In a global hockey world, who still counts as an import?

The major junior ranks have attracted scores of talented Europeans, but some kids come over early and play their minor hockey in North America, earning local status

When is a Russian not a Russian? It’s a question that comes up every year in major junior and one that has fascinated me for a long time.

To be clear, I’m referring to the distinction made between a “homegrown” player and an “import.” The former is selected in one of major junior’s entry drafts, while the latter is taken in the CHL’s Import Draft, which includes all three leagues – the OHL, QMJHL and WHL – drafting from the same pool of players.

Nail Yakupov played all his hockey in Russia until the OHL’s Sarnia Sting took him second overall in the 2010 Import Draft. Alex Galchenyuk was born in the U.S. to a Belarussian hockey dad, played most of his youth hockey in Europe, moved to Chicago and was taken first overall by the Sting in the 2010 OHL entry draft. Ivan Provorov was born and raised in Russia, came over to North America when he was 13, and was taken by the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings in the 2014 Import Draft.

So what gives? What are the rules here?

In the Greater Toronto Area, a number of Russian-born kids have come over as teenagers in recent years, where they are classified as locals for the OHL draft instead of CHL imports. I had been under the mistaken impression that the eligibility rule revolved around how long the kid had played in North America (folks around the rink threw around two years as the minimum).

As it turns out, however, that is not the case. According to OHL vice president Ted Baker, eligibility is based off the parents’ full-time residence. Galchenyuk’s parents lived in Chicago with him; Provorov moved to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on his own, for example.

“As the rules state right now,” Baker told me, “there is no defined period.”

The OHL (as well as the WHL and QMJHL) look at housing deeds, banking records or lease agreements when a player seeks out local status. Most often the player is aided by an agent or minor hockey coach.

Baker estimates that he looks at a handful of cases each season, which he examines and then makes a recommendation to the CHL for approval. And these cases often have big ramifications for both players and teams. Major junior squads can only play two imports, so the stakes are high. Kirill Nizhnikov, a solid prospect for this year’s NHL draft, was taken seventh overall by Mississauga in the 2016 OHL draft. Nikita Korostelev, who was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, went ninth overall to Sarnia in the 2013 OHL draft.

Had they been classified as imports, they could have wound up in an entirely different league. That’s what happened to Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Dennis Yan, when his bid for eligibility in the OHL was shot down. He ended up getting taken in the Import Draft by the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes. And while everything worked out for Yan’s career in the end, it was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster for the kid at the time.

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But there still seems to be a lot of grey area. Korostelev, for example, didn’t actually live with his parents in Toronto – he stayed with a teammate his first year and a billet family the next. He would see his parents in the summer back in Moscow.

And this phenomenon isn’t limited to Russians, by the way. David Levin, who hails from Israel, was granted eligibility for the OHL draft because he was living with family in Toronto, even though his actual parents were still in the Middle East. Levin went first overall to the Sudbury Wolves in 2015 and is up for the NHL draft this year. Daniel Sprong came over from the Netherlands and was drafted as a local QMJHLer before the Pittsburgh Penguins nabbed him in the NHL draft.

For his part, Korostelev just wanted to challenge himself.

“Coming over, I had no idea if I’d be eligible,” he said. “I just came to play hockey and got lucky. I found out a couple of weeks before the draft.”

And the competition he faced in Toronto helped prepare him for major junior, even if the culture shock was difficult.

“I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “It was tough at the beginning not knowing English so well, not knowing the way hockey works here. But after a couple months, a couple games, I felt great after that. I have no regrets. It helped me get used to this style of hockey for sure. Playing in the OHL a year earlier than most Europeans really helped me.”

Though Korostelev was drafted by the Leafs, the team didn’t sign him. They did however invite him back to their rookie camp this summer and now he’s gunning for a pro contract.

While the influx of teens from abroad is intriguing, it’s certainly not a threat to homegrown talents, but it is fascinating to see how global the hockey world is getting.

While Russians in particular were a great mystery to North American hockey fans during the Cold War, now we’re seeing kids like Fedor Gordeev, another Leafs pick (141st overall in 2017) whose family came over to Toronto when he was six years old.

“It wasn’t for hockey,” Gordeev said. “It was just for better opportunities for my family.”

Gordeev is a big, mobile defender who played forward most of his young career and he’ll be a key member of the OHL’s Flint Firebirds again this season. For him, hockey actually helped him adapt to his new Canadian homeland. “I played hockey over in Russia, so I just got going with everything,” he said. “The language was pretty easy to pick up.”

The hockey world is a small one, but it’s getting more interesting as the real world gets smaller, too.