If you look at the roster of the Chinese Taipei national men’s ice hockey team, you can tell that not many of them are natural hockey players. In Taiwan, hockey is an exotic game, the people who play it drawn in by quixotic personal motives and accidents of life. It doesn’t, generally speaking, draw the best athletes in the country, and the roster reflects that. It’s full of hastily promoted teenagers and overage defensemen. The typical player is something like 5’7”, 160. You don’t even need to see them play to know that this is not an especially competitive hockey team on the global scale.

But then there’s Eric Shen. Eric Shen is a hockey player, in the sense that when hockey people see him, they go, man, that’s a player. 6’4” and 240 lbs, he’s big and solid and strong, strong on his skates, strong on the puck, with a wristshot that comes in hard and low and lethal from any distance, tougher then most men’s slapshots. A surprisingly fluid skater for his size, the sort who never looks like he’s working too hard but invariably gets where he wants to go a step before the opponent. Legs like tree trunks. “If I’d had legs like Eric, I coulda made the NHL,” a friend once said, ruefully, into his beer, and I believe that. I’ve never seen anyone in non-professional hockey who had the physical gifts Eric Shen had.

He had other advantages too. He was born into a hockey family- yes, Taiwan has hockey families. His elder brother, Andy Shen, was a flashy forward and a bit of a local star in his own right. His dad made sure the boys had access to every possible ice time, even the ones at 1 AM on school nights. His mom was so active in the program she received an prize from the Ice Sports Federation for her efforts- literally an award-winning hockey mom. Eric was a member of the most successful ice hockey club in the country. He always had the best equipment. He had heaps of natural talent and every advantage a hockey player can possibly get in Taiwan.

In North America, he couldn’t even crack the fourth line on an ECHL team.  That’s how hard it is to get to the NHL from a non-hockey country.

***

When Anze Kopitar was ten, he wrote a book. I’m assuming it was not a real book, rather something hand-written on notebook paper and folded halfwise into a folio, but the anecdote doesn’t specify. Anze’s book was called Secret Dreams of Hockey Player Miha. It was about a ten-year-old Slovenian boy who wanted more than anything to play in the NHL. When his grandmother read it- although she fully grasped the obvious, childlike allegory- she wrote in the margin this noncommittal sentence: “Hockey player Miha has very high dreams.”

If this was a movie, Anze’s grandma would doubtless have told him that he could do anything if he put his mind to it, that anyone can make the NHL if they try hard enough. But in real life, she didn’t. Because in real life, making the NHL is not an act of pure will. It takes a lot of talent, a lot of luck, a lot of social support, and a lot of opportunities. And, in an often overlooked detail, it usually requires being born in one of the top nine or ten hockey countries. Slovenia is not one of them. It is a very, very, very long way from being a ten-year-old boy in Jesenice- even an extremely talented ten-year-old boy from a hockey-mad family- to the NHL. Long enough to give even a grandmother reasons for skepticism.

Slovenia is a far better hockey country than Taiwan, of course.  The major difference is the success of the national programs. Slovenia’s men’s team is currently ranked 18th in the world, good for Division I play with the occasional, and usually fruitless, promotion to the top tier. Mostly, Slovenia plays against the likes of Great Britain, Japan, Hungary, the Ukraine. It usually wins, too, but not by so much as you’d think. In their most recent tournament, on their way to promotion, the Slovenians beat the British 3-2 and the Japanese 4-2. In contrast, the Chinese Taipei men’s team is unranked, but on the basis of recent Challenge Cup of Asia performances and the record of the U18 teams, it’s safe to say they could beat Mongolia easily and the UAE with difficulty, which would put them somewhere around 47th in the world.

But the hockey differences are not quite as vast as the rankings suggest. According to IIHF data (which is occasionally erroneous, but all we have to go with for now), Slovenia has 943 registered ice hockey players to Taiwan’s 848, with 155 and 142 adult males respectively. Slovenia has eight indoor rinks; Taiwan has two. A country’s ability to develop elite players rests very heavily on two things: the extent and variety of competition it can provide, and the amount of ice time available. In both cases, Slovenia is more advantaged than Taiwan, but nowhere near the level of the top tier hockey countries.  As far as the opportunities for the development of great players go, it is a very different world than Canada.

