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Global Game: NHL boasts a United Nations of talent

by Bill Meltzer /

The 2006-07 Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks were comprised of players from Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia and the United States.
Thirty two years ago, the Philadelphia Flyers won the Stanley Cup with a roster consisting entirely of players from Canada. No one paid much notice to that fact at the time, because the NHL was overwhelmingly comprised of Canadians. But the 1974-75 season turned out to be the last time an all-Canadian won the Cup, and it’s unlikely that it will ever happen again.

Fast forward to 2007: Despite being known for its exceptionally high concentration of Canadian core and role players, the Anaheim Ducks’ Stanley Cup winning roster also had three players from the United States and one each from Finland, Sweden and Russia.

Of course, a host of the Ducks’ key players -- including Norris Trophy finalists Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer and goaltender Jean-Sabastien Giguere -- came from Canada. But in this most team-oriented of sports, Anaheim’s Stanley Cup victory simply would not have been possible without the major contributions made by veteran Finnish superstar right wing Teemu Selanne and Swedish shutdown center Samuel Pahlsson, among others.

The other 47.3 percent

Last season, on a league-wide basis, some 942 players (858 position players and 84 goaltenders) appeared in at least one NHL game. Not counting players born overseas but raised and trained in Canada (such as Brazil-born Robyn Regehr, Belfast, Northern Ireland-born Owen Nolan and Polish-born Wojtek Wolski), the NHL featured players representing 22 different countries. A little more than half (52.5 percent of position players and 51.2 percent of goalies) were from Canada.


In years past, it was safe to assume that almost any American-born player you saw in the NHL came from Minnesota or a New England state. If not, he may have come from Michigan or perhaps upstate New York.

Today, while players from these areas are still very heavily represented among the league’s American population -- which reached 19.3 percent of NHL position players (168 skaters) and 16.7 percent of goaltenders (14 goalies) last season -- there’s a wider cross-section of the country represented. Moreover in recent NHL drafts, especially 2007, there has been a significant rise in players all over the U.S. selected in the first or second round of the NHL Entry Draft.

Among all European hockey countries, Sweden has been the steadiest producer of NHL talent for over 30 years. Of course, the communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia blocked the entry of their cavalcade of top players to the NHL. But it’s also true that, among European players, Swedes have typically had one of the smoothest transitions to North American hockey life, both on and off the ice.

On an uninterrupted basis, there have been Swedish born and trained players in the League in every season since Hall of Fame defenseman Börje Salming and forward Inge Hammarström cracked the Toronto Maple Leafs lineup in 1973-74. Last season, there were 45 Swedish position players (5.2 percent of all players) and four goaltenders in the NHL. That’s from a nation of about 9 million people.

During the 2006-07 season, at least one Swedish player suited up on 24 of the League’s 30 clubs, including an NHL-high seven for the Detroit Red Wings. There also were six Swedish team captains in the NHL last season: Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, reigning Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidström of Detroit, longtime Toronto Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin, Markus Naslund of the Vancouver Canucks and, prior to their respective trades, Peter Forsberg and Mattias Norstrom.

On a per capita basis, however, there’s not a more impressive secondary producer of NHL talent than the Czech Republic. While the Czech national junior teams have had their problems lately (and the number of Czech players selected in the NHL Entry Draft has been dropping since 2000), the Czech Republic is still disproportionately represented among NHL players.

The Czech Republic is the 79th most populous nation on earth, with 10.3 million people. But with 61 NHL position players last season (7.1 percent of skaters a League-wide basis) and four goaltenders (4.7 percent), it was the world’s third biggest contributor of NHL players, behind only Canada and the U.S.

The Czechs’ former countrymen, the Slovaks, also are widely represented in today’s NHL. Slovakia is the 110th most populous country with 5.4 million people. Counting Ukraine-born Slovak hockey legend Peter Bondra, there were 24 Slovak skaters and two goaltenders last season.

Meanwhile, true to the cyclical nature of the sport, the number and percentage of goaltenders from Finland has skyrocketed. From 1980 to 2000, only Jarmo Myllys, Kari Takko, Markus Mattsson, Jari Kaarela, and Hannu Kamppuri even so much as started an NHL regular-season game. None enjoyed more than fleeting success on these shores. Last season alone, nine Finnish born and trained goalies (10.7 percent of all keepers in the League in 2006-07) played in at least one NHL game.

The quantity and dressing room influence of Finnish skaters in the NHL has also grown steadily in the last decade. In 2006-07, there were 33 Finnish position players -- 22 forwards, 10 defensemen -- in the NHL. Just as importantly, there are numerous Finns regarded as leaders on their respective NHL clubs, especially Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, Selänne, former Nashville captain Kimmo Timonen (now with the Flyers), Florida Panthers captain Olli Jokinen and veteran Philadelphia winger Sami Kapanen.

Pendulum swings with former Soviet nations

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, players from Russia and other former Soviet republics -- including Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Kazakhstan -- have established a permanent presence in the NHL.

For widely documented reasons, the number of Russian players in the NHL has dropped in recent years. The primary circumstances are the Russian Hockey Federation’s refusal to participate in the NHL-IIHF player-transfer agreement and the influx of oil money which has greatly bolster the budgets of the most powerful and influential Russian club teams.

