Nino Niederreiter was picked fifth overall by the Islanders in the 2010 NHL draft. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)
It goes without saying that having hockey strong in a number of nations is great for the sport, but it’s tough to hear the potshots at North America coming from across the pond lately.
At the World Hockey Summit in Toronto, you had International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel knocking the stuffing out of one strawman argument – an NHL division in Europe – even though the concept is laughably unfeasible to begin with.
Meanwhile, the Canadian League received the brunt of the criticism from those who believe European prospects do not benefit from leaving their home nations to play major junior.
The infamous stat trotted out by these folks is that no European player who has played in the CHL has suited up for 1,000 NHL games. The problem is that as Neate Sager has pointed out on the excellent Buzzing The Net blog, timelines render this feat nearly impossible.
The CHL import draft began in 1992. As Sager pointed out way back in July, “Do you know how many Europeans whose NHL life began during the import draft era have hit 1,000 games in the big league? Four.”
Those players are Roman Hamrlik, Radek Dvorak, Miro Satan and Daniel Alfredsson. But guess who’s getting close? Zdeno Chara and Marian Hossa, both of whom will eclipse 1,000 games in two or three years, both of whom played in the Western League.
And sure, not every European player who comes over to North America gets drafted, but guess what? Most North Americans who play in North America don’t get drafted. The NHL’s kind of a tough circuit to crack, you know? If a good young European comes over and plays against better competition in North America, but doesn’t get drafted, he’ll go back to Europe where he can dazzle the home fans once again.
Ironically, the benefits of playing major junior help both the player and their home nation. For the player, it’s obvious. You get to play high-level hockey as a teenager in front of thousands of people instead of hundreds if you play junior in Europe. If you are pre-destined to be an NHLer (Jakub Voracek and Martin Hanzal are two recent examples), you get a crash-course on learning English and you’re playing a pro-style schedule. In Europe, even an elite player in junior such as Nikita Filatov can only expect to play 35-40 regular season games.
And while countries are worried about the talent drain funneling out of the Old World, there is still a benefit to letting the best play against the best consistently. Take the most recent world juniors as an example. Slovakia’s best three players by a country mile were Richard Panik, Tomas Tatar and Marek Viedensky – all of whom were playing CHL or in Tatar’s case, American League hockey at the time. Slovakia’s best player the year before? Goaltender Jaroslav Janus of the Ontario League’s Erie Otters.
Toss in Switzerland’s Nino Niederreiter (WHL Portland) and you can see what even a half-season of North American hockey can do. Now I accept that these players probably would have been great anyway, but the Slovakian big three – who played as a line – were noticeably more confident than the rest of the team, who, thanks to a new initiative, played together against men back home.
I don’t want to slag the European junior system and I understand the need to grow the game in countries where the talent has atrophied in the past, but if critics are going to take shots at the CHL, they should at least be honest with their reporting.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday.
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