OTTAWA - It was only two years ago that the IIHF released an eye-opening study which called for the immediate repatriation, as it were, of Europe’s young players to their native leagues to develop. The study clearly indicated that Europeans who played junior hockey in Canada -- or who were expected to develop in the North American minor pro leagues such as the AHL -- had a far lesser chance of NHL greatness or of reaching their full potential than those who developed in junior and pro leagues at home.
The study concluded that the talent drain was not only wasteful in the short term but detrimental to the long-term ability of Europe’s leagues to provide the NHL with world-class talent every year. The study made clear that although it had a European leaning, it was the NHL that would suffer the most if this trend were to continue. And that’s just how it’s played out.
While the study received polite respect after its release, it certainly didn’t shock North American owners, general managers, and coaches into changing a system which has seen a dramatic increase in the number of Europeans in the WHL, OHL, and QMJHL, over the last decade, and it didn’t immediately spur the Canadian Hockey League, which oversees the three junior leagues, to reassess its allowable quotas of Europeans.
However, Canada’s lopsided over the Czech Republic by an 8-1 score on the opening day of the 2009 World U20 Championship should be a clear indication of the study’s accuracy. Still, judging by the mostly celebratory headlines in Canadian newspapers, the message isn’t sinking in. Indeed, the IIHF’s study is now more relevant, not less, with the passage of time.
First things first. We’re talking about the Czech Republic here! This is the nation that beat all comers at the first NHL-attended Olympics in 1998. The country that won three World Championships in a row thereafter (1999, 2000, 2001) and won this very same U20 tournament in both 2000 and 2001! Without blinking, you always mention the Czechs in the same breath as the Canadians, Swedes, and Russians—the absolute best of the best. These teams never beat each other 8-1!
Any home fan wants Canada to win, of course, but fans want an exciting 4-2 or 5-3 win, not an 8-1 blowout which is all but over halfway through the scheduled 60 minutes. When Canada beats Kazakhstan 15-0, you are much less surprised because that is a country without the resources, talent, or history of hockey in the Czech Republic.
Why is this 8-1 win so telling? Because 15 of the Czech players in this year’s tournament have been playing in one of the three junior leagues in Canada. These players came from their homeland out of a desire to make the NHL, out of pressure from their North American agents, out of a false sense that if they want to play in the NHL they must skate in North America to “become” North American players.
By comparison, only eight Americans here for this year’s U20 are in Canada’s junior system, while the Finns have two players, the Swedes only one, and Slovakia three. Recall that the 1998 Olympic gold medal Czech team had only 12 NHL players on its roster! The rest—fully half the team—came from their home Czech league.
Yet these same Czech players, who have been playing on the NHL ice in Ottawa, and who have significant CHL experience, were blown away by the Canadians, something the Czech-trained players of the past never experienced. In the long history of competition between these two countries at the U20, the worst result was a 9-3 Canadian win in 1978, but this was against a Canadian team with Wayne Gretzky, Mike Gartner, and Bobby Smith among its many future stars.
In 1992, Czechoslovakia beat Canada 6-1, but by 2004, Canada was way ahead, winning 7-1 and presaging yesterday’s result. Indeed, even as the Czechs were winning gold at the U20, a worrisome pattern was emerging.
In 2000, four players from the team were playing in the CHL, not a huge number, but more than any other European nation at that year’s event. However, those four hardly became stars in the NHL after their junior days were over -- Milan Kraft, Josef Vasicek, Jaroslav Kristek, and Jaroslav Svoboda.
The next year, there were already eight players in the Canadian juniors who helped the Czechs win gold, but there were higher expectations for the futures of Libor Ustrnul, Jakub Cutta, Zdenek Blatny, Rostislav Klesla, Pavel Brendl, Martin Erat, Lukas Havel, and Radim Vrbata, relative to what’s actually transpired.
Why is this so important? Because Europeans who choose to develop in, primarily, Canada, simply do not fare as well in the NHL as those who develop at home. Ultimately, hockey fans want to see great players from around the world. Sure, Canadians want to see Team Canada win and Americans want to see Team USA win, but closely-contested games between more or less even teams is what makes a game great and a team great.
If teenage Czechs continue to flock to the CHL in these numbers, it will spell the death of Czech hockey as we know it. If the junior systems back home have few talented players left—as they do now—there is little competition to help them to improve. It becomes impossible to develop world-class stars in a sub-world-class environment. In the long term, the league that suffers the most is the NHL. The world junior tournament is merely the annual indicator of this decline in talent, but any top player at the U20 can expect to play 10 to 15 years in the NHL. Not so with the Czechs (or Slovaks) anymore.
