If there is anything I enjoy about hockey more than anything, it is the fact that it has become a worldwide sport. The IIHF has nearly 80 member nations on six continents and there is every reason to believe that number will continue to grow as the love of the game continues to intensify. There are many talented players around the world, even ones in countries that do not even have climates that agree with hockey. I have looked at videos of players from many different nations, even players who are in the NHL, and I have found the best to show the talents of these individuals from what are considered “lower hockey countries.” Some are flashes of offensive brilliance, some are incredible goaltending feats, and one is a tribute to a well-loved hockey player who left this world too soon.
Romania has been a member of the IIHF since 1924 and, for a time, it was one of the best hockey countries in the world. As other countries began to improve, Romania’s standing started to decline. The number of registered players also began to suffer. Despite this, there are some talented hockey players in Romania. At the time of his retirement, 42-year-old defenceman Mihai Stoiculescu was one of the most veteran players in the country; now one of the best blueliners is Dragos Iordache, who played in Finland during the 2011-12 season. Right winger Viorel Nicolescu is still one of the best goal scorers in the top Romanian professional league at the age of 41; if he does happen to retire, Claudiu Mihailescu, who scored 26 points in only 14 games in the top league in 2011-12, can surely supplant the lost offense. Zsombor Molnár, a 1993-born junior player, played this past season with the Mora IK J18 SuperElit team.
Another talented player is Zsombor Antal. He has played in five Men’s World Hockey Championships for Romania since 2007. He won gold medals in 2008 and 2011, and a silver medal in 2010. Antal also won a silver medal at the 2005 World Junior Hockey Championships for his country. In the 2011 tournament, Antal had 14 points, including a tournament-leading ten assists. One of his four goals came on a penalty shot against Bulgaria. That goal made the score 2-0 for the Romanians and they won the game 10-1. Antal was named player of the game for Romania in that contest since he scored two goals and two assists in total during that game.
Slovenia has been a member of the IIHF since 1992 but hockey has been played in the country for much longer than that. One of Slovenia’s first hockey superstars, Matjaž Kopitar, played for teams in Jesenice, Bled and Maribor between 1983 and 2003; he also played for two years in Klagenfurt, Austria. Upon his retirement, he started coaching the Slovenian national team. In 2005, he watched as his eldest son Anže Kopitar became the first Slovenian player to be chosen in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft when he was chosen eleventh overall by the Los Angeles Kings. A year later, the younger Kopitar became the first Slovenian to play in the NHL.
In the years since, he has been nothing more than a revelation. He has led the Kings in scoring almost every year since he has been in the league, an incredible accomplishment. He has participated in both the NHL YoungStars Game and in two NHL All-Star Games. Kopitar has also been an alternate captain in Los Angeles for the last three seasons. With the Kings playing much better hockey in the last few years, the Slovenian men’s hockey team has not been able to use Kopitar’s services as he has been in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He can now become the first Slovenian to win the Stanley Cup.
Most NHL players say that one of their best memories is their first career goal. On October 6, 2006, Kopitar scored his first NHL career goal, a game-tying marker against the Anaheim Ducks at the Honda Center. He scored 20 goals in his rookie season and has 163 career regular-season goals going into the 2012-13 campaign.
Croatia has been a member of the IIHF since 1992, ever since the country has been independent from Yugoslavia. They do not have a considerable amount of registered players; in fact, they have only 437 who are. Out of the 92 registered male professional players, 41 of them are goaltenders. Many of these goalies are under the age of 30 and they show a lot of promise, especially since they have been able to play in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the United States.
One of the most decorated goalies in Croatia has to be Vanja Belić. He played in his first World Hockey Championships at the age of 19. In the years since, he has played at the tournament six more times. He helped the team win gold in 2005 and 2007. In 2007, Belić led the tournament with a 1.50 GAA and .933% save percentage in only three games. One year later, he had a 2.95 GAA and .922% save percentage in five games; for his efforts, he was named the tournament’s best goaltender. During one tournament, Belić made an incredible save in a game against Hungary, showing acrobatic technique and stellar timing. While the new #1 goalie for Croatia at the World Hockey Championships is Mate Tomljenović, Belić showed with that save why he will be always be one of the best goalies to ever wear HRVATSKA across his chest.
