. 1990-1996

4 1992 . 
The year of the European // Toronto Star

As more highly skilled players arrive from other countries the staid, old NHL is quickly becoming a truly international league 

Bob McKenzie 

IT is the dawn of a new day in the National Hockey League and, as you haul your sorry North American body out of bed, time for a little exercise.

The 20-minute European workout, that is, courtesy of conditioning expert, Winnipeg Jets general manager Mike Smith.

"For the next few months I want you to look at the NHL game summaries each morning," Smith says. "Look at the goals and figure out how many of them were either scored or assisted by European players."

Smith knows because he's been on the program right through this NHL pre-season.

"If 11 goals are scored in a game, figure about eight or nine of them will involve Europeans," he says. "That tells you two things. One, there are an awful lot of Europeans in the league. Two, they are obviously skilled players."

This is indeed the year of the European in the NHL. And how's that for stating the obvious?

There were 64 European-trained players (who played 10 or more games) on the 22 NHL clubs last season. This season, the number is certain to be at least 90 and maybe more, depending upon the teams' final cuts this week. That doesn't include the half-dozen or so Europeans expected to be with expansion clubs Tampa Bay and Ottawa when they commence operations this week. In all, then, there are likely to be about 100 in the NHL and as many as 20 to 30 new European faces in the minors, too.

And the numbers, Smith advises, will only get bigger in the years to come.

"If there are 100 this year, there'll be between 120 and 140 next year," says Smith, who appears intent on making that a self- fulfilling prophesy.

Smith's Jets are the leading proponent of Euro-hockey in the NHL and provide an interesting case study this season.

Four of the Jets' six starters on defence - Fredrik Olausson, Teppo Numminen, Igor Ulanov and Serge Bautin - are Europeans. Forwards Teemu Selanne, a Finn, and Alexei Zhamnov, a Russian, are both potential impact players, exciting rookie talents who are capable of generating the kind of offence that will put them in the 1992-93 NHL rookie race. Figure in Russian winger Evgeny Davydov and Swedish veteran centre Thomas Steen and the Jets boast eight Euro- regulars in all, about half their lineup on any given night.

They are not alone.

The New Jersey Devils will have eight. The Montreal Canadiens, who had none a year ago, will have a pair. The St. Louis Blues will go from zero to three.

It's obvious why so many NHL clubs are pursuing so many Europeans at this time.

Just look at the Vancouver Canucks' success with Pavel Bure, the most exciting player in the NHL. Or Pittsburgh's experience with the superlative Jaromir Jagr.

It's little wonder the New York Rangers are excited about right winger Alexei Kovalev, a mercurial talent cut from the same cloth as Bure. Ditto for the Chicago Blackhawks and right winger Sergei Krivokrasov; and, the Detroit Red Wings and centre-right winger Viacheslav Kozlov.

But NHL GMs aren't so presumptuous as to think they're going to hit a home run each time out. Most of them are looking for solid- but-instant help.

That's why the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Nikolai Borschevsky, the small but gifted offensive right winger who's being looked to for 20 to 30 goals as a rookie.

It's the same thing everywhere.

The Minnesota North Stars lack offence from the blue line. Enter 27-year-old Swede Tommy Sjodin. The Philadelphia Flyers have a huge void in net and on defence because of the Eric Lindros trade. Meet Swedish goalie Tommy Soderstrom and Russian defenceman Dmitri Yushkevich.

Still, there are no guarantees. The Boston Bruins' plan was to, for the first time in franchise history, dive deep into the European talent pool and totally overhaul their lineup.

Dmitri Kvartlanov, Jozef Stumpel, Sergei Zholtok, Jiri Dopita, Grigory Panteleyev, Evgeny Pavlov and Denis Chervyakov were all hoped to make an impact in Beantown. The betting is Kvartlanov, their first-round pick, is the only one who'll stick to contribute in a full-time way.

If so, the NHL clubs who have been drafting and developing Europeans with success for years can't suppress a giggle.

Still, until the busts outnumber the beauties, the move to imports will continue in a big way.

Skill is the reason.

"The simple fact of the matter is the Europeans are producing more highly skilled players than we are," Smith said. "It's a fact."

One that is repeated by almost every NHL scout who evaluates young talent on both sides of the pond.

It's an emotional subject, rife with too many extreme stereotypes.

The Don Cherrys of the world conclude all Europeans lack courage, emotion and willingness to play defence. The Euro-boosters figure every European who comes over is infinitely more skilled than his North American counterpart and is, therefore, a better player.

Bure and Detroit's Sergei Fedorov, among many others, shatter the anti-European stereotype. Detroit's Steve Yzerman and San Jose's Pat Falloon, to name only two, dismiss the argument Canadians can't be highly skilled on offence.

But there is no question that, generally speaking, the average European can skate and handle a puck better than his North American counterpart. And he seems to be assimilating courage and grit at a quicker rate than we are in on-ice agility and deft puckhandling.

Canadians know how to build winning teams. Europeans put the emphasis on building a better hockey player.

And this European influx comes at a time when hockey legislators are trying to cleanse the game of clutching and grabbing, devaluing team defence and inflating individual skill.

It's not just an NHL phenomenon either.

The Canadian Hockey League, in an effort to regulate its alien content, conducted an import draft, with each major junior club permitted to draft and sign an enforced quota of one.

The CHL may have put in a strict quota system, but the bottom line is there'll be more Europeans in major junior hockey this year than ever before.

All of which suits Smith, an eclectic hockey guy with a doctorate in Russian studies, just fine.

"The NHL has an opportunity to do something no other professional league can do and that is to present a truly international, world- class product right here in North America," he says.

But will the paying customer buy into every Tomas, Darius and Janne who shows up in the NHL?

"If they're skilful, exciting hockey players," Smith responds, "how can the fans not like them?"

Some NHL teams, even those at the forefront of the Euro- movement, are asking themselves, how many Europeans is too many? Is it worth having third- and fourth-line Europeans and risk a chemistry imbalance?

Their answer would be seem to be that the ceiling hasn't been hit yet.