In just a few days, some of the best Under-18s in the world will clash at the annual Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament, hosted by the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
For major junior fans, many of the Canadian names are already somewhat familiar – Brayden Schenn, Taylor Hall and Jared Cowen among them – and those of you who followed my Year of the Ram series will recognize Nick Oliver of Team USA.
But part of the fun of these tournaments is hearing names for the first time and sorting out the hype that goes along with them.
Finnish star Toni Rajala has been getting heaps of praise back in his homeland with some even referring to him as the ‘Finnish Sidney Crosby.’ Similarly, Slovakia has a fast riser in Richard Panik, who frequently plays against older competition.
But that got me thinking: Will the aforementioned players become the next legends of the game someday? Could they even become the greatest players ever from their respective countries? It may sound outlandish, but every superstar starts somewhere.
We have already seen the best Canadian player of all-time. Whether you believe that man is Wayne Gretzky or Bobby Orr, both accomplished astonishing feats that will never be duplicated. And, unfortunately for young Panik, we have likely seen the best Slovak of all-time in Peter Stastny. The Czechs are sewn up right now as well: Dominik Hasek or Jaromir Jagr. Maybe you even give Stan Mikita some love (he was born there, even if he didn’t play hockey until he got to Canada).
So what about the other nations?
Russia: We’re pretty much sticking to the NHL here, so let’s just establish that up front. Pavel Bure? Sergei Fedorov? Vladimir Konstantinov? I think we’re watching the best right now: Alex Ovechkin. He’s already amassing a good deal of hardware and his Caps squad is on the rise. We’ll be seeing him consistently in the post-season from now on and his combination of offensive wizardry and reckless physical abandonment makes him one of a kind.
Sweden: Nicklas Lidstrom is the current titleholder. You can toss in some votes for Borje Salming, but at The Hockey News we’ve already crowned Lidstrom the best European ever and the arguments that he is the second-best defenseman ever get stronger every year. But there is a competitor rising in the near future. Behemoth defenseman Victor Hedman hasn’t even been drafted yet, but big things are expected. And just to give you a taste of things to come, Steven Stamkos once told me Hedman plays like Lidstrom – except one of them is 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds.
Finland: Even if Rajala is the Finnish Crosby, he’ll still have stiff competition from his Suomi brothers. Jari Kurri is seen as the gold standard of Finns, but where does Teemu Selanne fit into the picture now that he has a Stanley Cup?
USA: Here’s the most intriguing one, because it’s wide open. Evoking the Brett Hull rule (born in Canada, doesn’t count), who do you go with? Brian Leetch, Mike Modano and Pat LaFontaine are all good candidates, but I feel with the development of the game in America in recent years, we haven’t found the golden boy yet. Ironically, Phil Kessel was supposed to be the ‘American Crosby,’ but obviously he’ll settle for being a very good NHLer. Does Erik Johnson have the chops in St. Louis? Patrick Kane in Chicago? Elite youngsters such as Jeremy Morin and Jordan Schroeder are coming up over the horizon; maybe it’s one of them.
Germany and Switzerland: Clearly we haven’t seen the best yet, but these countries are putting together solid national programs (as is Denmark), so the elite talent will begin to get better as time goes on. For the foreseeable future, Thomas Vanek (Austria) and Anze Kopitar (Slovenia) have their countries wrapped up.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every second Friday, and his feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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