Canadians love to credit their own players with extraordinary character, describing their hard trek along the difficult path to stardom as if it took only slightly less courage, fortitude, and determination than climbing Everest sans sherpas. While it certainly takes a lot of dedication to become an NHL player no matter what one’s background, what these narratives hide is that if anything it is easier to become an elite hockey star in Canada than almost anywhere else in the world. Hockey, more than most sports, requires a lot of family and community elements to forge great players. It requires rinks that are built and maintained at town expense, it requires trained coaching, it requires frequent and intense competition, it requires oodles of money for gear and ice, it requires a massive commitment of time and transport from adults.

Canada gives all of these things to all its little hockey players. The society is designed to make hockey as easy and accessible as possible to everyone, and moreover, the whole culture is always on the alert for flashes of talent. The best Canadian kids are identified early and virtually shoved down the path to greatness. They’re promoted to the most competitive teams, given the best coaching, stage managed by parents dreaming of NHL glory.  They’re given the opportunity to travel to innumerable tournaments, participate in all manner of summer camps.  They’re sent to power-skating lessons and dedicated hockey schools.  If their confidence or desire should falter, there is an entire culture’s worth of encouragement and support to lift them back on their feet.

Despite the myth of the preternaturally focused, driven, hockey-obsessive Good Canadian Boy, Canada actually conspires to make it rather easy for the less focused, less driven, less obsessive talents to go far. For a kid with hockey gifts in a hockey-mad society, the path that goes towards the NHL is sometimes the path of least resistance. Most of the ambivalent will fall off before they get to the Show, but it is not unheard of for a Canadian kid with a questionable work ethic to go high in the draft. It is not unheard of for Canada to produce NHL-caliber players who do not eat, sleep, and breathe hockey.

There are kids with hockey gifts born all over the world.  If Eric Shen had been born in Vancouver, with those enormous thighs and that thrilling wrister, he’d have been drowned in hockey from puberty on.  Somewhere in Peru there’s probably a guy with a butt that puts Crosby’s to shame, who could skate like the wind if only he’d ever seen a pair of skates.  Most of the hockey talent in the world is simply born too poor and too far away from the game’s centers of power to ever be developed.  Slovenia is about as far on the periphery as one can get and still have even the slightest chance of making it, even with the deepest passion and the hardest work ethic.

But there is no coasting to the NHL from Slovenia. In order to make little to hockey player Miha’s dreams come true, Anze Kopitar had to internalize everything that Canada externalizes. He had to maintain the kind of training regimen on his own that in Canada would be enforced by teams and parents. He had to prioritize hockey practice over socializing when none of his peers were taking the same path. He had to do his own video review sessions, going over tapes of his idols again and again and again. And, ultimately, he had to leave his country at 16 to go play in Sweden in order to find the level of competition he needed to get better.

Anze Kopitar learned five languages and went alone as a teenager to a completely different country in order to get good enough to make the NHL and nobody says shit about it except, hey, a Slovenian guy, that’s crazy. Canadian kids get praised for how hard it must have been to go to high school part time and move from Moose Jaw to Calgary.

Read the interviews today and Anze shows almost no traces of the mysterious European stereotype. He speaks fluid, lightly accented English with all the appropriate hockey clichés. In his off-hours, he likes to go to the movies and play video games. He seems every bit the boring, unremarkable, humble, down-to-earth guy we expect to come in from the Manitoban prairies. He’s become an ordinary hockey guy, like any number of his North American teammates. Except it took him far more work to get there.

Comments (27)

  1. “But the hockey differences are not quite so vast as the rankings suggest. ”

    Psst – think that needs an edit.

    • It’s correct. It’s saying that although the ranking between Slovenia (18th) and Taiwan (47th) may be a great difference, the hockey lifestyle found within each country is very much a like and neither does very much to foster hockey talent in the way Russia, Sweden, Canada, and the US will.

  2. Thank you very much for writing this.

    You’ve made the Slovene half of our family very happy. Anze’s grandmother also sounds very typical. Slovene grandparents aren’t big on sugar coating reality.

  3. Great piece. Very well done.

  4. Newfound respect for Mr. Kopitar.
    Thanks for this piece.

  5. Decent article.

    However, you make it seem like Canadien NHL players were given their positions in the league.

    Of course they have more opportunities than Slovenians and Taiwanese. How many African countries have rinks let alone are ranked in the IIHF? South Africa is the only one that can claim both, not much of a surprise.

