It is no longer that interesting to discuss where NHL players originate from. We already know that they come, and keep coming, from all over the western world and Russia, basically. Instead, the more intriguing question is how the international players get to the NHL. Lately, over the last five years or so, the pattern that used to answer the latter question has shifted. And the change is now continuing to take place rapidly.
That leads to a significant change in the way hockey is being played. To begin with, by looking at the rosters in the NHL, the increase of the number of international players, as well as the varieties of their nationalities, becomes apparent. Today, foreign players make up almost 40% of players in the league, and within a decade we will most likely have an even smaller numeric difference between the two categories.
If future international players continue to find their way to the NHL, in line with this change, we may have seen the last game of hockey as we thought we knew it.
When Gabriel Landeskog was selected as the second overall draft pick by Colorado Avalanche back in 2011, he was, in general, more famous in North American households than he was in Sweden. Few Swedes had ever gotten acquainted with his name since few had ever seen him play. While being undiscovered back home, however, the Stockholm-born talent struck down like a bombshell in the OHL and the Kitchener Rangers, to where he had moved at the age of 19 years old in 2009.
Landeskog’s successful route to the NHL via a Canadian-American junior league is typical for the new era of change.
Following the footsteps of the Colorado Avalanche team captain, several other players from Sweden have pursued the same shortcut – not saying that it’s easier, but closer – to reach the world’s best hockey league. Rickard Rakell (Anaheim Ducks), Carl Hagelin (Pittsburgh Penguins) and André Burakovsky (Washington Capitals), to mention some of them, have one thing in common: They all played junior hockey in North America before joining the NHL. By doing so they never had to make a loud enough noise all the way from their home country so that the sound waves would reach across the Atlantic. They were already on location.
It is not only in Sweden that young players, with ambitions of one day competing in the NHL, have started to realize this recipe for success. The Finnish defenseman Olli Määtä (Pittsburgh Penguins) and the German forward Tobias Rieder (Arizona Coyotes) also reached the top stage via the OHL. Needless to say, it has shown efficient for many of those who have tried it, so why wouldn’t young Europeans follow the discovered path?
Naturally, scouts working with and for NHL clubs have easier access to, and therefore better knowledge about, players that are more accessible. If a player stands out in a league within the North American borders, he tends to be more noticed than if he would do it somewhere else in the world. This is partially why several North American junior leagues and colleges are gradually stocking up with European hockey players. Considering the growing importance of being picked in the NHL entry draft, young players could also find themselves in a hurry to make an impression on a higher level, at a younger age, than before.
Reminder that Don Cherry tried to run an OHL team with no Europeans and had the worst team in the CHL.
— World of Ruin (@AaronWrotkowski) January 24, 2016
Allow me to repeat myself by once again underlining the fact that I am not saying that it is easier to break through in lower leagues in North America than in European leagues. Often times it can surely be the other way around. However, the closeness and display window that some domestic leagues offer in the eyes of the NHL should not be overlooked in any matter. Even though the expected top three picks of the 2016 NHL entry draft are from European leagues, I believe that the risk for a player, talented enough for the NHL, to be neglected is slightly smaller if he appears in North America to begin with.
The inflow of international prospects in Canada and the U.S. inevitably effects the game, especially in the NHL, to where many of them set foot. Looking back at a few of those names that have been mentioned above, one thing shines of connection between them: Most of them have ‘North American playing styles’. Despite the fact that they are from Europe, Landeskog, Hagelin and Rakell all stand out with their aggressive, on-the-net, effective, fast and target-shooting attitude on the ice. Typically Canadian and American. The calm, prudent, restrained but skillful and clever play that stereo-typically, and often correctly, have come to characterize European, and mainly Nordic, players have to some extent changed.
In my book, the explanation has to do with the hockey education. It is during the junior years that you learn how to play hockey, and if you are attending that education in North America, it will be the North American textbook you read from.
But what happens to diversity? When it boils down to one education instead of several different ones that complement each other to optimize the game? The NHL, as I see it, runs a hazard of stagnating in its mixture and development of various hockey cultures, and consequently the game of hockey can suffer from the same thing overall. On the other hand, you could argue that the Americanization of European playing styles can enhance the already existing scheme of how to play hockey in a certain way. But for this to happen, the NHL needs to be influenced by surrounding, international hockey rather than try to change it.
To put it in a simplified meaning, the outcome could lead to two things on the whole for the future of hockey: To the better or worse. The answer we will have to wait for. However, this change in young, European players method to reach the NHL demands to be addressed. Only then can we, if necessary, act upon it.
Freelance sports journalist settled in Malmo, Sweden. Author on the official site of the Swedish Hockey League. Cover Swedish prospects on their road to the NHL, and Swedish players making it in the NHL.