the Philadelphia Flyers and Eric Lindros’ “Legion of Doom” line. Lindros was in the prime of his career, having finished the regular season with 47-goals and 68-assists in 73-games for 115-points; Lindros and the Flyers were poised to make a legitimate run for the Cup. During that opening series, Ulanov was all over Lindros game in and game out.
Throughout the six game war, it appeared that Ulanov was set solely on stopping Lindros. As everyone knows, “Big-E” was oftentimes known to skate with his head down. Ulanov, a devastating bodychecker, caught Lindros in Game Two with a smashing hipcheck that left Lindros with a bruised left kneecap. Some felt, including Lindros and numerous Flyers’ fans and teammates, that Ulanov was seeking out Lindros’ knees. I do not know if that was the case, but Ulanov was definitely in Lindros’ grill anytime they were on the ice. Tempers would spill over in Game Six with the Flyers leading 6-1 with just over two-minutes left in the game, and Ulanov belted Lindros right into the boards. “Big-E” about had enough of Ulanov, and went after him with the two players trading blows.
Though the Flyers would win the series 4-games to 2, Igor Ulanov’s punishing play on Eric Lindros certainly took its toll. Philadelphia would lose in the 2nd-round of the playoffs to the upstart Florida Panthers. I think the argument could be made that Ulanov drained Eric Lindros so much with his continuous hits and “in-your-face” play in the opening round, that Lindros did not have enough left in the tank for the next round. Ulanov may very well have stolen a Stanley Cup from the Flyers that year.
If you want to know how tough Igor Ulanov truly was, I can also recall an incident late in Igor’s career in Edmonton with the Oilers when he was hit in the groin by a puck with a slapshot. When asked after the game if he was alright, Ulanov replied to the effect of “I already have a few kids; I don’t need anymore”.
One would think that a player with Ulanov’s wreckless abandonment on the ice would have had a shortened career. Throwing big hits, blocking shots, and facing repeated whacks with sticks could certainly take its toll on the body. Ulanov’s career was not lessened by any means, as he would continue to play until he was 39-years old; wrapping up his career in the KHL with Minsk Dynamo. In 36-games when he was nearly 40, Ulanov racked up an astounding 126-penalty minutes. In a span of nearly 20-years, Ulanov was a tough from start to finish; hands down.
But what I will always remember Igor Ulanov for, at least in the forefront of my mind, is the time that he did NOT play. Sounds funny, but it is true. During his final NHL season, 2005-06, at 36-years of age, Igor Ulanov was in his second campaign with the Edmonton Oilers. Used sparingly as a seventh defenseman on the Oilers backline, Ulanov played in 37-regular season games, registering 3-goals and 6-assists with 29-penalty minutes, while being a minus-11. More often than not, Ulanov was a healthy scratch.
The significance of the 2005-06 season as most will remember was that the Edmonton Oilers went on a truly improbably run to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing in the seventh and decisive game to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Oilers were the 8th-place team in the Western Conference, and thus the last to qualify for the playoffs. And while they possessed legitimate talent in the likes of eventual Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, and players like Ryan Smyth, Dwayne Roloson, Sergei Samsonov, Ales Hemsky, and numerous other key contributors, no one expected the Oilers to go on such a run.
While many would not agree with me, I truly believe that if Igor Ulanov had played in the Stanley Cup Finals that season, the Oilers would have won the Cup. It astounds me that Ulanov was not inserted into the lineup for even a single playoff game. I have always believed in veteran leadership being capable of willing a team to win. Igor Ulanov was the oldest player on that Oilers roster, and had played in the league longer than any other player on the team. And sure, he could still be that same veteran voice in the locker room and during practices even if he did not dress for the Oilers lineup. But, what Edmonton missed the most in my estimation was Ulanov’s tenacity. Heavy hitting, downright nasty, junkyard dog style of play means so much more in the Stanley Cup playoffs; its effect is increased tenfold when the Cup is on the line.
Look at the likes of Darren McCarty in Detroit, Bob Nystrom on Long Island, Esa Tikkanen with Edmonton and New York, Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso as a line in New Jersey, or especially whom the Anaheim Ducks iced during their championship run with Brad May, Travis Moen, George Parros and Shawn Thornton all on one roster. Toughness and determination wins championships. Edmonton did themselves a disservice by not playing Ulanov in the Finals, and it saddens me that it may have cost them a Stanley Cup. It came down to ONE GAME. Game-7, and Ulanov could have made the difference.
I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve when I think of that particular Oilers’ team. I will always look back on them with the regret that Igor Ulanov did not actively participate in the playoffs. I will look back with the wonder of whether he could have been the difference in them winning the Cup. But if I put those feelings aside for a moment, I look back with enjoyment and a bit of awe on the career of the man known as “The Mangler”.