    How many Africans, born and bred Africans, play in the NHL? Akim Aliu was born in Nigeria, but grew up in Ukraine, a country with decent competition in hockey. Kyle Okposo is Nigerian as well, grew up in hockey universe of the USA, Minnesota. Rumun Ndur, born in Nigeria, raised in Canada. Chris Nielsen, born in Tanzania while Canadian father was working there. Graeme Townshend, born in Jamaica, moved to Canada at the age of 3 or 4. Richie Regehr, born in Indonesia to Canadian missionaries.

    I could list more. The obvious theme presents itself.

    Talk to any of these Nigerian/Indonesian/American/etc.-Canadiens playing in the NHL. They are appreciate as they come to be able to play teh best sport in the world.

    I grew up in a low-income family in an town with no hockey rinks. What were my chances of making the NHL? I grew up 30 miles SE of Pittsburgh, 8 years old when Lemieux lifted the Cup, for a time frame. The town I grew up in got their first hockey rink, roller hockey, maybe 5 years ago.

    Hockey exploded in Pittsburgh with the two Cup wins just as hockey exploded in Southern California when Gretzky played there.

    There is NO coasting for any of the NHL players, something you suggest happens on at least occasionally.

    Where’s your proof? Do NHL players tell you they were given their roster spot because they grew up in Canada?

    • I’ve actually had some conversations with guys who went through the hockey player development system in Canada who described it in exactly those terms: being pushed along the pipeline so long as they had the talent, despite not really having the passion. I’ve heard, also anecdotally, from ‘insiders’, tales of draft picks who made it to the NHL despite not being considered the hardest working or most committed guys. Most of them don’t last long, but I think it does happen. But none of these conversations were on the record, so I’m not going to quote them.

      This might be a question to set before Glorious Leader Bourne.

      • in fairness that type of attitude isn’t only hockey but every major sport. how many biographies state that they didnt know how to read or do any school work but kept getting pushed through. bobby clarke barely went to school but was passed. although with how many sports are now a days that you would need to pass some schooling to follow the diagrams/schemes of what your team is trying to do. imagine playing with peyton manning and not having a clue what he was doing. do you think kobe would tolerate the excuse that “i didnt know since i barely care at practice”. the biggest part this article gave to me is working hard will obviously gain the best results. there was no way he could coast on talent.

      • Fair enough, I could see a few players occasionally getting to play a few games, yet not making it very far.

        Those who play in the NHL for long lengths of time have the desire, motivation, and talent to stay there and don’t take it for granted. Until you get huge contracts for many years, then at that point you don’t have much to work for other than pride.

        • I’m talkin 10+ years at large sums of money, like Ovie, Luongo, Bryzgalov, etc. Not that these players slack off …unlike Gomez.

    • Sorry man, but you’re missing the point of what was written.

      For instance, every one of those players you mentioned were given/earned opportunities because they were either located in Canada or the US, or, moved there at a very early age.

      Kopitar grew up in a country where he never had that opportunity. He had to leave home to play in another country (not province or state, but country), and became the FIRST Slovean in the NHL.

      Why be critical of the article? It’s a great story! Since Kopi came over, the Red Wings drafted a Slovian and he actually cracked the lineup towards the end of this past season.

  6. Fantastic piece with some great points. Kopitar – and others like him – deserve all the credit in the world. Thanks for writing this.

  7. On a note hockey related note, Ellen’s statement about “tales of draft picks who made it to the NHL despite not being considered the hardest working or most committed guys” brought to mind the tale of Billy Beane from Moneyball and how he was pushed along the path to the MLB.

    Back on the topic of hockey, I’m from Great Britain and as far as I’m aware there is not a single British born and trained player that has ever played at NHL level. Tony Hand was the sole draftee (by the Oilers) way back in the 80s. A few guys have played at ECHL level, namely Jonathan Weaver and Colin Shields. Glorious Leader Bourne may actually have played against Colin when Justin was with the Alaska Aces.

    I think this backs up the tone of Ellen’s article. In countries such as Great Britain where hockey isn’t a mainstream sport, it’s nigh impossible to even get on the ladder to the NHL.

    My local team (now defunct) had a guy called Dino Bauba who played for them and he grew up in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union. Their equipment and ice time was paid for by the government provided you had ‘the talent’. He once spoke out about the the amount of time he spent on the ice as a kid growing up, he was out there before classes, after classes and in the evenings and nearly all day every weekend.