Israel has been a member of the IIHF since 1991 and many players have lengthy careers in their homeland. Their national hockey team only plays in one tournament per year, the Men’s World Championships. They used to have an under-18 team but it has since been deactivated. Many of their top players have dual citizenship, mostly in Canada, the United States or former Soviet nations; they include the likes of Daniel Erlich, Avishai Geller and Alexander Lashinsky.
Another player who has multiple citizenships and participates in international hockey competitions for Israel is Eliezer Sherbatov. Russian by ancestry, Sherbatov played in Israel — where he was born — until he arrived in Canada to play in Quebec. He spent a year in the Quebec Midget AAA Hockey League before going onto the QMJHL. At the 2011 Men’s World Championships, Sherbatov had one of the best tournaments in Israeli hockey history. In only four games, he scored 26 points (14 goals, 12 assists), leading Israel to a gold medal. In one game against Greece, a game Israel won 26-2, Sherbatov had a game that any established hockey player would be envious of. He scored 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in that contest alone. Because he was named player of the game in a previous match, he was exempted from being named player of the game for that contest. One of Sherbatov’s goals in that game was so beautiful that it was featured on TSN here in Canada.
Ukraine has been a member of the IIHF since 1992 and they have since had their ups and downs with forging an identity as a bona fide hockey country. Despite that, though, the Stanley Cup has come to Ukraine twice, both with Ruslan Fedotenko who has won hockey’s Holy Grail in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning and in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In addition, Ukraine participated at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, a team that included Fedotenko and former NHL player Dmitri Khristich.
Another player on that roster was Alexei Ponikarovsky. Ponikarovsky has played for five NHL teams over the course of his career; in fact, he has dressed for them all in the last three seasons. Ponikarovsky has only represented Ukraine once, that only time being the 2002 Olympics. On a team laden with players who are active in European leagues, as well as some former NHL players (including Sergei Varlamov), Ponikarovsky’s absence is sometimes felt. That being said, though, he is now finally getting to relish the opportunity to participate in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After missing the postseason with the Toronto Maple Leafs every year after the lockout, he made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. His only goal of the 2012 playoffs so far has been an incredible overtime winner and he may have a good opportunity to win his first Stanley Cup.
Austria has been a member of the IIHF since 1912 and they have the most amount of registered hockey players of any country on this list. That being said, however, it is outstanding to know that there were only three Austrians in the NHL in 2011-12. They may not be truly classified as a “lower hockey country,” but the fact that they find it difficult to stay in the top division of the Men’s World Hockey Championships may make it lower than others.
One of Austria’s best players is Thomas Vanek. The highest-drafted Austrian in NHL history, Vanek (who was chosen fifth overall in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft) played junior hockey in Rochester, New York, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After that, he went on to play NCAA hockey at the University of Minnesota for the Golden Gophers. He has represented Austria at both the under-20 level and the Men’s World Championship level. Remarkably, both of the other two Austrians in the NHL played junior hockey in the United States; Andreas Nödl played in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede, just like Vanek, and then in the NCAA with St. Cloud State University, while Michael Grabner played three seasons in the WHL with the Spokane Chiefs. Vanek, however, has been one of the most successful Austrian NHL players, leading the league in plus/minus in 2007 with a +47 and playing in the 2009 NHL All-Star Game. One of his most beautiful goals came in overtime on November 13, 2010, a winning dangle against the Washington Capitals.
4. Dainius Zubrus’ Elektrėnai Electric Shortie
Lithuania has been a member of the IIHF since 1938 but they have not been able to enjoy the same success as their northern neighbours from Latvia or the same as Russia, Ukraine, Belarus or Kazakhstan. Lithuania does not even have their own professional league; their best team, Energija Elektrėnai, plays in a Latvian national league. Remarkably, unlike other countries on this list, Lithuania does not have any female professional hockey players in their entire country.
One of Lithuania’s best known professional hockey players has to be Dainius Zubrus. The highest-drafted Lithuanian in NHL history, Zubrus came to North America in 1995 to play junior hockey in Canada. After scoring 32 points (19 goals, 13 assists) in 28 games with the CJHL’s Pembroke Lumber Kings, Zubrus was chosen 15th overall at the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. He has since enjoyed a career that has spanned nearly 15 years with Philadelphia, the Montréal Canadiens, Washington Capitals, Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. He also has represented both Russia and Lithuania at the international level. In 2012, the Devils scored an impressive 12 shorthanded goals; Zubrus scored three of them, including one on March 29 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Adam Henrique led the way with four shorthanded goals in 2011-12.)
