Woeful Oilers land big off-ice free agent in Nicholson

Nicholson

NEW YORK – When Bob Nicholson stepped down as president and CEO of Hockey Canada in May, he made it clear he was looking for another challenge. Well, if that was his desire, he certainly found one. And while the Edmonton Oilers have had all kinds of trouble attracting big free agents for their on-ice product, they appear to have succeeded in landing the most prized free agent hockey executive in the world.

A TSN report has been confirmed by thn.com that the Oilers have a news conference scheduled for Friday in which they are expected to announce that Nicholson has been hired to be CEO of Rexall Sports, which owns the Edmonton Oilers. As first reported on Twitter by thn.com Wednesday night, Nicholson chose the Oilers over offers from the Washington Capitals and Vancouver Canucks. It’s believed the Capitals offered the most money, but the challenge of being a part of rebuilding the Oilers on the ice appealed to Nicholson. Read more

Jaromir Jagr ends a quarter century of international greatness

Jagr-2

Two of the greatest careers in international hockey ended this season. One of them, Teemu Selanne’s, went out in a blaze of glory with a goal in Finland’s bronze medal win in the Sochi Olympics. The other, Jaromir Jagr’s, ended with a loss and no points in the bronze medal game of the World Championship amid complaints about the refereeing in the tournament.

But When Jagr announced his retirement from international play after the Czech Republic’s 3-0 loss to Sweden Sunday, it marked the end of a career that spanned a quarter of a century and – with all due respect to Dominik Hasek, Jiri Bubla and Robert Reichel – was the best in that country’s history. Once again, Jagr answered the call for his country and like so many times before, he led the Czechs offensively. Read more

Anthony Mantha might be exception to the rule in Detroit

Anthony Mantha

In part because they haven’t had high draft picks and in part because they almost always do things the right way, the Detroit Red Wings have had a clear plan for developing the players they’ve drafted. They get out of junior or college or Europe, go to the minors, maybe win a championship and learn what it’s like to be a pro. Then by the time they’re ready to play in Detroit, they’re really prepared for the NHL.

But there is one player who just might buck that time-honored tradition. His name is Anthony Mantha and if you have even a passing interest in junior hockey, you’re probably already heard of him. Going into the first game of the Memorial Cup tonight with the Val d’Or Foreurs, the 19-year-old right winger has scored 57 goals in 57 regular season games and 24 goals in 24 playoff games. He has back-to-back 50-goal seasons in the Quebec League and led all Canadian scorers at the World Junior Championship with 5-6-11 totals in seven games. He was the only Canadian named to the all-tournament team. He was ranked the 10th-best prospect outside the NHL in THN’s annual Future Watch edition. Read more

Czech teen Pavel Zacha hopes to follow Tomas Hertl

Ryan Kennedy
Pavel-Zacha

The Czech Republic has churned out quality, but far less quantity in recent years when it comes to prospects. Jakub Voracek, Radek Faksa and of course Tomas Hertl have kept the nation relevant, but when only a handful of native are taken in the NHL draft each season, it’s a problem. Good showings at international tournaments helps and that’s where Pavel Zacha comes in. Already 6-foot-3 and 201 pounds, the talented left winger just turned 17 this week, but he has already played on a team with Petr Nedved in his country’s top league, gotten his feet wet at the world juniors and learned more English than some Czech NHLers. Now he has his sites set on a good showing at the world under-18s in Finland next week.

“We have a very good team,” Zacha said. “We played good at the Ivan Hlinka tournament in the summer and I hope we can get a medal this time.”

Eligible for the loaded 2015 draft, Zacha is shaping up to be the first top-10 pick from the Czech Republic since Voracek went seventh to Columbus in 2007. “He’s a big, strong, powerful winger,” said one NHL scout. “Really good skater, too. He’s fast and he shoots the puck.”

