STOCKHOLM – Every year, dozens and dozens of players travel across the Atlantic to pursue a hockey career on the other side, and every year, many of them realize halfway through the season that things haven’t gone as planned.
Maybe it’s the different style of hockey, maybe it’s the different language, new food, new TV shows, new teammates, new linemates, maybe the family doesn’t like the apartment, but regardless of the reason, hockey’s just not going like it should.
We’re talking about the players coming to Europe.
Even if the days when any old Canadian could just hop over the boards and play - or think he could play - in the Finnish or Swedish league are long gone, and even if the European clubs do more scouting than ever before, making the transition to European hockey isn’t always easy. Not even for Europeans returning home after years in North America.
Ask Thomas Greiss, who found himself in the Swedish Elitserien’s Brynäs Gävle, instead of the San Jose Sharks. Greiss’s first game was a memorable one, in the nightmarish way. Just 3:42 into the first period, his first in Sweden, he let in a shorthanded goal. A minute and 58 seconds later it was 2-0. By the end of the first period, the score was 3-0 to Södertälje. The game ended 7-2, with Greiss making 30 saves. Right back in the saddle against AIK Stockholm, he made 26 saves as Brynäs went down 3-0.
At the writing of this, Greiss is dead last in the goaltending statistics with a 84.5 save percentage and a 4.22 goals against average after six games.
Yevgeni Nabokov was one of the star signings to the KHL, but his 89.6 save percentage in 16 games with SKA St. Petersburg is probably not what the fans or the club management expected. When Timrå signed Ilkka Pikkarainen to a two-year deal, they did so expecting the 29-year-old Finn to score goals like he did two years ago in Finland. In 2008-09, he scored 24 goals in 54 games with HIFK Helsinki, but spent last season mostly in the New Jersey Devils system, before being assigned to the Dynamo Moscow in the KHL.
Thus far, Pikkarainen has four goals and two suspensions - three if you count the pre-season - in 17 games. A disappointment to everybody, including the player himself.
It’s not always easy to make the adjustment. This season, 33 players returned to Europe, after a varying number of years in the NHL, here broken down by league: KHL 12, Switzerland 8, Sweden 5, Finland 3, the Czech Extraliga 2, Germany 2, and Slovakia 1. Some of the return home, like Nabokov and Rickard Wallin, some to another European league, like Greiss and Pikkarainen.
“Of course, every player has his own story and it’s difficult to generalize why some players succeed and others don’t,” says Sakari Pietilä, the Chicago Blackhawks former head European scout, and an SM-liiga and U18 national team coach.
“But, scouting is still not good enough, and clubs sign players based on loose talk and rumours. They should simply see more of the player they want to sign. After all, they’re big investments for the club. Looking at old stats isn’t enough – and it’s not fair to the player, either,” he adds.
Not all signings fail. Most of them are just fine, and the players perform up to expectations, the ultimate definition of success. If you meet expectations, you’re fine, like Glen Metropolit, who returned to Switzerland and has scored 21 points in 20 games with Zug.
But expectations are tricky. When Ilkka Pikkarainen signed with Timrå, the club’s press release called him an “NHL forward”. But when he’s scored one goal in 31 games in the NHL, and has never scored 40 points in a season, can he be expected to carry the team?
“We’ve checked Thomas Greiss’s background as well as possible. I’ve spoken with Niklas Wallin, who’s played with him, and Greiss gets high praise, both as a goalie and a person,” Brynäs’s GM Micke Sundlöv said when the club announced his signing.
Thomas Greiss is not, suddenly, a bad goalie. And he’ll probably bounce back. It’s just that Greiss had played just one full game between March 30 and his first game with Brynäs in late October, a pre-season game with the Sharks. He’s a little rusty. He needs to learn the European game again. He needs to learn the fastest route to the arena, and get back his mojo. It takes time.
Because one thing that has changed in the last 25 years is that Europe is no longer a place where veteran players can go and collect a fat paycheck before retiring. Not just like that, anyway.
“Nobody thinks like that anymore, and the attitudes have changed in Europe as well. When a North American player walks into the dressing room, it’s nothing special anymore. He’s welcome to help the team, but he’ll have to fight for a roster spot,” says Pietilä.
“But a good AHL player can make a good career in the Finnish league. So, if the door to the NHL seems shut, the salaries, even in Finland, will probably be better than what they make in the AHL,” he adds.
Another thing that may make the transition difficult are the differences in style play. Not only the rink sizes, and how the puck is controlled, but even development of the player himself.
“If you leave Europe as a skilled junior star, and then end up in the AHL, playing in the third line with grinders, of course, you’ll lose something. On the other hand, Mikko Lehtonen left Finland as a good, young, two-way forward, and either he’s learned something new, or the chemistry in his line in Sweden is phenomenal,” Pietilä says.
Lehtonen has 12 goals and 23 points in 20 games with Skellefteå AIK in Elitserien. However, he also scored 28 points and 23 goals with the Providence Bruins in the AHL. Not too shabby.
Pietilä sums up the rules of thumb for club managers like this:
“Know what you’re buying, make sure everybody has the same expectations, and don’t count on a miracle. If a veteran player has already played a couple of seasons in a slower tempo league, it’ll be hard for him to get his legs back in a faster game,” he says.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Maybe screenwriter, novelist William Goldman was on to something profound when he described how Hollywood works when choosing which films to green light: Nobody knows anything, he wrote.
“Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess – and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”