Iceland has been a member of the IIHF since 1991 and they are nothing like the hockey team that are seen in “D2: The Mighty Ducks” movie. For starters, their jerseys are completely different and many of them have names that end with “sson.” (Sorry but Gunnar Stahl is not a real hockey player.) That being said, however, there are some hockey players in Iceland who have mad skills like that character.
Ólafur Hrafn Björnsson can be considered one of those players. At the 2009 World Under-18 Hockey Championships, Björnsson, who was born in Sweden, scored 18 points in only five games, including 11 goals; Iceland won gold at the tournament. The next year, he got the opportunity to play at his first World Junior Ice Hockey Championships at the age of 18. He played in that tournament two more times, winning gold in 2012, as well as playing in two Men’s Championships; he also played with the J18 and J20 teams of Helsingsborgs HC in the city of his birth in Sweden.
Björnsson’s most well-known moment, however, came in March 2010 while playing for Björninn in the Icelandic professional league. Björninn was in a playoff game against Skautafélag Akureyrar, a team from Akureyri, and it was even to be aired on national television. The game was in a shootout and Björninn was already up 1-0. Björnsson, a ballsy then-17-year-old, skated in quickly on Skautafélag goaltender Ómar Smári Skúlason, put his stick between his legs and flipped the puck top corner. While his teammates celebrated with agog faces, high fives and embraces (especially #16 Daði Örn Heimisson), Björnsson skated past the Skautafélag bench, took off his glove and pointed at his opposition. He then skated down toward Björninn goaltender and teammate Snorri Sigurbergsson, giving him a great big hug before heading back to the bench.
Hungary has been a member of the IIHF since 1927 and it is surprising to see a country with such a historical background with no NHL players. They have had some NHL draft picks, including Levente Szuper and János Vas, who were chosen by the Calgary Flames and the Dallas Stars respectively. Szuper also played in the OHL with the Ottawa 67’s, winning a Memorial Cup in 1999. Another Hungarian player, János Hári, spent one season in the QMJHL before going to Sweden to play.
One of the most decorated hockey players in Hungarian history was Gábor Ocskay. Ocskay spent his entire 15-year professional hockey career with Alba Volán Székesfehérvár, playing his first season with them in 1993-94 at the age of 18. He helped Székesfehérvár win back-to-back Hungarian championships in 2008 and 2009. In addition, Ocskay also played in his first Men’s World Championships at the age of 17; a total of 16 championships followed, participating every year from 1993 to 2008. He led tournaments in scoring in both 1998 and 2002; as well, he won five medals. Ocskay won gold in 2008, silver in 2002 and 2007, and bronze in 2003 and 2005. Sadly, on March 25, 2009, right before he was to appear in his 17th World Championships, Ocskay died of a heart attack; he was only 33 years old. Both Székesfehérvár and the Hungarian Ice Hockey Federation retired his #19 jersey and, on the same day as his funeral, Székesfehérvár’s arena was renamed in his honour.
Bulgaria has been a member of the IIHF since 1960 and it seems a bit weird to think that one of the most well-loved players in their country’s hockey history was born only four years after that. They have never had a player drafted to the NHL but that well-loved player surely could have played in North America, if not the NHL but in a minor league. Bulgarian hockey players have enjoyed success in their homelands as well as in Turkey and other countries.
Bulgaria, however, now finds themselves in a bit of a hole in nets. That is because 48-year-old goaltender Konstantin Mihaylov, who has represented Bulgaria internationally for nearly three decades, played in his last World Hockey Championships in 2012. It is possible that he is on the cusp of retirement from hockey in general. Mihaylov surely could have retired years ago but, in 2009, his young incumbent, Kiril Vajarov, was murdered in Sofia. The ageless Bulgarian wonder goalie played on. Mihaylov has accumulated several accolades; he won a silver medal in 2006 and a bronze medal in 2012. Additionally, he was named top goaltender in both 1990 and 2006, and he was named Top Player on his team three times: 1993, 2009 and 2010. In 2006, he had a tournament-best .940% save percentage. Mihaylov’s hockey career is in its twilight but there are young goaltenders willing to take the reins for Bulgaria’s national team; Teodor Asanov, Liubomir and Nikola Nikolov, Radosvet Petrov, Yavor Mechkov, and Dimitar Videnov — although all young enough to be Mihaylov’s sons (or, in Videnov’s case, grandson) — are all capable of being a worthy replacement.