How many is enough?

Will more players return to Europe after one Cup?

21.08.2009
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Mats Näslund (Montreal, 1986) and Hakan Loob (Calgary, 1989) went home to Sweden after winning the Stanley Cup. Photos: Paul Bereswill/HHOF

Is winning the Stanley Cup the be-all and end-all in hockey? Is it always the ultimate measure of a player's ability, no matter which continent he hails from?

If so, then you must believe Joey Kocur was three times as good as Ray Bourque. And Teppo Numminen has nothing on Kevin McClelland.

We're being facetious, of course. Back in the 1980's and 1990's, nobody would have traded Bourque, the Hall-of-Famer who ranks as the NHL's all-time leading scorer on defence with 1579 points, for Kocur, best-known for his devastating fisticuffs and 2519 career PIM.

Ditto for Numminen, the Finnish blueliner who just retired as the NHL's all-time European leader in career games (1372), and McClelland, whose penchant for fighting with the Edmonton Oilers was overshadowed by other enforcers like Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley.

But still, Kocur captured three Stanley Cups (1994 New York Rangers, 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings), while Bourque went Cupless for 20 seasons with the Boston Bruins before finally hoisting the coveted silver mug with Colorado in 2001. Numminen's Cup tally? Zero. McLelland's? Four (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988).

Fairly or unfairly, NHLers are typically judged by whether they have a championship ring or not. Here's the upshot, though: it's primarily about whether you have ONE ring or not. It's a little bit like being pregnant: you either are or you aren't a Stanley Cup champion.

Granted, multiple rings help to build a NHL legend. As Alex J. Walling recently observed in a column about Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby: “One Cup, like Gretzky, Lemieux, and other greats is not enough. Ask the likes of Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau and they will say 'it gets better with each one you win.'” And someone like Crosby will probably keep his eyes on that prize for his entire career.

At the same time, in today's world of salary caps, free agency, and inter-continental player movement, no team will stay together long enough for any player to match Richard's 11 Cups or Beliveau's 10 Cups. If Crosby wins two or three more, he should be very happy.

So the question is, how do you feel if you've already won a Stanley Cup? Does it increase the likelihood that you can cross that goal off your list and possibly look to other leagues, in your homeland or elsewhere?

Apparently that was part of the logic for Jiri Hudler when the Czech-born Detroit Red Wings forward signed a new contract with Dynamo Moscow this off-season. Setting aside the legalities of the situation, Hudler was obviously enticed by the chance to make $10 million US over two seasons. But Hudler also added in an interview with the Russian newspaper: “I’ve already won the Stanley Cup, and now it is time to take a new trophy [the KHL's Gagarin Cup].” In another interview, he said: “It's a new season now. And let's get a different trophy - the Gagarin Cup.” Other players may have the same mindset.

There are three main incentives for playing in the NHL: the high salaries, the opportunity to play against most of the world's best players, and, of course, the chance to participate in the more-than-a-century-old tradition of chasing the Stanley Cup. (If you're Canadian or American, you can add the opportunity to play in front of family and friends.)

Yet out of those factors, only the Stanley Cup is truly exclusive to the NHL. In some cases, other leagues will be able to pay salaries that are equal to or higher than NHL wages. The NHL does have most of the world's top players, but again, that's not divinely ordained. As hockey's popularity continues to grow worldwide, the NHL will face increasing competition for talent from other leagues. Think of soccer, where fans can happily argue over whether La Liga (Spain), the Premiership (England), or Serie A (Italy) is the top pro league.

In the past, we saw some top Swedish players return to Europe while still in fine form after winning a Stanley Cup.

At age 30, Mats Näslund left the Montreal Canadiens with one Cup (1986) on his resume and suited up for Lugano (Switzerland) and Malmö (Sweden), only making a brief NHL comeback with Boston in 1995. Hakan Loob was 29 when the nifty forward won the Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989. The diminutive winger promptly went home to star for Färjestad, the team he now heads up as GM.

Defenceman Tomas Jonsson, a two-time Cup winner with the New York Islanders (1982, 1983), had plenty of hockey left in him when he headed back to Sweden in 1989 to play for Leksand, earning Eliteserien MVP honours in 1995.

Not coincidentally, these were the first three players to gain admittance to the IIHF's Triple Gold Club as winners of the Olympics, World Championship, and Stanley Cup.

Now the 2010 Olympics are mere months away – perhaps the most hotly anticipated hockey tournament in history. After experiencing the fervent support of their countrymen, some top European NHLers – especially those who've already won a Cup – may decide that playing closer to home is not such a bad bet. And if so, it'll be a good thing for hockey. The health of the sport demands a strong distribution of talent on both sides of the Atlantic.

LUCAS AYKROYD

Lucas Aykroyd is IIHF.com's correspondent in Vancouver, the home of the 2010 Winter Olympics. He has covered all IIHF World Championships since 2000, plus the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.


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