By Brian Hickey
Rather than searching for solutions, Canadian hockey traditionalists have turned to blaming foreigners for the shortcomings of the Canadian performance at the junior level.
Earlier this year, Canadian Hockey Association president Bob Nicholson, told The Calgary Sun that he would like to see rules allowing foreigners to play in major junior hockey abolished.
Nicholson says that Canada has lost its edge because foreigners are costing Canadians ice time and stunting their development. The rules presently allow each Canadian junior team to have a maximum of two foreign players per year on their roster.
It’s ironic the two-import rule, which has been in place since 1992, never bothered Nicholson when the Canadian juniors won five straight gold medals from 1993 to 1997.
The 54-team Canadian Hockey League, which consists of the Ontario, Quebec and the Western hockey leagues, works in conjunction with the Canadian Hockey Association to develop junior hockey players.
Most of Canada’s junior teams have foreign players, except Don Cherry’s Mississauga Ice Dogs. The Dogs also happen to have the worst record in the CHL.
Foreign domination was also not evident in the CHL’s first all-star game of the season. The team representing the Ontario League’s Eastern Conference had three Europeans while Quebec’s Lebel Conference had two.
Brandon Reid, a member of the Quebec league’s Val d’Or Foreurs and the 2001 world junior squad, told The Canadian Press in January that foreigners help Canadian teams and are hand-picked from overseas because they are highly-skilled players. Reid says that foreign content gives Canadians a taste of what Europeans are like and they make the league more competitive.
The fact is that foreign players bring another dimension to the game and help Canadians with their development. European players are often credited with being the smoothest skaters and passers in the world. In order for Canadians to become the best, they will have to play with the best.
Jeff Hunt, owner of the Ottawa 67’s, told The London Free Press, that the CHL is no longer a development league and that the best juniors in the world should be playing here. Hunt adds that he would not mind seeing as many as four imports per team.
At the same time, the CHL has also consistently shown commitment to Canadian hockey by offering Canadian players more opportunity than ever before.
Since the implementation of the import rule, the CHL has added 11 new teams with another on the way next year, the Vancouver Giants.
The argument that the CHL is helping other countries beat Canada by developing their players in the junior ranks fails to address why Canada has not won a junior gold in four years.
The blame should rest with the coaching staff which has failed to provide the necessary leadership to a group of patriotic and highly pressured teenagers.
Canadian junior squads have also been starved for the leadership qualities of an impact player such as Eric Lindros in 1992, where his 17 points in seven games spearheaded Canada’s gold medal victory.
While Europeans might take a roster spot, does the Canadian kid in spot 23 actually have a legitimate shot at making at NHL anyway? In reality, by replacing a fourth-liner with a talented foreign player, the league is increasing the overall level of play and excitement.