When Eric Staal looks down the bench at his Eastern Conference teammates Jan. 25 in Montreal, he'll see perhaps the most diverse team ever assembled. Last year's Eastern All-Stars represented seven nations. This year's betters that by one. Let's take a look at the squad.
As expected, Canada leads the list with seven. Carey Price and Sidney Crosby will both start, while Jeff Carter, Dany Heatley, Vincent Lecavalier and Marc Savard will join Staal as reserves. Russia is second with five (Andrei Markov, Alexei Kovalev and Evgeni Malkin are starters; Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Ovechkin will serve as reserves). The United States boasts three, led by starter Mike Komisarek with reserves Tim Thomas and Zach Parise also headed to Montreal.
No surprises yet. But five other countries are represented on the team:
- Thomas Vanek, one of three Austrians to play in the NHL this season, is the Sabres' All-Star.
- Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara represents Slovakia, which has had 17 players in the league this year.
- Tomas Kaberle is going for Toronto, the lone Czech on the Eastern team.
- Swedish netminder Henrik Lundqvist is the Rangers entry.
- New Islander Mark Streit is one of five Swiss players in the league and the only to make either team. Of the five in the NHL, three are backup goalies and the other, Yannick Weber, has played in just one game.
The Western team, on the other hand, is heavy on Canadians. Five of the six starters are from north of the border, and 13 of the team's 21 players represent Canada. Five countries are represented in all, including one that the East cannot claim: Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom is a native of Finland.
We'd have to go back to the old North America vs. The World All-Star set up to see a team as diverse, and many of the players on those squads only made the game because of the format.
So just a week after the dominance of the major hockey nations at the World Junior Championships led to questions of whether or not too many countries receive a bid to the tournament, the NHL is showing there is plenty of talent throughout the world worth showing off.
What can we expect down the road? How about Slovenian power forward Anze Kopitar? Belarussian brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn? Ukranian sniper Nikolai Zherdev was probably deserving this year, and Carolina has an on-the-rise player from the nation as well: Anton Babchuk. Germany has six NHLers, including emerging blueliner Dennis Seidenberg. Denmark's Mikkel Boedker and Jannik Hansen are having strong rookie seasons. Frenchman Cristobal Huet showed he was a world-class goalie last season, and Kazakhstan goalie Evgeni Nabakov was a Vezina finalist — and deserved to be the winner. Does veteran Dainius Zubrus of Lithuania have an All-Star game in his future? Hockey-mad Latvia has had five different players in the NHL this year. Columbus' Ole-Kristian Tollefsen won't likely make any All-Star games, but Norway has had All-Stars in the past. Poland has just one NHLer, but Colorado's Wojtek Wolski is a good one.
As you can see, there's plenty of skill to go around, and a lot of it from a lot of different places will be on display two weekends from now. No league has this many athletes from numerous different countries and cultures so crucial to its success. And while the NHL has been criticized for having few black athletes, future NHLers like Montreal prospect P.K. Subban will further open doors that need to be kicked open.
All around the league teams are becoming more varied, including Carolina. The Hurricanes currently have players from eight countries on their active roster, and, with Tim Gleason out of the lineup, played defensemen from six different nations Saturday vs. Boston. A perfect illustration of of the game's diversity can be found in 2006 Carolina draft pick Justin Krueger, the son of Swiss national coach and Canadian-born Ralph Krueger. The younger Krueger grew up in Switzerland, played there for Germany's national team programs, spent a season with Penticton of the British Columbia Hockey League, and now plays NCAA hockey at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
So when you flip on the festivities in a couple weeks, don't just think of the jersey each player wears from October through June, remember the different flags, people and nations they proudly represent. Because the best of the best come to North America to play hockey — and there are more on the way.
In other news:
John Grahame, whose contract was terminated by Avangard Omsk, is fighting the team's claim that he suffers from "common alcoholism" and they had just cause to release from his deal. He will be in Moscow Wednesday to appeal the team's decision to release him and void his contract following an incident at an Omsk club.
Thanks to reader puckheadjones for the head-up on the news.