TORONTO – Slavomir Lener, a veteran coach who has traveled the world working in the game, provided the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit with a distressing series of statistics which indicate a clear devastation of the European game because of a loss of players to Canadian junior hockey. His opinions were supported by Murray Costello, Tommy Boustedt, and Jan Filc.
The session began with an address from Costello, IIHF Council member, former president of the CAHA (forerunner to Hockey Canada), and former NHL player. Costello set the stage for Lener’s cautionary tale by emphasizing one of hockey’s greatest assets – its universality and its variety.
“Canada gave the world hockey, which has since become a global game,” he explained. “What’s fascinating is that every major country plays the game a different way. There is the robust play of Canada, and the slightly different way for the Americans, the consummate team play of the Soviets, the opportunistic Czechs and Slovaks, the perfectionist Swedes, and the Finns who can play any way, but like it in-your-face.”
And then the roadblock. “So why do the leaders of the CHL want to bring players over to Canada and make them play a Canadian style of game? We need to get the development streams as strong all around the world. Instead of thinking of the immediate result, we need to think five or ten years down the road. If any player anywhere in the world develops and gets better, all of hockey benefits.”
“We don’t want to stop Czechs and Slovaks from leaving, but we want to inform the players what their chances of making the NHL are," Lener began. "At the same time, the NHL is very important for us because it’s the best league and gives us strength to fight soccer, which is the big sport in Europe. But Europe is also important to the NHL. We provide more than our fair share of top players. More than 50% of starting goalies in the NHL are European, and more than one-third of top-four defenceman and top-six forwards come from Europe, so we make a big contribution to the NHL.”
After setting the stage by looking at this past season’s NHL player representation, Lener then produced some sobering thoughts. “We have been losing hundreds of players into junior hockey in Canada,” he said. “Many times, it is the result of the European agents not telling the player the full story. As well, the idea of a European having to go to the CHL to get drafted is very popular, but the numbers tell a different story. The majority of CHL Europeans do NOT get drafted, and only 4% ever become established NHL players. The CHL is a great league for North Americans, but it is not the best league for Europeans in general.”
Lener is not speaking out of jealousy – he is speaking out of survival. “The effect,” he continued, “is that the entire development system in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is getting weaker ever year, and there is a decline in the quality of players every year. The number of Czech and Slovak players drafted by the NHL every year has declined since 2000, and there is an all-time low this year when only one homegrown player from these two countries was drafted by the NHL. One.”
“There are no more players coming from our countries, no one like Jagr, Hejduk, Elias, Gaborik. All the players come through the CHL, but none of them are of the same star quality as these players.”
“If you look at career numbers, 22 Europeans have played 1,000 games in the NHL. Not one came from the CHL. Of the more than 100 players from Europe who have won the Stanley Cup, exactly eight have CHL experience. Our players must develop at home, and when they are ready, fine, then they can go to the NHL.”
Lener concluded: “All of this has a demoralizing effect on club teams and leagues in Europe. Why should owners and managers spend millions of dollars to develop players when those players will come to Canada when they are 16, 17, 18? There is no reason. The development pool in Europe is shrinking and will soon be empty.”
Boustedt was as adamant, echoing much of Lener’s opinions in a follow-up speech. “I agree with Slava that all the best players should be in the NHL and the league is important to us to compete with soccer. I would like to comment on the agents. They don’t inform the parents of the numbers that Slava has pointed out. That’s a big problem, not for the respected agents, but for the others.”
He continued. “This is not about the Czech or Slovak system. It’s a warning for any country. I can see this happening in Sweden, especially with the agents, and I worry about this a lot. If a player must reach 10,000 hours of practice, then we must be patient. If a player doesn’t reach his full potential, everyone loses. You can’t speed up the development of a player. It can’t be done.”
“In Sweden,” he explained, “all of our top players were NHL ready when they left home to play in the NHL – Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Henrik Zetterberg, the Sedin twins.”
It’s not just about pride, though, or any superficial concern. Boustedt explained how the junior system in his country works, a system radically different from the CHL.
“Our junior teams don’t make any money. They are developed by a parent team. But that parent team needs the junior players to play for them before leaving. If this doesn’t happen, there is no reason for the top Swedish team to sponsor the junior team. This will stop.”
In summary, Boustedt was firm and confident in his assessment of the European junior system. “The three largest threats for talent in Europe are as follows. One, CHL recruiting underage junior players. No player in Europe under 18 should be allowed to play in the CHL. Two, the two-year rule for NHL’s drafted players [note: any drafted player must be signed by an NHL team in two years or be returned to the draft]. The CBA should be changed to allow Europeans four years before signing with an NHL team. And three, I believe each CHL team should have only one (European) player per team.”
The European perspective concluded with a few choice words from Filc. "I can give you two examples of top players who left Slovakia early to play in the CHL – Marian Hossa, who just came back to Trencin with the Stanley Cup, and Zdeno Chara. Every other great Slovakian player developed at home – Bondra, Palffy, Handzus, Satan, and all the others.
"And I agree with everyone else about agents. Some of them are not honest with players. In the end, the goal that is best is to develop every player into the best player he can be. That helps everyone, the NHL, the national team, everyone.”