Ilya Kovalchuk surprisingly left the Devils and retired from the NHL to go back to Russia and play in the KHL. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
When the Kontinental League booted up in 2008-09, the most recognizable names to North American fans were Jaromir Jagr and Chris Simon. The best homegrown players were Sergei Mozyakin and Alexei Morozov, two forwards who could easily be sloughed off by the NHL as guys who couldn’t hack it in their league. Sure, Morozov once had 50 points in a season with Pittsburgh, but that was in 2004 B.C. (Before Crosby). Dick Tarnstrom led the team with 52 that year and he was a defenseman.
So when a World Championship would come around in the spring back then, it wasn’t exactly xenophobic envy when NHL fans didn’t want to see what their boys could do on the big ice against Morozov.
But when the worlds hit Belarus in 2014, there will be some continental pride on the line when Ilya Kovalchuk suits up for the Russians, likely wearing the ‘C’ when he does. One of the best players in the NHL (ranked 16th overall by our 2012-13 Yearbook) bolted back home and with Washington Capitals first-rounder Evgeny Kuznetsov still starring in the KHL despite the fact he could have won the Calder Trophy in either of the past two seasons, there is now legitimate intrigue in what happens Over There.
Wondering about Alexander Radulov was always fun, but this is deeper.
In the development ranks, the North American game is also getting less global. Well, perhaps a more accurate statement would be that it’s getting stronger and less concentrated. The Canadian League’s ban on European goalies may have come at the nudging of a Hockey Canada organization searching for answers to its own netminding shortfalls in past world juniors, but it will, ironically, strengthen junior hockey in countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia because more talent will stay home. And for the record, the move was also wrong-headed because Americans are much bigger threats to crease time – Anthony Stolarz and Mac Carruth were both starters at the Memorial Cup this year while John Gibson parlayed his development in Kitchener into gold at the world juniors wearing the Stars and Stripes. Even before this seasons starts, the best CHL goalie in the draft is Ohio’s Alex Nedeljkovic, who plays for Plymouth.
But back on topic.
Around the same time as the Euro goalie ban, Swedish teens were informed that those eligible for under-18 events such as the Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament would not be taken if they went over to the CHL. Protectionist? Maybe. But it’s hard to fault the Swedes for controlling their talent’s destiny when the CHL is changing rules on the fly after benefitting from said talent for years.
We’ve seen more players from Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Slovenia come over here in recent years than ever could have been predicted even a decade ago. But we’ve also seen the amount of Russians drafted slow to a trickle as lucrative contracts and competition back home ensure a safe haven for talented players. It’s gotten to the point where those who want to play over here have been making exaggerated displays to prove themselves: Mikhail Grigorenko wore a Canadian flag golf shirt to the draft combine before Buffalo took him in 2012, while Valeri Nichushkin told anyone who would listen that he would be coming over right away this season to vie for a roster spot. When the Stars grabbed him in the first round, he went straight from the draft in New Jersey to Dallas, where he has been living with a billet family and learning English while he trains ever since.
There was a time when all the best talent was in the NHL. That time has passed. There were stretches where Canada dominated international junior competitions with crushing efficiency. Now it’s been four straight tourneys without gold at the world juniors and both North American teams at the Junior Club World Cup (OHL Sudbury and USHL Dubuque) are fighting to get into the playoff round after an all-North American final last year, the first time teams from here participated.
This is all healthy, trust me. After all, who doesn’t like a little international intrigue?
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.
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