For Canada's sake, Eric Lindros had better be good.
The nation that once provided the gas that made the NHL go, high-octane heroes like Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, suddenly finds itself running on fumes. Today many of the league's up-and-coming young stars are Russians, like Sergei Fedorov of the Detroit Red Wings, Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks and Alexander Mogilny of the Buffalo Sabres; Czechoslovakians, like Jaromir Jagr (page 40) of the Pittsburgh Penguins; Swedes, like Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings; and Americans, like Kevin Stevens of the Penguins, Jeremy Roenick of the Chicago Blackhawks and Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers. Except for Stevens, who is 27, none of those non-Canadians is older than 24.
"There was a time when Canadians thought that only Canadians could play this game well," says Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) president Murray Costello, who oversees the nation's player-development program. "Now we know otherwise."
The decline of the Canadian presence is unmistakable, notwithstanding this season's much-anticipated arrival—in a Philadelphia Flyer uniform—of Ontario native Lindros. The NHL was 96% Canadian-born in 1966-67, the final six-team, preexpansion season; last year the figure was 71% and falling. Americans occupied nearly 17% of the jobs in last season's 22-team league. And thanks to the collapse of the Soviet empire, which made it easier to import players from erstwhile Eastern bloc countries, 12% of the NHL is now made up of Europeans.
Unprecedented quantity, to be sure, but also unprecedented quality. Last season two of the league's top five scorers were non-Canadians, as were three of the top five rookie scorers and the two highest-scoring defensemen.
In the U.S., the increase in quality has been triggered by an improvement in college programs. Americans are proving that they can go to school, play a modest schedule, get an education and prepare themselves for pro hockey. Canadian prospects, by contrast, are still expected to put the game above all else. Fewer and fewer are willing to do that.
Over the last decade there has been a marked drop in registration for the myriad of organized youth programs monitored by the CAHA. Since 1982-83, participation has gone down by more than 80,000, to a low of 401,482 in 1990-91. The figure increased slightly—to 424,785—in '91-92, but there's no denying the trend. Are Canadians losing their passion for the game?
"In the old days kids would play hockey outside, on any ice, on lakes, in backyards, on frozen sloughs," says Paul Henry, director of player personnel for Hockey Canada, which selects Canada's still-successful national team. "That's what's missing from our game. Kids today aren't as anxious to freeze their butts off outside to play the game. It isn't as important to kids as it used to be."
The endless season is a turnoff—it's not uncommon for 10-year-old Canadians to play 80 games in highly competitive leagues—as is the harsh selection process, in which the best players in each age group are culled to play at a higher level. "Are we paying too high a price for the elite athletes?" wonders Ed Chynoweth, president of the Canadian Hockey League, an umbrella organization that governs the three major junior circuits. "You see a lot of burnout. From the time they're 10 or 11 years old, these kids are pushed to win, win, win. The Canadian psyche may not be suited for that."
Ken Dryden, a Hall of Fame goalie turned author who has written two best-selling books on the game, says Canadian methods have changed in subtle ways since 1972, when Team Canada, a squad stocked with NHL stars, narrowly defeated the Soviet Union team in a watershed series that pointed out that hockey wasn't just Canada's game. "What's happened in Canadian hockey since is that kids play no fewer games, but there are more practices," Dryden says. "Kids are asked for an even greater time commitment. And if you ask for more of a commitment, you're naturally going to find fewer people who are willing to make that commitment."
The dropout rate has skyrocketed among 14- and 15-year-olds, the age when kids move from playing pee wee to bantam hockey. "For the most part, these kids are making the right decision," says Dryden. "There are lots of other things to do. Is the system a good one? For those who make it, yep. For those who don't, probably not. Is there anything we can do about it? At this point probably not."
Critics of Canada's development program say that, especially at the elite levels, the honing of basic skills like shooting, passing and skating—skills at which European players excel—is being neglected. "It's simple," says Glen Sather, patriarch and general manager of the Edmonton Oilers. "We've slipped. The Europeans' minor hockey coaches and organizations are better than ours. It's obvious we're getting left behind."
"Nothing against our coaches, but they often happen to be Dad or the guy who lives on the corner," says Vancouver general manager Pat Quinn. "And often they haven't got a clue. We're improving, our players are becoming more skilled, but we're not good enough. We're simply not competitive with the Europeans coming in, on the whole."
Many hockey types get bent out of shape at the suggestion that this is somebody's fault. "I don't think the quality of Canadian players is going down at all," says Brian Burke, the Hartford Whalers' general manager. "The quality of players in the rest of the world is going up."
"There's nothing wrong with Canadian hockey," says Ranger general manager Neil Smith. "For every European, you need five Canadians who are willing to go through the boards and battle for the puck. Let's be honest about it. You don't get too many European grinders."
More often than not, the stereotypes fit. Canadians—and Americans, for that matter—are big, strong, aggressive and tough, while the Europeans, who developed their skills on bigger ice surfaces that foster less hitting, are smaller and faster and like to avoid smashups in the corners. With the notable exception of Jagr, who sparked the Penguins to their second consecutive Stanley Cup last spring, Europeans also have a maddening tendency to disappear during the playoffs.
"The Europeans have to learn how to compete," says Quinn. "They look pretty without any opposition, but throw a few body checks on 'em and bang 'em into the boards, and it shakes 'em up. They don't know how to handle it."
Says John Davidson, a former goalie who is now a Ranger broadcaster, "You don't win with skill alone. You win with grit. That's what Canadians bring to the game."
Henry states this case most eloquently. "I don't think there's anything that compares with the Canadian heart," he says. "The Canadian heart is the heart of a winner."
