The Global Game
OK, let's admit it right off the top. Hockey is not a big sport in the Federated States of Micronesia. Must be something to do with the weather in the South Pacific that is an inhibitor.
But across the rest of the globe, wherever skate blade meets ice and stick greets puck, hockey rules.
And as the world has grown smaller since the advent of the communications age, young players from Scandinavia to Russia, from Lativa to the Czech Republic have cast their eyes upon North America and the NHL as the place to ply their trade.
Today, the NHL is the most internationalized professional sports league in North America. In addition to Canadians and Americans, players representing 14 other countries currently play in the NHL.
And international competition has long been a staple of the sport, producing some timeless memories for hockey fans from around the world.
The 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics both thrust NHL stars onto the world stage as "Dream Teams" from Canada, the U.S., Russia, the Czech Republic, Finland and Sweden provided unforgettable memories like the wild celebration when the Czechs won in Nagano and the frenzied rush of patriotism that marked Canada's goal-medal win in Salt Lake City.
The 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the former Soviet Union is a classic that may never be duplicated. And throughout the years tournaments like the Canada Cup have clearly illustrated that hockey is a global game.
The World Cup of Hockey, last contested in 1996 and slated for a return in 2004, will be another dramatic illustration of the international flavor of NHL hockey.
Starting in August, players will gather at national training camps across North America and Europe as Canada, the U.S., Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Russia, Slovakia and Germany vie for international bragging rights.
Today, players from varying cultures mix easily in NHL dressing rooms. The annual NHL Entry Draft is a melting pot of the world's top prospects. Seeing a European player -- forward, defenseman or goalie -- taken with one of the first selections of the draft doesn't even raise an eyebrow.
But like everything else, there was a process to globalization. In the early days, an "us vs. them" attitude prevailed that made for fierce competition, but not great understanding. Prior to the Summit Series, the prevailing sentiment in North America was Team Canada would rout the Soviets handily. In Europe, the feeling was North American players weren't skilled enough and only played with brute force.
"They didnít consider us much of an opponent in Canada," Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak recalled. "When we won the first game (of the Summit Series) in Montreal, it was like a revolution in hockey."
Tretiak, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame despite never playing in the NHL, is now the Chicago Blackhawks' goaltending consultant.
The skill of European goaltenders was perhaps the last question to be answered about the great influx of players coming to North America. The first wave of Euro-goalies, led by Hardy Astrom and Jiri Crha didn't distinguish themselves. The first European impact goalie in the NHL was Pelle Lindbergh, an outstanding Swedish netminder for the Philadelphia Flyers who died in a car crash in 1986, a year after he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHLís top goaltender.
Today, the NHL goaltending ranks sport a number of excellent European-trained netminders like Detroit's Dominik Hasek, Nashville's Tomas Vokoun, Colorado's David Aebischer and Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin. In all, there were 22 European goalies in the NHL as of Nov. 30, 2003
There was a time when Swedish and Finnish players were tagged as "chickens", lacking the toughness to compete at the NHL level.
A defenseman named Borje Salming single-handedly ended that misconception during a distinguished career with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Today, no one is a tougher opponent than the Leafs' Mats Sundin or Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, the reigning Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman.
Another myth debunked and NHL teams have been the winners. As of the same Nov. 30, 2003 date, there were 43 Swedes and 27 Finns in the NHL, including star players like Vancouver's Markus Naslund, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, Colorado's Peter Forsberg, Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg and Lidstrom and Toronto's Sundin.