The Global Game
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Scandinavia has hardly cornered the market on exporting terrific players to the NHL. The demise of the Soviet Bloc was one of the most momentous events in the 20th Century and it had a significant trickle-down effect on hockey. For years, players from countries behind the "Iron Curtain" were prevented from playing in North America. Some like the Stastny brothers -- Peter, Marian and Anton -- made dramatic escapes from totalitarian regimes to be free to realize their dreams of playing in the NHL.
Today, the walls have been down for years and the sight of Russians, Czechs, Slovaks and other former communist countries don't merit a second look, unless it's to marvel at the talent of the players.
In the past, the players coming from Eastern Europe were veterans like Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov. Today, NHL clubs are being built around a dynamic group of young European players like Minnesota's Marian Gaborik, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk.
"I agree with Mario Lemieux, Gaborikís already one of the top four or five players in the game," Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray said. "The last time we faced the Wild, he didnít have a great night, yet he was still a threat -- ready to make an impact every time he was on the ice. To me, he's right up there in that same elite NHL grouping with Mario, Peter Forsberg, Jaromir Jagr ... Let's just say he's a real difference-maker."
''Gaborik is already a true game-breaker,'' says Columbus Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean. ''He gets your attention in a hurry. You canít give him any kind of opening around the net or heíll find a way to beat you.''
Atlanta's Kovalchuk may already be the NHL's most dynamic player. A highly skilled scorer, Kovalchuk has a flair for the dramatic and his style is reminiscent of Bobby Hull during the 1960s.
On any given night or, more importantly, on any given shift, Kovalchuk can bring fans to their feet with his blazing speed, coupled with a laser-like shot.
Thrashers defenseman Frantisek Kaberle considers himself among the lucky. He only has to face Kovalchuk in practice and if Kovalchuk turns him inside out before boring in on goal, well Kaberle just chalks it up to a lesson well learned. The Czech rearguardís eyes, however, light up when heís discussing Kovalchukís abilities with the puck.
"Heís unbelievable, especially his hands, and it seems every time he touches the puck, something happens," Kaberle said. "Whatís scary is thinking that he can still get better."
Scary indeed when you stop to consider that last season Kovalchuk had to adjust to the North American game and that the numbers he put up in his first two seasons -- 67 goals, 51 assists in 146 games -- were accomplished while learning the nuances of NHL hockey.
"Well, the ice surface was smaller than I was used to in Europe and I had to get used to that," Kovalchuk said. "And there were some different rules that took me a little bit of time to adjust to."
Kovalchuk is brash. Detroit's Datsyuk is as quiet as a church mouse. He is content to let his play do the talking, and that play could fill up all the talk shows on television. Through 33 games this season, Datsyuk already had 18 goals, six more than he scored in 64 games last season. Not too shabby for a player taken in the sixth round of the 1998 Entry Draft.
"He has the best hands Iíve ever seen," Wings goaltender Manny Legace marvels. "Some of the things he does while stickhandling and passing just make people look silly. Pavel makes 10-year veterans look like they just walked into the League."
You might think a teammate has to say nice things, but the praise for Datsyuk comes from friend and foe alike.
"He is a real elite player offensively," says Columbus Blue Jackets assistant coach Gord Murphy. "Datsyuk is a young guy but so valuable to that team. This is a real special player. He looks very dangerous with the puck anywhere on the rink. And he has the ability to beat people one-on-one, which is a real special talent."
"He is unbelievably patient with the puck," adds Calgary's Craig Conroy. "Datsyuk has great hands, and tremendous vision on the ice. It doesnít hurt when you get to play with a guy like Brett Hull to mentor you along. Hull is always open and in good position. I think they complement each other very well. Datsyuk is definitely going to be an All-Star one of these days. He is a strong skater with tricky moves and if you want to try to neutralize him youíve got to take the body. You canít watch the puck or he will be on the other side of you and on the way to the net. And heís got a good shot with a quick release."
"The players have always said he doesn't know how good he is," Red Wings coach Dave Lewis said. "The things he does, nobody else does. And that's real unusual for an athlete."
Notice he didn't say European athlete or Russian, or Czech or Canadian or American. Those distinctions are great for the World Cup and the Olympics, but in today's NHL it's one big global family.