European players still have share of critics

ON THE NHL

November 30, 1993|By SANDRA McKEE

The NHL's European player population has grown from 11.9 to 18.7 percent in two years. And as their numbers grow, so does the debate about the Europeans' strengths and weaknesses.

Stars from Europe include Winnipeg's Teemu Selanne and Buffalo's Alexander Mogilny, who shared the goal-scoring title last season, and Vancouver's right wing, Pavel Bure.

At the same time, critics remain, insisting the European players don't understand the importance of a Stanley Cup, are only here to rake in the money and lack the courage to battle through a physically tough situation to get the job done.

Former NHL coach and current "Hockey Night in Canada" commentator Harry Neale agrees with at least the first of those criticisms. And Capitals coach Terry Murray said he thinks the perception is changing.

"Kids who love hockey in North America grow up thinking winning the Stanley Cup is the most important conquest in their lives," said Neale. "They'll do whatever they have to to win it -- and not for the money. There have been some good Europeans on Stanley Cup teams, but to them the Olympics and the World Games are more important. The European players at age 21 are trying to figure out what this is all about. It's heritage. It's almost hereditary."

Murray counters by saying, "Every player is in it for the money." But he adds that every player who has made it to the NHL has paid a price to get to this level, whether he's come from Eastern Europe, the Canadian junior leagues or a small town in Montana.

"By the time they've made it here, they've all made many sacrifices and they've all proven themselves to have a competitive attitude, a competitive pride," Murray said. "They all want to be successful."

No NHL team with a European as its main scorer has won a Stanley Cup, but with more European talent here than ever, that could change any season now.

Winnipeg general manager Michael Smith has given the Jets a decidedly European look with Selanne, center Alexei Zhamnov, left wing Keith Tkachuk and 13-year center Thomas Steen. Although the Jets are struggling this season, Smith does not blame his European contingent. He disdains the stereotypes.

"Lack of courage," Smith said. "I hear it all the time . . . [from] people who speak with a stereotypical look at things. Thomas Steen has never given an inch to anyone on the ice.

"They say European hockey is more skilled and North American hockey is more physical. Tell me Kevin Hatcher and Al Iafrate aren't skillful?"

A quarter for your thoughts

With the season one-fourth over, here's a quarterly top 10 list:

10. The Toronto Maple Leafs set a league record with 10 straight victories to open the season.

9. The New Jersey Devils opened the season with a club-record seven wins.

8. The expansion Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim have surprised. The Panthers would be in the Stanley Cup playoffs if the postseason started tomorrow. The Ducks went 4-0 on a four-game road trip that included victories over Calgary and Vancouver, the top two teams in the Pacific Division.

7. The Edmonton Oilers got off to the worst start in team history, 3-18-3, and replaced coach Ted Green with president and general manager Glen Sather, who coached Edmonton to five Cups in seven seasons from 1983-84 through 1989-90.

6. Oilers owner Peter Pocklington has said he will move his team unless he gets a better deal from the Northlands Coliseum. The city has filed an injunction to prevent any move. The Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers also have filed to move their franchises.

5. Toronto's Wendel Clark was the top goal scorer with 20.

4. Wayne Gretzky was the league's leading scorer. In good health after last season's back trouble, Gretzky had 41 points after 21 games (nine goals and 32 assists), and is on pace to break Gordie Howe's all-time goal record of 801 before season's end.

3. Stars Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Steve Yzerman and Pat LaFontaine were sidelined with injuries.

2. The New York Rangers became the league's hottest team, with a 14-game unbeaten streak (12-0-2), the best in the league this season and the best for the Rangers since 1972-73.

1. The first strike by NHL on-ice officials began Nov. 15 over a contract dispute.

Portland update

The Portland Pirates were the Baltimore Skipjacks in a former life, but the reincarnation is faring better than its predecessor.

The Pirates (16-5-2) have the best record in the AHL after going 10-1-1 in their past 12 games.

They're doing it with balanced scoring: Center Jeff Nelson leads with 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists), followed by defenseman John Slaney (11 goals, 11 assists) and left wing Randy Pearce (11 goals, 10 assists).

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