    In comparison, I was a player for the junior team. All our expensive equipment and (limited) ice time was paid for by our parents. We were lucky to get 3-4 hours ice time a week. You simply haven’t got the ice time to develop anywhere near your potential. If you are an elite player, nobody scouts the UK so you’d likely be missed entirely.

    In closing, I didn’t realise how difficult Kopitar’s path to the NHL was, it’s frightening to think that a guy considered to be one of the best forwards in the NHL might not even been playing today purely because of the location of his birth.

    • Most of the time really good athletes could have been really good at another sport. Think of all the hockey players who grew up also playing soccer or baseball (for example, Doug Harvey could have played big league baseball had he quit hockey), and later get really good at golf. There are a few ‘two-sport’ athletes who manage to do it professionally, but how many are there that stop one to focus on the other? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? Well, maybe not millions.

      So let’s take an athlete at random. Christiano Ronaldo (who I hate) is a fantastic soccer player, born and raised in Portugal. Let’s say he had grown up in Canada, he might still play soccer but he could equally play hockey. Would he be a pro hockey player? It’s tough to say, of course, but there’s no reason to suggest that he couldn’t. I mean, we’re talking about someone with incredible fitness and hand/foot-eye coordination.

      For all we know there’s an athlete out there, whether at the top level like Ronaldo or at a much lower level like Fabrizio Amati (plays for the worst professional team in San Marino), who could be better than Lemieux. Unfortunately it’s impossible to say. So unfortunately while you say it is frightening to think that Kopitar could be not playing hockey, the same can be said about thousands of other athletes.

      • You might be interested in hearing that Tom Brady, Dan Marino and Michael Vick were all drafted by MLB teams. And then there is, of course, Bo Jackson, who was both an MLB and NFL all-star.

    • Oh, also, There’s Tony Hand as an example. He’s one of only two British born and trained hockey players drafted by NHL teams. Glen Sather was impressed by him, wanted him to play junior in North America, but he declined due to home sickness. Before returning to Britain he played 3 games for the Victoria Cougars (WHL), scoring 4 goals and recording 4 assists. Not bad for a slim 5’10″ teenager with homesickness, who had only played in the British leagues prior to that.

      Later that season he scored 105 goals in just 35 games for the Murrayfield Racers of the BHL, second only to his Canadian teammate, Rick Fera (who had 133). Hand was 3rd in points behind Fera and a certain Garry Unger (who had 804 points in 1105 games with Toronto, Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Edmonton).

      Again, he turned 19 just a couple months after being drafted, so scored all of the 105 goals as a 19 year old. Obviously the competition wasn’t the greatest, but it does suggest he (probably) had what it took to make the NHL at the very least.

    • It’s close, but Owen Nolan was born in Ireland.

      However, I’m pretty sure he was trained in Canada from early on in his life.

  8. Want to hear about a longshot? At the upcoming NHL draft, keep your eye out for a defenceman who has been playing in the Czech league, Nathan Walker. If his name gets called, he’ll be the first Australian ever to make it so far through the ranks. There are no frozen ponds in this country, and not a lot of hockey fans – I’d be surprised if the players in the national league get more than three or four hours’ practice time a week – but we’re psyched for the guy.

  9. Ellen’s article brings up another interesting question. Here in the states, particularly the “heartland” there are tons of kids pushed through the systems in football, baseball and basketball. I can’t tell you how many college football players I’ve meet out here and my initial thought was if this guy could skate what kind of hockey player would he have been?

    As food for thought, take the typical 6-5, 240lb linebacker from Omaha Nebraska. The state has a D.1 US college program, 3 teams in the top state side junior development league and I’m sure enough minor hockey to have a bit of a footprint.

    Due to the culture in the US he is brought up playing football; but, just a thought, what if he had been brought up in hockey?

  10. “Canadians love to credit their own players with extraordinary character, describing their hard trek along the difficult path to stardom as if it took only slightly less courage, fortitude, and determination than climbing Everest sans sherpas”

    What, this isn’t true? : P

  11. Brilliant article. Well done.

  12. Great piece — wish I could beat this into the heads of a lot of the more thoughtless commentators around.

  13. fantastic article, bookmarked

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