While European-born players were a part of the NHL since its founding, it was still rare to see them in the league until 1980. The WHA turned to the previously overlooked European market in search for talent, signing players from Finland and Sweden. Anders Hedberg, Lars-Erik Sjoberg and Ulf Nilsson signed with the Jets in 1974 and thrived in North America, both in the WHA and later the NHL. The Jets won three of the six remaining WHA championships after signing European players, and their success sparked similar signings league-wide.
Borje Salming was the first European star in the NHL. He signed with the Maple Leafs in 1973, and played 16 seasons in the NHL, retiring in 1990. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. His fellow Swede, Pelle Lindbergh, was one of the top goaltenders in the world in the early 1980s. He led the Flyers to the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals before dying in a car accident during the 1985–86 season. Finns Jari Kurri and Esa Tikkanen helped lead the Oilers dynasty of the 1980s.
While the WHA opened the door, and players slowly joined the NHL, those behind the Iron Curtain were restricted from following suit. In 1980, Peter Stastny, his wife, and his brother Anton secretly fled Czechoslovakia with the aid of Nordiques owner Marcel Aubut. The Stastnys' defection made international headlines, and contributed to the first wave of Eastern Europeans' entrance into the NHL. Hoping that they would one day be permitted to play in the NHL, teams drafted Soviet players in the 1980s, 27 in all by the 1988 draft. However, defection was the only way such players could join the teams that drafted them. Michal Pivonka defected from Czechoslovakia in 1986, while Russian Alexander Mogilny defected following the 1989 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Anchorage, Alaska. Czech teenager Petr Nedved walked into a Calgary police station in January 1989 after playing in the Mac's AAA midget hockey tournament.
Shortly before the end of the 1988–89 regular season, Flames general manager Cliff Fletcher announced that he had reached an agreement with Soviet authorities that allowed Sergei Pryakhin to play in North America. It was the first time a member of the Soviet national team was permitted to play for a non-Soviet team. Shortly after, Soviet players began to flood into the NHL. Teams anticipated that there would be an influx of Soviet players in the 1990s, as 18 Soviets were selected in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. The entire "KLM" line, the Soviet team's top line, joined the NHL in 1989 as Vladimir Krutov and Igor Larionov played for the Canucks, while Sergei Makarov went to Calgary. Makarov won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year in 1990, a selection that caused controversy; he was 32 years old and had played 11 pro seasons in the Soviet League. In the wake of the controversy, the NHL amended its rules: players over the age of 26 were no longer considered for the award. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the Iron Curtain paved the way for more Eastern European players to play in North America. Only six European players were selected at the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. That number increased to 32 in 1989, while a record 123 Europeans were drafted in 2000. Europeans made up 25.8% of the NHL in 2007–08, totalling 243 players.