Even though those Czech World Championships teams that won gold between 1998 and 2001 played stifling defence, the players developed a special kind of “Czech” hockey. They didn’t try to imitate Canadian hockey simply to make it to the NHL or to play effectively against NHL players.
Historically, the greatest European players in the NHL have never been “Canadian-style” players; they were “European”—Borje Salming, Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Jari Kurri, Peter Stastny, Hakan Loob, Mats Naslund, Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure, Peter Forsberg, and so on. If anything, it was their “Europeanness” that made them stars in the NHL, and not surprisingly, none of these great stars played for a minute in the CHL. (Esa Tikkanen is a rare example of a European who did so, but he played for one year in the WHL and returned home.)
Canada’s 8-1 U20 win in Ottawa indicates a far less impressive scenario. Consider that the Czech roster here in Ottawa has on it 12 players who competed in the U18 tournament two years ago, a tournament in which the Czechs were actually demoted to Division I for 2008. This showing was not an embarrassment so much as a total disaster in hockey terms for a nation that had never experienced demotion in a significant international event.
The Slovaks are in an even more precarious situation. Smaller than their neighbours, they pulled off a great feat in 2002 by winning gold at the World Championship. Since then, they have fought off relegation more often than fought for a podium finish, and the junior system is in such a state there are precious few top prospects left in the country. They have but 15 players in the NHL this year, and only Marian Hossa is in the top 60 of scoring.
When that top tier of players from 2002 began to retire, there was no group of elite youngsters ready to step in and establish a new era of Slovakian hockey. That historic win five years ago changed the hockey landscape, making the Big Six into the Big Seven, but it can rightly be said that the world is back to the Big Six because of Slovakia’s significant slide in performance ever since.
The pattern is absolutely irrefutable. Teenage players leave the Czech Republic and Slovakia to play in Canada’s junior systems; the nation’s performance at the WJC declines; the number of Czech and Slovak NHLers decline. One scout told The Hockey News last year: "The Czechs have disappeared from the face of the earth." Well, not quite disappeared. They’ve just gone to the CHL to begin mediocre careers.
Here’s a fact that few people pointed out last summer. At the 2008 NHL Entry Draft (held, appropriately, in Ottawa), not one Slovakian player was drafted! This had never happened since the nation assumed independence in 1993.
As for the Czechs, a paltry three players over seven rounds and 200 selections were drafted. In 2002, there were 26 Czechs chosen, and in 2004, there were 21. And in 2008, the first Czech selected was Tomas Kundratek, a distant 90th overall.
If those aren’t panic numbers, what are? If all of these Czechs and Slovaks are choosing the CHL over hockey at home, why aren’t they being drafted in greater, not fewer, numbers? In hockey terms it’s like a fisherman of Newfoundland going out to sea one day and coming home with an empty boat because there are no fish left in the ocean.
Consider this about the current NHL season. Of the top 60 scorers in the league today, Europe accounts for a very impressive 24 names. But only three of those 24 Europeans have major junior experience in Canada, and not surprisingly all come from the Czech Republic or Slovakia. David Krejci played with Gatineau for two years (2004-06); Ales Hemsky played in Hull for two years (2000-02); and, Marian Hossa played a season with Portland, in 1997-98. The list of Europeans who stayed at home and have become top NHL scorers is immensely more impressive: Malkin, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Backstrom, Sedin & Sedin, Koivu, Zherdev, Semin.
Furthermore, of the 52 Czechs currently in the NHL, only six are in the top 60 scorers. Sweden has a total of 44 players overall but has five players in the list, and although Russia has only 24 players in the league, it has seven of those 24 among the top 60 scorers.
The fact that Canada’s juniors beat the Czechs 8-1 in one U20 game is not in and of itself earth-shattering, but it does point to a steep decline of Czech hockey in less than a decade. If this trend continues, it will be immensely detrimental for international hockey, for the global game cannot exist without rivalries, and rivalries are not made and do not endure with 8-1 scores.
Canada’s junior system is the most successful of its kind in the world, but it is a system built for Canadians and, to a lesser extent, Americans. It is a proven fact that, for the overwhelming majority of European players, they are better served by developing at home, and the Czechs are proving through poorer and poorer results that the IIHF study is a document that should be respected and worried over, not ignored.
To quote Murray Costello, former NHLer, Hockey Hall of Famer, and IIHF vice president: "The goal must be to keep the development streams strong on both sides of the Atlantic by keeping the young players in their own federations and leagues until they are ready for NHL play." Anyone who disagrees must think the coastal waters of Newfoundland are still full of fish.