MISSISSAUGA, ONT. - During one of his Coach’s Corner rants, Don Cherry praised the Kootenay Ice, the Western Hockey League representative at this week’s Memorial Cup, for not having any “foreigners” on its roster.
“And that’s the way it should be!” Cherry roared.
The Ice, in fact, are the only team playing at the Memorial Cup not to dress a European player.
And while Kootenay head coach Kris Knoblauch appreciates Grapes’ support, let there be no doubt, the team’s first year bench boss would give up his left mitt for a quality European if it meant helping his team get on a roll at this tournament.
“You look at the Europeans playing for the other teams here, and absolutely I’d like those guys on my team,” said Knoblauch, whose 1-2 Ice have struggled so far at the Cup.
Knoblauch said his organization hasn’t had a lot of luck with Europeans recently. That, and the fact they had 18 returning skaters, made the Ice decide not to bring in a Euro this season. But that’s not to say they won’t in the future. Knoblauch said the Ice just felt that a European wouldn’t have been a good fit with the veteran-laded team this year. Not including a Russian or Czech this season, he said, had nothing to do with any anti-foreigner bias.
Meanwhile, and this is something that would surely grate on Grapes, European players are having a major impact at the 2011 Memorial Cup.
Prior to Wednesday’s clash between the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors and Owen Sound Attack, there were three Europeans in the top 15 scoring.
The pre-tournament favourite Saint John Sea Dogs, who have already booked a spot into Sunday’s final, have two quality Europeans on its roster, Slovakian Tomas Jurco, who has four goals and an assist in three games and Russian Stanislav Galiev, who has a goal and two assists.
For Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant, it’s a question of fielding the best team, not checking their birth certificates.
“I think it’s excellent having them here,” said the former Detroit Red Wings forward. “It helps our team, it helps our league and it helps those young men. I have no issues with it. We hear different people talking about eliminating it, but, for me, it’s a good thing.”
Cherry is right when he contends that Europeans take away jobs from Canadians in junior hockey. But just how skilled would the two last players cut for Europeans be? Teams are only allowed two imports, so a Canadian kid cut would likely not have been a top six player. As for Canadian kids resenting Europeans on their team, Gallant said that is simply not true.
“They’re the best of friends with all our players, they’re both character kids and like I said, after three months they’re not Europeans anymore, they’re teammates,” he said.
Cherry might, in fact, appreciate the sacrifices Jurco and Galiev made in order to play in the CHL. Aside from having to constantly prove that they’re not “soft Europeans”, they left their families and cultures far behind as teenagers, to pursue their dream of playing in North America.
When he arrived in Saint John last season, Jurco could barely speak English and likely thought a Maritimer was some kind of waterproof watch.
“It was a little bit tough,” he said. “I couldn’t understand my teammates and coach and then it was pretty hard to get used to the size of the rink and the style of the game.”
As for Galiev, the 2010 Washington Capitals’ third-round draft pick spent the 2008-09 campaign with the Indiana Ice of the USHL as a 17-year-old before moving on to the Sea Dogs last season. His mom, Sveltana, made the move to Saint John with him, so it was a struggle for both of them. But like Jurco, the Moscow native has adapted to his new surroundings, the CHL and his teammates.
“I’m really proud of him,” said Mike Kelly, the Sea Dogs’ director of hockey operations. “I’m proud of the sacrifices he’s had to make. Obviously he’s a young man who’s had to grow up a little bit earlier than other kids, but he’s handling it extremely well.”
The one downside of importing imports is the expense, and the fact that some European kids just don’t make the adjustment.
“You want a top six forward, top four defenceman and you want a leading scorer, somebody to run your power play,” said Knoblauch of import players. “When you select a player, you have high aspirations that this player is going to be a great player in your league. And often those expectations fall short.”