Building a top-five or top-ten list can be difficult and is much the writer’s discretion. The Lethbridge Hurricanes’ top-five lists are no different. Today, we dive into the top-five imports who have suited up for the Hurricanes.
Before we get to the top selection, we have to mention a few players who just missed the list.
Egor Babenko: A fan favorite during his two seasons in Lethbridge, the Russian forward appeared in 133 games, racking up 124 points. Babenko is now playing in the KHL.
Luca Sbisa: The Italian born defenceman just missed out on being named to the list, and, admittedly he probably should have made the top-5. He played parts of three seasons with the Hurricanes. Not known for his offensive ability he amassed only 61 points in his 97 games played. Sbisa took on a more defensive role with the Hurricanes.
He has turned in a pretty good NHL career after being selected 19th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000. The Ozieri native has also played for the Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights, New York Islanders, and is now with the Winnipeg Jets.
5. Oliver Okuliar
There may be recency bias in this pick, but there is no doubt the Slovakian had an impact in his first season with Lethbridge when he led the team in goals early in the 2019-20 campaign. He finished with 33 goals in 55 games, which ranked second on the team behind Dylan Cozens who scored 38 times. Okuliar also finished second on the team in scoring with 68 points, one point ahead of teammate Alex Cotton. The first-round import pick added a much-needed scoring punch after the team lost all three members of its top line from the previous season.
Okuliar missed time with the club playing in the 2020 World Junior hockey championships as a member of Team Slovakia. Scoring twice and recording two assists in five games, he led the way for his team who bowed out to Team Canada in the quarter-finals. He is slated to return to the Hurricanes next season, and the speedy winger will definitely be counted on to be an offensive threat.
4. Tomas Kopecky
The high-flying winger from Ilvla, Slovakia fit in nicely with the Hurricanes after being the second-overall pick in the 2000 CHL import draft. At more than a point-per-game average, Kopecky collected 126 points in 109 games, including 56 goals. He added 146 penalty minutes, showing that he was also not afraid to mix it up. These efforts saw the 6-foot-3 forward drafted in the second round of the NHL entry draft in 2000 by the Detroit Red Wings (38th overall). While the Hurricanes weren’t successful during his time, Kopecky’s no-quit attitude made him an important player.
Kopecky is arguably the most successful professional import the Hurricanes ever had on their roster as a two-time Stanley Cup winner (Detroit in 2008, Chicago Blackhawks in 2010). He recently retired from professional hockey, and last played in the 2016-17 season with Bratislava Slovan of the KHL. He played in just 15 games for the Slovikain-based club collecting just a single assist.
3. Ivan Vologzaninov
Hailing from Kiev, Ukraine, Vologzaninov was a first-round (35th overall) in the 1992 Import Draft. The 6-foot-1 right winger appeared in 136 games for the Hurricanes and is the highest-scoring import player in team history racking up 85 goals and 198 points in two seasons. He spent his final season in the Western Hockey League with the Kamloops Blazers in 1994-95, posting 72 points in 66 games, and went on to help the Blazers win the 1995 Memorial Cup.
Following his time in the WHL, he tried to continue his career in North America splitting the 1995-96 season between three ECHL teams before heading back to Europe. Carving out a decent pro career there, playing for five different teams in three leagues over his decade long career. He last suited up in 2000-01 season with Sokol Kiev for two games, going pointless.
2. Juha Metsola
The Tampere, Finland native spent two seasons with the Hurricanes and quickly become a fan favorite. Chants of Juha echoing through the Enmax center still send chills to fans to this day. He is sixth all-time in wins, tied with current Hurricanes’ goalie Carl Tetachuk and Brady Block.
He posted a 2.51 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage over those two seasons. His crowning achievement came on a long playoff run in 2008, leading the Hurricanes on a magical ride to the WHL finals. Unfortunately, they lost the final 4-0 to the Spokane Chiefs who went on to win the Memorial Cup. His junior career was also highlighted by a gold medal win in the 2009 World Junior Hockey Championships with Team Finland.
Metsola returned to Finland and played for his home team in Tamppara Tampere in the SM-Liga for four seasons before making a move to the KHL. He is on his second team in the Russian-based league, UFA Salavat Yulayev. This season, he posted a 1.00 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage. His KHL career highlight to date is being named the league’s top netminder in the 2018-19 season.
1. Igor Merezhko
The stay at home defenceman was a second-round import pick by the Hurricanes in 2015. Selected out of Kharkov, Ukraine, the hard-hitting rear guard quickly become a fan favorite in Lethbridge. He seemed to have a knack for lining up guys and finishing his checks.
Related: Ottawa Senators’ 2009 Draft Review
Merezhko was counted on to go head-to-head against the opposition’s top line, over his final two seasons in the WHL. The 6-foot-5 tower spent four seasons in the Windy City and was never overly successful in the offensive zone, with just 99 points in 254 games, and 267 penalty minutes. His leadership qualities earned him the “A” on his sweater in the 2017-18 season, He dawned the A over his final two seasons of a four year career.
Never drafted into the NHL, he is now playing in Russia with Humo Tashkent of the VHL, where he played 43 games racking up nine points. But, in true Merezhko fashion, he racked up 35 penalty minutes. He has also suited up for 11 playoff games this season, recording five helpers.