But business is business. "The world has become more of a global marketplace," says Smith, who is hoping 19-year-old world-class winger Alexei Kovalev of Russia will join his already formidable cast. "We're looking for more supply for our demand. Canada can produce only so many players."
One Canadian—one very loud Canadian—isn't willing to accept that. "It bugs me!" booms Don Cherry, former coach of the Boston Bruins and the Colorado Rockies (remember them?) and now a proudly, profoundly jingoistic commentator on Hockey Night in Canada. "It bugs me that these Europeans are coming over here and taking our jobs! Are they better?
"Fedorov, I have to admit, and Jagr, as much as I can't stand him, they deserve to be in this league. And Sergei Nemchinov of the Rangers, I like the way he plays. But what about a guy like [Sergei] Makarov? He's 34 years old, he scores 22 goals, and Calgary signs him to a four-year deal worth $2 million! And it had to pay the Russian Hockey Federation on top of that for the privilege of watching this guy float around and pout for four more years! Just imagine what he's going to be like at 38! This is the thinking in the NHL. Oh, I know, it's very trendy, very progressive. Is it right?"
"That drum-beating is part of Don's little shtick," Quinn says with a chuckle. "Should Canadians be given jobs? Of course not. I think the number of Canadian players will dwindle even further. Eastern Europe has a vast population, and we've only seen the very top, the elite players so far."
Cherry's voice may echo like a cry in the wilderness, but he insists he's not alone. "What I'm talking about has racist overtones," he says. "Not too many people have the guts to say it. But it's the truth. There should be quotas. There should be a limit to how many of these guys we bring in. Players and fans tell me that all the time."
Cherry's view certainly isn't supported by the rock-star popularity of Bure in Vancouver, which at last check was still part of Canada. "Canadians are the strangest people in the world,"
Cherry says with a sigh. "They really are. Just look at our immigration policy. We accept everyone. Yes, in Vancouver they cheer louder for Pavel Bure than they do for Trevor Linden. But there are plenty of good ol' boys like me who would rather see a guy with a name like Billy O'Reilly."
At the NHL's amateur draft in Montreal last June, a number of spectators apparently felt that way. The crowd applauded politely when a Czech, Roman Hamrlik, was selected first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and when a Russian, Alexei Yashin, was picked second by the Ottawa Senators. Fans in Canada have gotten used to the idea that a sprinkling of top prospects each year won't be Canadian. In 1983, for instance, the Minnesota North Stars made history by drafting an American, Brian Lawton, with the No. 1 pick; in '89 the Quebec Nordiques set another precedent when they took a European, Mats Sundin of Sweden, first overall. But when 11 Europeans were selected in the first round last June, it was too much for some in the crowd to take. For the rest of the eight-hour draft, the announcement of every non-North American name drew a chorus of boos. Ultimately, 133 Canadians were drafted, slightly more than half the total.
"Our kids were sitting around with their parents, waiting to be drafted, and the clubs kept picking those cossacks from Siberia!" Cherry says. "If I'm a racist and a bigot, then on that day there were at least 14,000 other racists and bigots inside the Forum. It was an awful day, an awful slap at Canadian hockey."
Give that man a two-minute penalty for exaggeration, says Mike Smith, general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, whose roster reads like a list of delegates to a United Nations conference on global warming. "The draft was an aberration," he says. "An exceptionally bad year for North Americans and an exceptionally good year in Europe. Next year will be different."
Maybe it won't. The Russians, Swedes, Czechoslovakians and Finns, who are already skilled in the finesse aspects of the game, are becoming harder to intimidate. Even Cherry, once he simmers down, will give you that. "If the younger ones coming over are more like Nemchinov and Fedorov, then we're going to be in trouble," he says. "They're pretty good. They're skilled, and they're a lot more aggressive. They play more like Canadians than some Canadians. That's what scares me."
Dryden isn't scared. He welcomes the melding of East and West, the creation of a truly international sport crammed with spectacular players who can skate, score and, when necessary, drive up the rates for the NHL's dental plan. "This is a better game than it was before," he says. "Don Cherry may well be right, that a number of people may want to say exactly what he's been saying, but I think a great majority of people enjoy the game as it is played today with these new players, more than they did before.
"Lots of other feelings may complicate what we see with our eyeballs, but it's there. You can't ignore it. This is becoming a better game."
Those other feelings run deep. Ask Jacques Demers, the outspoken coach of the Montreal Canadiens, if he likes what's happening, and he raises his voice and starts waving his arms like a politician. "If the Europeans get to the point that they take over our game in our country.... Wow! I wouldn't like to see that happen," he says. "This is our Canadian sport. In the United States it's baseball or football or basketball. In Canada this is all we've got! It's our game. We're known for it. I don't want to lose that. It's important!"
Demers doesn't favor quotas, but he deplores the open-arms policy toward third- and fourth-line-caliber players who are leaving Europe to come to the NHL. "The Jaromir Jagrs are welcome. The Pavel Bures are welcome. But if you have a Canadian player who is just about equal in talent to a European player, I want to see the Canadian. You know what I mean?"
Quinn knows, but he's not buying it. "We in the NHL hope to say that our players are the best in the world," he says. "The jobs are open."
Canada's loss will be hockey's gain. Billy O'Reilly, you're on your own.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Fedorov (left), a Russian, and Chelios, an American, excel at Canada's game.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
In Vancouver the 21-year-old Bure is cheered more lustily than even the best home-grown players.
MARC CAMPANELLI/BENNETT STUDIOS
Hamrlik (foreground) and Yashin went one-two in a draft many spectators decried.
The 123 points Stevens (25) scored in '91-92 were the most ever in a season by a U.S.-born player.
Since 1966-67, the final year of the six-team NHL, the proportion of Canadians playing in the league has dramatically decreased, owing to an influx of Americans and Europeans.