As a lifelong hockey fan, I had the good fortune to grow up in Winnipeg in the 1960s. Back then, the city was home to Canada’s national hockey team. I was able to attend the big tournament games and – perhaps more importantly – the practices, where you could observe the European players and coaches at close hand.
At that time, there is no doubt the European style of hockey was significantly different from the style of game we enjoyed in North America. The differences in rink sizes and many of the rules made international hockey almost a different sport. It took a certain type of hockey player – and a certain style of play – for Canada to compete with the Soviet, Czech and Swedish teams of the day. It was fascinating to watch the brilliance of Anatoli Firsov, Vyacheslav Starshinov, Vaclav Nedomansky and Sven ‘Tumba’ Johansson, the coaching innovation of Anatoli Tarasov, and the overall team play of the European clubs.
As a result of their knowledge of the international game, Winnipeg hockey fans realized the predictions of an easy Canadian victory in the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviets were nonsense. It took everything the Canadian team could muster – including Paul Henderson’s heroics – to eke out a narrow victory in a wonderful eight-game series.
From the time of the 1972 series until the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 20 years later, more and more European players found their way onto the rosters of North American professional teams. The international tournaments of that era showed there were still distinct differences between North American and European hockey. I would summarize the major differences as follows:
1. European hockey was more wide open and offensive, whereas North American hockey was more defensive with tighter checking.
2. North American hockey was more physical, whereas many of the skilled European players were looked upon as timid.
3. European hockey was more team oriented, whereas North American hockey was more individualistic.
4. The one major skill in which North American players were superior was shooting.
5. North American players were superior in “the little things,” such as their play away from the puck and faceoffs.
6. The European players were in better physical condition because of their adherence to sophisticated year-round training programs.
7. Finally, North American goalies were superior, partly because European goalies simply couldn’t adjust to the angles in the smaller rinks.
In the past 20 years, NHL rosters have come to resemble a United Nations of talent from throughout the hockey world. International tournaments such as the Olympics, World Championship and world juniors are all awaited with great anticipation. The results are very important and the hockey is often thrilling. However, the dramatic distinctions between North American and European hockey and the players involved have virtually disappeared. Let’s examine some of the differences of past years:
1. North American hockey is every bit as offense-minded as the European style. The generation of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic has given way to that of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Getzlaf, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Swedish hockey made a dramatic adjustment to its program because they believed their hockey was becoming too defense-oriented. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are trying to instill more offense into their programs.
2. The cliché of the timid European appears to be a relic of the past. NHL rosters now have European players filling every role required on a team, including the more hard-nosed ones.
3. With North American hockey now much more system-based, the individual style of the past has disappeared. In fact, European players of the past 20 years have often assumed the individual’s role – witness such star players as Petr Klima, Pavel Bure and Ilya Kovalchuk.
4. At one time, when you thought of powerful shots, you thought of North American stars like the Hull family, Al MacInnis, Doug Wilson and Al Iafrate. Now, European stars such as Kovalchuk, Alex Ovechkin, Marian Gaborik and Evgeni Malkin take a back seat to nobody when it comes to shooting.
5. Simply take a look at all of the European players who have assumed important defensive roles on their teams in recent years, including championship clubs. Europeans such as Saku and Mikko Koivu have been dominant in the faceoff circle.
6. During the 26 years in which I have been in the NHL, the single biggest change has been the lifestyle of the players. Year-round training with sophisticated methods and personal trainers has become commonplace for players throughout the hockey world. Any players who do not buy into this lifestyle are at a distinct disadvantage.
7. On the subject of goaltending, one simply needs to look at the percentage of minutes played by European goalies to understand that many of them have adjusted very well to North American conditions.
Hockey is a more homogeneous game now, but also a better game both to play and watch. It has become a global game in an increasingly global village.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.