EDMONTON – The numbers are staggering, really. Although Canada has 19 players on its roster from junior hockey across the country – hardly a surprise – the other nine teams in the 2012 U20 have a total of 43 players on their rosters who are also in either the Ontario, Western, or Quebec junior leagues that constitute the Canadian Hockey League. Every country has at least one player, and the Czechs (10) and Slovaks (8) lead the way.
This can be construed in a positive and negative way, although in the end what it shows is the worldwide desire by players to make it to the NHL. On the one hand, the numbers for the Czechs and Slovaks are nothing short of incredible, but they also tell a more portentous tale. In the last decade and more young players from those countries have been leaving in ever greater numbers to play in the CHL, but the results are clear – hockey success in those countries has plummeted.
The Czechs were virtually unbeatable in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but since then a new generation of stars has not emerged or developed in any meaningful way. The IIHF conducted a study several years ago which drew the conclusion that the more players left their country to develop elsewhere, the worse the developmental system became at home, and this, in turn, had a detrimental effect on the teams’ performance at the biggest events (Olympics, World Championships). It also produced shorter and less successful NHL careers for those players who left early.
Consider that in 2002 the Slovaks won gold at the Worlds, but now they struggle to stay at the top level in U20 and are barely a consideration for top-eight finish at the senior Worlds. The cause and effect are simple. When the best young players from those countries leave, they water down the quality of the junior hockey program in their own country. Poorer competition means slower or stagnated development of the next generation of players.
One Czech official here in Edmonton noted that it isn’t necessarily that simple. For instance, there is no player transfer agreement between the CHL and junior teams in Europe. So, when the best players from, say, Czech Republic, leave home, their own junior clubs get no financial support to make up for that huge loss.
On the other hand, one of the main reasons players leave is that they have trouble in their own junior leagues. Sometimes the coach doesn’t like them and they play only a little; sometimes their club doesn’t take development seriously. The CHL, after all, uses a business model that is highly professional and advanced.
Of course, the main reason players leave is that they feel they can learn the North American game more quickly and be noticed by scouts more easily. This will mean a better draft position and a better entry-level contract, or so goes the thinking. But by thinking of the draft and a first contract, players are stunting their own development.
The IIHF study concluded that in many more cases than not, the European in the CHL returned home after a few years and a very limited career in the NHL. And, almost to a man, the great European stars of the NHL – from Jagr and Forsberg to the Sedins and Datsyuk, Ovechkin, and Malkin – all developed at home without playing a minute in the CHL.
In some instances, though, the CHL is unquestionably highly beneficial. Nicklas Jensen is the only Dane in the CHL who is at this year’s U20, and he plays for the Oshawa Generals in the OHL. Well, the truth is, he’s just way too good a player for junior hockey in Denmark. It would do him no good to stay there. He might have chosen to play junior in Sweden, but coming to Canada makes sense for a player such as Jensen.
Ditto for Latvia’s Kristians Pelss, who plays in the WHL for the Edmonton Oil Kings. He also comes from a country with a junior system that used not to be up to his standards, so for him to reach his full potential he had to play elsewhere.
Tellingly, Sweden has become the number-one provider of NHL talent from Europe, but only four Swedes are in the CHL this year – forward Victor Rask is with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen; forward Ludvig Rensfeldt is in the OHL with the Sarnia Sting; forward Rickard Rackell is also in the OHL with the Plymouth Whalers; and, goalie Johan Mattsson is with the Sudbury Wolves, also in the OHL. Even still, try to think of a star Swede in the NHL or on the international stage who developed in the CHL. It’s not easy.
The Americans have seven players in the CHL and Russia has six. Switzerland has four and Finland only two. In all, 43 players from the nine countries are currently in the CHL, meaning that the equivalent of two extra teams other than Canada are stocked with Canadian junior players at this year’s U20.
NCAA college isn’t as well represented, of course, in part because the benefit of providing an education is offset by less devoted commitment to developing players for the NHL, which is the principle reason Europeans come to North America to develop. As well, as Paul Kelly, the head of College Hockey Inc. points out, there is the language factor. NCAA players must maintain respectable academic standards, but for players from Europe whose English isn’t strong, that would be impossible.
For now, the CHL is where it’s at for teenagers at the U20, whether they’re Canadian, American, or even European.