Not coincidentally, there have been fewer Russian players selected in the Entry Draft and more Russian players who opt to return to their home league (the Russian Super League) at younger ages.

Even so, Russian players will continue to be vital parts of NHL rosters both now and in the future: from stars like Alexander Ovechkin, 2006-07 Calder Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and Ottawa Senators defensive machine Anton Volchenkov to a host of regular starters League wide.

In all, there were 33 Russian skaters (3.8 percent of all position players) and two goaltenders in the NHL last season. There were also 19 additional players hailing from other former Soviet Republics, considered second-tier international hockey countries, including eight Ukrainian players (many of whom suit up for the Russian team in international competition), four from Latvia, three from Kazakhstan and a pair each from Belarus and Lithuania.

Growth in secondary hockey countries

Last season, Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar became the first player from Slovenia to play in the NHL and he figures to have a long, successful career if he stays healthy. The Kings also made history last season when Japanese goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji appeared in four games, making him the first player from his country to suit up in an NHL game.

This past season, we’ve also seen the first two Danish-born and European trained (starting at home, continuing in Sweden) players reach the NHL. Frans Nielsen earned the honor with the New York Islanders, while Jannik Hansen made his NHL debut for Vancouver during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They won’t be the last in all likelihood.

Within the next five years, there could five -- or more -- Danes in the NHL. Minnesota Wild prospect Morten Madsen and Columbus Blue Jackets draftee Kirill Starkov (Russian born, but a Danish citizen) both have strong chances of playing in the NHL in the near future. In the 2007 Entry Draft, the St. Louis Blues made highly regarded center Lars Eller the first Dane to be selected in the first round. Danish forward Mikkel Bodker and defenseman Phillip Larsen are potential first or second-round picks in 2009.

Denmark technically already had an NHL alumnus and a higher NHL draft pick than Eller to its credit. Defenseman Poul Popiel played 224 NHL games with the Boston Bruins, Los Angeles, Detroit and Vancouver from the mid-1960s to early 1970s. His brother, Jan, was a second-round pick (10th overall) in the 1964 NHL Amateur Draft, but never played in the NHL. The Popiels, however, were raised and trained in Canada.

Denmark, which will be playing this year for the first time at the elite level of all three major international tournaments -- the IIHF World Championships, Under-20 Championships, and Under-18 World Championships -- has easily overtaken traditional rival Norway in the world hockey hierarchy.

But there have been several Norwegian players in the NHL, both in the past (such as forward Espen Knutsen and defenseman Anders Myrvold) and present (Edmonton forward Patrick Thoresen and Columbus defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen).

In the future, there will likely be a few more Norwegian players here and there who are good enough to play in the NHL. In similar fashion, the NHL occasionally sees players born and trained in Poland. While France’s national league is notoriously unstable, there is a player from that country, Montreal goaltender Cristobal Huet, currently in the NHL. Back in the early to mid 1990s, France’s Phillipe Bozon played parts of four NHL seasons with St. Louis.

Austria is yet another secondary hockey country that periodically sees one of its citizens earn a spot in the NHL or at least be selected in the Entry Draft. Currently there are two Austrians in the NHL. Top young Austrian talents typically leave for North American hockey leagues as teenagers after getting their start at home. This was the path both Buffalo Sabres star forward Thomas Vanek and New York Rangers defenseman Thomas Pock took. Others who have taken the same road include Canucks 2006 first-round pick Michael Grabner and Flyers prospect Andreas Nödl.

Two countries that lie just beyond the elite hockey powers on the international and NHL scales are Switzerland and Germany. But both countries have regularly produce a smattering of NHL players over the last decade.

In 2006-07, there were three Swiss positional players and two goaltenders in who played in the NHL. There were eight German players in all: seven skaters, one goalie. This excludes Germany-born Canadian citizen Dany Heatley, but includes South Africa-born, Canadian-raised and trained goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who has German-born parents and plays for Germany in international competitions.

In many ways, it’s unfair to call Switzerland and Germany “secondary” hockey countries, especially the former. Both countries have highly competitive elite leagues that feature a slew of former NHL players. While these circuits rely heavily on imported talent from North America and elsewhere in Europe, they’re good training grounds from young domestic players who are good enough to crack the lineup. It should also be noted that Swiss Nationalliga A hockey has a rabid following in some cities and some observers consider the Swiss crowds the most spirited hockey rooters in Europe.

In Switzerland’s Nationalliga circuit, domestically trained players are often quite skilled defensively and are smooth skaters but lack the offensive pizzazz to impress NHL scouts. The league scoring charts are almost always dominated by one-time NHL players. Nevertheless, the Swiss players’ defensive acumen often helps them hold their own in international games against the top countries, even beating NHL-stocked Team Canada and Team Czech Republic squads at the 2006 Olympics.

In the case of Germany’s DEL, young players learn early to deal with an NHL-like physical game. In a league that also features several former NHL coaches behind the bench, young German players typically exhibit the same type of work ethic and commitment to two-way play that NHL clubs look for. That’s why, despite the modest international success of the Germany’s national teams, we will continue to see a steady number of German players crack the NHL.

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