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Former NHLers no strangers to hockey in UK

by Bill Meltzer

Former NHL forward Paul Kruse extended his playing career by spending two seasons in the UK's Super League.
Time is ticking down to the NHL Premier Series in London, which will kick off of the 2007-08 regular season. For the members of the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, it’ll be their first time playing hockey in the United Kingdom.

But players with North American professional experience -- including NHL experience -- are hardly unknown in the UK. Teams in the UK’s Elite League (officially called the bmibaby Elite League, after the discount airline travel firm that sponsors the league) rely heavily on import players, many of whom formerly played in the ECHL, AHL and other minor leagues. In any given season, there are usually a handful of former NHL players in the Elite League.

Play in the Elite League is generally slower-paced than the top seven leagues in Europe (Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland and Slovakia), but the matches are often spirited, physical contests that resemble the atmosphere of minor league games in North America.

As a result, many of the players best fit for the circuit’s style of play are those who aren’t shy to engage in rough stuff. One example is retired former Calgary Flames, New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres agitator Paul Kruse, who played two seasons in the Elite League’s predecessor circuit, the Super League after his NHL career.


During the NHL lockout season of 2004-05, for instance, a handful of physical NHL players, including Wade Belak (Coventry Blaze), Eric Cairns (London Racers) and Rob Davison (Cardiff Devils) suited up for clubs in the bmibaby Elite League.

By far, the league’s most prominent overseas player to date was troubled former NHL star Theoren Fleury, who played a tumultuous 38 games for the Belfast Giants in 2005-06, racking up 81 points and feuding with officials while racking up 274 penalty minutes.

A handful of former NHL players found long-term homes in UK hockey. For instance, former San Jose Sharks right wing Ed Courtenay (who played 44 NHL games over parts of three seasons) has spent the better part of the last decade playing in the UK. He is currently the player-coach of Belfast. Likewise, former Philadelphia Flyers first-round pick, Jason Bowen, took root in the league for six seasons after his NHL fortunes faded with Philadelphia and the Edmonton Oilers. He retired in 2006 after three seasons with Belfast.

Last season, there were over a dozen former NHLers or one-time NHL prospects playing in the Elite League, including Rumun Ndur, Sylvain Cloutier and Barry Moore with Coventry; Ed Patterson (the player-coach, subsequently let go), Max Birbraer, Brad Voth and Dion Darling with Cardiff; enforcer Brantt Myhres with the Newcastle Vipers; Jason Ruff and former Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Philippe DeRouville with Belfast; former Edmonton Oilers prospect Lou Dickenson with the Edinburgh Capitals; Radoslav Hecl with the Manchester Phoenix; and Regan Darby and former New Jersey Devils second-round pick Brett Cloutier with the Sheffield Stingrays.

The league also features the occasional player sharing a familiar surname with a more famous relative who has played or coached in the NHL. For instance, Kirk Maltby’s brother, Shawn, played for the Sheffield Steelers last season, as did former Florida Panthers draft pick Rod Sarich, the brother of longtime NHL defenseman Cory Sarich. Their teammates included one-time Calgary Flames draft pick, Shaun Sutter, the son of longtime St. Louis Blues player and NHL coach, Brian Sutter.

For the most part, players accustomed to the North American leagues have little problem adapting to hockey life on or off the ice in the UK. The team camaraderie is the same, and the off-ice lifestyle adjustments are minor.

“We’ve got a brilliant team outside the dressing room and on the ice. Personally for me it’s great too, I live with (former San Antonio Rampage center) Mark Smith and he’s a good roommate and I’m getting along with the other guys, too, so it’s just great,” said former New Jersey Devils prospect Max Birbraer on the Cardiff Devils’ official site.

Even so, import players face all the usual hardships of working far from home while juggling the demands of family life. Former St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Jason Ruff, for example, lived alone in Belfast while his wife stayed home in North America in order for their twin sons to attend school. Ruff, a former Elite League MVP who scored 100 goals and added 145 assists in 193 regular and postseason games for the Giants, announced his retirement recently to start a business and be closer to his family.

“We were fully supportive in Jason's decision not to return, some things are more important than ice hockey. … I'm going to miss him as a buddy and around the locker room. He truly was the greatest Giant ever,” Giants GM Todd Kelman told the Belfast Telegraph. Calgary native and Bowling Green University product Kelman played alongside Ruff in every one of the 245 games he played for the club.

While most of the situations import players in the UK face are universal, every once in awhile things happen that remind them that they’re a long way from the NHL or AHL.

For instance, the Cardiff Devils were a team without a home early last season because its old rink, the Wales National Ice Rink, had been closed and set for demolition and its new rink, the Cardiff Bay Ice Rink, wasn’t ready in time for the season. Until December, the Devils had to make due playing their games elsewhere.

“All of us would rather not have to travel to Bristol, but we can see we don’t have a choice. We could get down about it and put our heads down and moan about it, but we’ve all decided to stick it out and hang in there,” Birbraer recounted on Cardiff’s official site.

Meanwhile, there were sometimes surprises awaiting the Devils players when they arrived at the rink, such as the absence of Plexiglass around the boards in Bristol.

“The lack of plexiglass was hard. It would have been nice to practice there – You want to be able to practice in that sort of weird rink. We’ve been here two months now and you think you’ve seen it all and then something else comes up like this rink. We try to laugh it off, though,” said Birbraer.

In most cases, the former NHL players and prospects who head to the bmibaby Elite League are glad they made the decision to come to the UK. Birbraer is set to play another season with Cardiff. Likewise, former Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Rumun Ndur has re-upped for another year with Coventry.

“Last season was a great experience on and off the ice. It was a great experience adjusting to the English lifestyle, and I think what made it more rewarding was seeing my family adjust well too. This is especially the case for my young son, who adjusted so well with his schooling. Again, I'm really happy to be back in Coventry, and I promise to give my all for this club and the supporters,” Ndur said on the Blaze’s official site.

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