While the race to get Zacha over to North American shores will be a feverish one when the CHL Import Draft determines major junior destinations for Euros in the summer, Zacha signed a three-year contract with Liberec this season, so his path will most likely mirror that of Hertl, who came over to San Jose this season as more or less a finished product from the Slavia Prague squad. “Everybody says it’s the best way in the Czech Republic,” he said. “I like Hertl because he did the same.”

Zacha spent the majority of his season with Liberec’s main club after dominating at the junior level and also spending time loaned out to a second-tier men’s club. He tallied eight points in 38 games for Liberec and saw action in three playoff games. It was quite the intro to the next level of hockey for the teen.

“It was hard in the beginning,” he said. “But I played with Petr Nedved and he told me good things about how to play and really supported me.”

And Nedved isn’t the first elder statesman to lend Zacha a hand. The youngster has trained in the summer before with former No. 1 overall pick Patrik Stefan in Los Angeles and will likely head to Montreal this summer for a camp arranged by agent Allan Walsh’s Octagon firm. The big houses and ocean vistas of L.A. were certainly awe-inspiring for the product of land-locked Brno in the Czech Republic, but those trips also helped him learn English – on top of movie trailers and Hollywood comedies. Growing up as a multi-sport athlete, Zacha also played tennis and soccer, but his size and skill made him a phenom on the ice. He’s been ahead of the development curve for years back home and even though he played sparingly at the world juniors in Sweden, it did open his eyes. “It was great for me, seeing players like Jonathan Drouin,” he said. “For me it was a very good tournament.”

Zacha wants to work on the mental side of his game and a great acid test will be the under-18s. In a pool with Denmark, Switzerland, Finland and Team USA, the Czechs should at least make the quarterfinal, especially with first-round 2014 draft prospects Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak in the lineup.

If Zacha can build his resume from there, next season will be filled with opportunities and a chance to add his name to a prospect list that already features Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Noah Hanifin and Oliver Kylington. And that would be great for the visibility of both Zacha and his home country.

Golden boy Nicholson has NHL in his future

Nicholson

There will be no need for Hockey Canada to give Bob Nicholson a golden handshake or a gold watch when he officially announces his departure on Friday. Nicholson already has approximately as much gold as Fort Knox.

Under his watch as president and CEO of Hockey Canada, his country has won seven Olympic gold medals (three men, four women), five World championship golds, 12 World Junior golds and 10 World Women’s gold medals. And speaking of gold, he has presided over Hockey Canada becoming a money-making monolith, both in terms of attracting sponsorship money and generating revenues from events. For example, the WJC in Montreal and Toronto could make a profit of up to $30 million, 50 percent of which goes to Hockey Canada. Read more

Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson stepping down, but leaves organization at its peak

Adam Proteau
Bob Nicholson (DAVID COOPER / TORONTO STAR)

Longtime Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson is scheduled to officially announce his resignation from the organization at a news conference in Toronto Friday. There was no indication as to what he planned to do after spending more than 15 years in the position, but the longtime executive has been linked to NHL GM discussions in the past – and given that he leaves with Canada’s national team enjoying an incredible run of success, it’s unlikely he’ll be out of work very long.

Nicholson has held the title of president and C.E.O. for Hockey Canada since 1998, but was senior vice-president of the Canadian Hockey Association for the previous six years. During his time running the program Nicholson led Hockey Canada to seven Olympic gold medals (three men’s and four women’s, including both golds at the 2014 Sochi Games), 12 International Ice Hockey Federation world junior championships, five IIHF men’s world championships and 10 IIHF women’s world championships. To say other hockey federations want to match his results is an understatement. The Vancouver native has also steered the organization in its role as Canada’s sole governing body for the amateur side of the sport (ice hockey and sledge hockey) and produced phenomenal metrics in growing the game. Read more

Why Finland is producing more elite prospects than ever

Ristolainen

Admit it. You were a little misty-eyed watching Teemu Selanne at the 2014 Olympics. At 43, he had us choked up, winning the tournament MVP award and leading injury-depleted Finland to a bronze medal. It was just one more feat heaped upon a mountain of them and it was what we’ve come to expect from one of the game’s classiest veterans since he exploded onto the scene in 1992-93.

