According to the IIHF’s world rankings page, there are 47 countries that play men’s hockey and 36 that play women’s hockey. Obviously the sport is played in plenty of other places without national programs, but those are the official numbers according to the world’s governing body and I’ll be damned if they aren’t given their due.
The pipelines of said countries are not created equal. Hockey Canada is a much more well put together and financially stable machine than Mongolian Ice Hockey Federation (a real thing) and as such the talent development is hardly comparable. An interesting twist in hockey is that anyone who becomes a citizen of a country that has lived their for two years can play for their national team. Are you an exceptionally talented beer league player of Greek heritage? Perhaps you’ve always wanted to live in Athens. Their team, 44th in the world, could use you! Just get your citizenship and an apartment.
It’s very simple, very effective but at what point does this stop being a legitimate rule and start being a workaround for countries?
The issue became glaringly obvious to me when I stumbled across the men’s roster of my beloved Croatian national team, ranked 30th in the world — top 65%!
Now, hockey isn’t a big sport over there. At. All. Soccer rules the roost. There’s a big gap between it and number two (likely handball, water polo or basketball depending on where you are in the country). Hockey is gaining popularity however as evidenced by the attendance records of Medveščak Zagreb who, you may recall, hosted the European outdoor game in the Pula Arena (read: Roman Amphitheatre).
Looking at the national roster it passes the eye test. Lots of Croatian sounding fellows. However, it piqued my interest for two reasons. 1) Kenny MacAulay. 2) The etymology of the rest of the roster.
Kenny MacAulay is from Nova Scotia. Kenny MacAulay has about as Gaelic a name as you can get. Kenny MacAulay plays for the Croatian National Team because he has lived there long enough to get citizenship. Kenny MacAulay: Croatian hockey hero.
A quick perusal of the more legitimate sounding names will indicate that the vast majority of them are from North America given that it is where their families landed and they have since gone back to pursue an international hockey career. I recall watching John Hecimovic, for example, play with the Sarnia Sting and Mississauga IceDogs during his OHL career. He’s from Cambridge.
I suppose my issue here is this: at what point do we tighten the rules to enforce where a person can pursue their international hockey aspirations?
Think back to the last couple Olympic games. Many will recall Toronto native and former NHLer Jason Muzzatti playing in goal for the 2006 Italian national team. The running joke when Canada and Germany played in the last Olympic games was that Canada had more Germans (Dany Heatley) than the Germans did and Germany had more Canadians (not-Korbinian Holzer) than Canada did. Obviously this is factually incorrect, but many people on hockey shows fancy themselves to be comedians.
It was all quite funny.
The fact is, however, that for many places this becomes a way of bypassing having an effective grassroots program in place. Nothing screams quick fix like, “International tourney coming up, guys. Get a couple North Americans on the phone.” The focus — if we are to believe feel good mumbo jumbo from large hockey organizations — is always on growing the game worldwide. But are we effectively doing that if we allow people to suit up for whatever country they’re living in that year?
With many NHLers currently overseas due to this lockout — including many who are unlikely to have a spot in the league when they are re-instated — Europe will become a prime playing ground, a new home and a potential national opportunity.
The point here isn’t to slight those players who have gone overseas, presumably settled down and are very much members of these countries. They have the right to play wherever they’re allowed to play and good on them for doing that. My issue is with those organizations who have actively sought out ex-pats to tide themselves over in international competition. Renting Canadians and Americans has become U-Haul on skates.
Would it really be so bad to just give the last couple of roster spots to players who were trained at home?
The motivation here isn’t to stifle opportunities for North Americans who can’t break into insanely competitive national programs, but rather to cultivate those homegrown hockey heroes. Every country has the potential to develop their own stars, much in the same way Anze Kopitar emerged from Slovenia and has spawned a much more active hockey culture locally.
Perhaps making the playing eligibility more stringent than simply holding citizenship is a first step — one must live in their prospective country for five years instead of the current two. Or mandated contributions to the national federation on a grassroots level — coaching, recruitment, etc. — to ensure that the domestic game is being grown.
While these are far from comprehensive solutions, they would be a start. The sooner we remove crutches from programs who are taking away spots from locally trained athletes, the closer we will get to hockey as a truly global sport.