Slovomir Lener has coached for more than 20 years and is one of the most decorated coaches in the history of hockey in the Czech Republic. He was on the country's coaching staff when the Czech Republic won Olympic gold in 1998, a pinnacle moment.
So Lener's keynote speech on junior development was widely anticipated Tuesday afternoon during the Molson World Hockey Summit at the Air Canada Centre.
"The entire development system in Czech and Slovakia is getting weaker ever year, and there is a decline in the quality of players every year," Lener said. "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."
Ten years ago, 31 Czech and Slovak players were taken in the Entry Draft, including three first-round picks.
Lener pointed to the mass defection of young talent throughout Europe to the Canadian Hockey League. This exodus, he said, is about young players mistakenly believing that the CHL is not only the best, but only way, to get to the NHL.
"We've been losing hundreds of players to Canadian junior hockey,” he said. "Many times, it is the result of the 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."
Lener presented some of those numbers: Of the 527 European players that have gone the CHL import route, only 22 have gone on to play 400 or more games in the NHL. Lener said it was important for delegates to know that he does not blame the Canadian Hockey League or any of the other North American pro leagues, including the NHL.
"This is nothing against the CHL or American hockey," Lener said after his speech. "We have to work together. The point from my presentation was that for as long as possible to develop your own players in their own environment, and I strongly believe that is the best way to get the best players."
Lener's presentation was a wakeup call for the other panelists, including Darcy Regier
, the Buffalo Sabres
"I felt up there today really conflicted because you recognize there's a problem on one hand … on the other hand, these people are in positions that are strong like the CHL because they’ve worked very hard to get there," Regier said. "I don’t know what the answer is."
Lener says the Czechs have to provide better options to not only keep players home longer, but get more of the country's best athletes to participate in the sport. At one point, the Czech Republic had 90,000 registered players. Today, that number is 30,000.
"The challenge is to find a better environment for the player, better leagues, more competitive leagues and, in the end, more money for sure," Lener said.
So far, Sweden has not paid the price for the exodus of many of its top players to North America. But that doesn't mean that Tommy Boustedt, Sweden's director of hockey development and national teams, isn't worried.
He has watched the ramifications of what has happened in the Czech Republic and doesn't want to see that happen to his country.
He said Tuesday he believes there are tangible things that can be done to alleviate much of the current hurt. First, he suggested each CHL team should be limited to one import player instead of the current two. Second, he said, Europeans should not be eligible for the CHL Import Draft until they turn 18, instead of the current 16-year-old threshold.
Finally, Boustedt would like to see a four-year grace period for NHL teams to sign European draft picks instead of the two-year limit in the present Collective Bargaining Agreement.
If nothing else, Lener hopes the decline he informed of his country's once-proud hockey program spurs action to stop the mass migration of European talent: "We have to make sure everybody is winning in this race."