News that Sweden plans to pull out of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s agreement with the NHL should come as no surprise to anyone in the world’s best league.
As a matter of fact, it has been a long time coming. European federations have no problem losing their best young players to the NHL; they’ve grown to accept that as a fact of life. But what they’re finally fed up with is losing top young players and seeing them play in the American Leauge. This season, for example, 64 European players signed their first NHL contracts, but only seven of them are playing in the NHL.
That’s why the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation recently reported it is likely going to pull out of the IIHF’s agreement with the NHL and the Finnish Ice Hockey Federation will probably follow suit. Under the terms of the four-year agreement reached last spring, individual European federations have the right to terminate their portions of the agreement prior to Dec. 31 of this year.
Should the Swedes and Finns pull out of the agreement, it will leave it in shambles. The Russian federation has already opted out of the deal and losing two more federations would make it worthless.
But all is not lost if the NHL finally comes to its senses and realizes that, in the vast majority of cases, it is better for the player – and for the league – to leave a good prospect to develop in Europe rather than the AHL.
And all it takes is common sense. When you think about it, how many European players in the NHL benefited from time in the minor leagues?
Dominik Hasek played parts of two seasons in the defunct IHL before starting his NHL career and, more recently, Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens spent three seasons in the AHL before becoming an NHL regular. But for the most part, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that having a young European player in the AHL, playing three games in a weekend and traveling all over the continent by bus does anything positive for his development.
In fact, the overwhelming evidence suggests that players who spend their prime development time in Europe and come to the NHL later are far more NHL-ready and are better players than those who don’t. (And that includes those who come over to play junior hockey, as well. An IIHF study last year pointed out that 183 Europeans who have played in the NHL also played in the CHL, but 159 of them are below-average players.)
Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, Teemu Selanne, Peter Forsberg and Daniel Alfredsson all spent significant time in Europe after being drafted and they came to the NHL as far better players.
If the Swedes and Finns manage to get the IIHF agreement reopened, one thing they will certainly be attacking is the new collective bargaining agreement provision that forces teams to treat European players the same as North American juniors when it comes to signing a contract. Under the new CBA, teams have just two years to sign a European player to a contract before losing his rights. Prior to that, teams basically held the player's rights in perpetuity.
From a purely practical standpoint, it might make sense and seem more equitable to do it this way. But judging European teenagers against North American teenagers is not an accurate comparison. As former Swedish star Mats Naslund said, at the World Junior Championship, the Canadians are men and the Europeans are boys.
Sure, a few players might get contracts under the current system who would otherwise not ever get one, but for every one of those, there is another player whose development was ruined by playing in North America. And that player might never see another contract after the first one.
Here's a thought: Perhaps the NHL and IIHF could take it out of the GMs’ hands when it comes to dealing with Europeans. It could adopt the same rule that applies to major junior players, except make the age stipulation higher. As it stands right now, a player drafted out of junior hockey who is under the age of 20 must either play in the NHL or junior hockey. He cannot be sent to the AHL.
The federations and the NHL could adopt the same rule, but make the age somewhere between 23 and 25, and have the teams' obligation to sign the player match the age restriction. That way, players who deserve to be signed will still ultimately get contracts and they'll have a chance to find their games in leagues that stress skill and development.
And all the league has to do is apply some common sense.
THIS MAKES YOU GO HMMMM…
According to the Versus website, the St. Louis Blue Jackets will visit the Detroit Red Wings Dec. 31. Yup, this is the NHL’s main network in the U.S.
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