VANCOUVER – Although Canada and the United States seem to be pulling away from other countries, CHL commissioner David Branch has no plans to limit the number of Europeans who play in major junior hockey in Canada.
The International Ice Hockey Federation represents the global interests of the game. It is an organization that celebrates excellence on ice whether the winning team comes from North America or Europe or beyond. But, it seems with greater and greater frequency the winner of the big tournaments is either Canada or the United States. In some respects, this makes perfect sense. Canada is where the game began, but America is both the closest friend and greatest rival in all aspects of life, so it’s natural that relationship would continue with hockey.
However, the two North American hockey powers seem to be pulling away from, the rest of the world, and this is not necessarily a good thing. After all, one of the great aspects of the traditional Canada-Russia rivalry is the geographic distance between the two countries, not to mention the political and cultural differences, which are significant.
If Canada and the United States are pulling away, though, it’s in large part due to the power and lure of the NHL and the developmental system which gets players from lower levels to the world’s top league. That would be the three organizations that form the Canadian Hockey League, the most dominant junior system in the world.
Any Canadian (and many an American) player who takes his hockey seriously invariably chooses the OHL, WHL, or QMJHL for his teen years, and in recent times this includes Europeans. But only a small percentage of CHL players go on to successful NHL careers, and that number is even smaller for Europeans.
Yet Europeans come to the CHL because they are advised to do so by agents and general managers. The rationale is that if you want to play in the NHL, you must learn to play the NHL game, and for that you need the CHL. Playing in junior allows you to be seen and discovered more easily by scouts and shows your dedication to the NHL.
Dave Branch, the commissioner of the CHL, sees nothing wrong with the current European content of the three leagues. Despite gentle pressure from the IIHF to reduce the quota of Europeans allowed on each team from three down to two, one, or even none, Branch sees no change in store any time soon.
“Given the demand and the interest [in players coming over] it would be rather difficult to not have any [Europeans]—and we’d be subject to [legal] challenge, so we have to try to manage all that.”
The proof is in the pudding, as they say. The simple fact is that most Europeans in the CHL come from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, yet look at the paltry medal count for these two countries at the World Junior (U20) Championship and senior World Championship in the last decade.
Indeed, much as Canada enjoys whooping it up every Christmas for the U20—and a spot in the gold-medal game is a virtual certainty these days—it isn’t a healthy situation when both it and the United States are so dominant. The complaints everyone is having with women’s hockey are now starting to take root in the men’s game as well.
Still, once things gain momentum, it’s difficult to stop or change direction, as Branch notes. “The world is getting smaller,” he said, “so it’s hard to imagine that we’re going to start building borders at this point. Where there’s demand and a perceived need, we have to respond in some way, shape, or form. The movement of players will probably only grow in the years to come.
An IIHF study from a few years ago, though, clearly shows that Europeans who develop at home have a much better chance at NHL success than those who move to Canada to play junior, yet Branch doesn’t know how he can contribute to creating a healthier scenario for European teens. “We have players who are in a professional hockey stream [the CHL] and there are those, for whatever reason, who don’t [have success in the NHL].”
Still, something has to be done, doesn’t it? If most top international tournaments end in a Canada-United States gold-medal game, even those two countries can’t be happy. Variety is essential to growing the game, and excitement comes from unknown results, not predictable ones. The gold-medal showdown on Sunday in Vancouver promises to be a classic, but if this becomes the norm then “classic” disappears from the hockey lexicon.