Selanne the rookie was a true revelation. He embarrassed the NHL’s freshman records, potting 76 goals, many of them spectacular, some punctuated by his trademark celebration of throwing his glove in the air and miming a rifle to blow it away. With all due respect to Jari Kurri, who had some awfully good running mates in Edmonton, Selanne was special because he was the first Finn to truly dominate the NHL as the featured star on a team.

He had broken a barrier for Finnish superstars, yet no one else followed. We’ve seen a bevy of fantastic Suomi players over the years, and the goaltending factory there needs no introduction, but no Finn has ever won the league’s scoring crown. No Finn has won the Norris as the NHL’s top defenseman nor the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Finland hasn’t produced a superstar skater since Selanne.

But the events of the past year suggest that is about to change. Seth Jones, THN’s Draft Preview cover boy, sat idle as Finland’s Aleksander Barkov went No. 2 overall in 2013. The Buffalo Sabres chose big blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen six slots later. At the 2014 world juniors, a shifty Finn named Teuvo Teravainen left the field in the dust to win the scoring race. Ristolainen sealed the gold medal for Finland with an overtime goal:

On top of that, Minnesota prospect Mikael Granlund rode shotgun as Selanne’s 2014 Olympic linemate and made the Games’ all-star team.

The new class of Finns is on the way and its members project not just as the admirable, head-down, team-first types, but also as superstars and award winners. Just ask our Future Watch scouts and NHL executives. Teravainen and Ristolainen rank third and seventh in the 2014 overall rankings, with No. 24 Sami Vatanen giving Finland three players in the top 25. Last year, Granlund was the lone Finn in the top 30. While goalies like Tuukka Rask ranked highly in recent years, Finland had no skaters in the top 50 from 2007 to 2010. It had one in 2011, two in 2012, four in 2013.

So we know Finland has begun producing prospects with higher ceilings, but why?

According to Goran Stubb, the NHL’s director of European scouting, it started with a summit. Sweden famously had one in 2003 to improve its hockey development and Finland had one just a few years ago in Helsinki, with far less publicity. Coaches, scouts, management and all sorts of hockey minds were on hand.

“They changed the way of training, so now the Finnish players, the coaches, are trying to teach the young Finnish players more individual skills than before,” Stubb says. “And of course, that was exactly what Sweden did 10 years ago. They are delivering the most players from European countries nowadays, so it’s kind of a Swedish model that the Finns have taken.”

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Canadian Olympic pride is good – but not at the expense of other countries

Adam Proteau
Canadian crowd

The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics is here – and when the games begin, we’ll see what we always see at these events: inspirational athletes being celebrated for all the right reasons, but also, waves of jingoism for all the wrong ones.

Such behavior is particularly embarrassing for Canada, where for three months and 50 weeks of every Olympic cycle we go out of our way to define ourselves as nowhere near as bombastic and self-involved as our friendly North American neighbors to the south. Yet for some reason, when it’s time for Olympic hockey, many Canadians remove that pretense of humility and and let our boor flags fly. They expect the rest of the puck-loving community to genuflect before what they erroneously perceive as Canada’s inherent advantage in the sport.

And if they don’t? Well, that’s “legitimate” grounds for them to ridicule and slander the rest of the hockey world. That’s license to call Russians enigmatic, frigid and/or selfish louts who just don’t have the intestinal fortitude to win any tournament. That’s cause to rip American athletes for being boisterous, confident and hailing from the world’s mightiest superpower. That’s permission to rant and rave about European teenagers coming here to play junior hockey and “stealing” roster spots. That’s all the excuse they need to condescend to proud hockey nations such as Sweden and Finland for riding our coattails and only succeeding when they play “the Canadian way”.

It’s all quite exhausting and unbecoming. Read more