There has been a long standing discrimination in the hockey media.
It promotes a double standard between European players and North American (NA) players. It is rife with cliches that European players are not as tough, that they lack heart, that they don't have the fortitude of NA players and especially Canadian players.
It is of course a bunch of bunk for the most part. Jonathan Willis of the Nations Network pulls out both barrels on the argument here and here. The majority in the more sophisticated realm of hockey commentary agree with him and you will find no shortage of articles in this vein.
The biased view is fed by the mainstream media and commentators like Don Cherry, who for some reason or another, like to pull the card whenever a European player is struggling, floating or simply not playing well.
One of the positive aspects of Jay Feaster and Co is that he is changing the old Don Cherry / Darryl Sutter anti-European bias in the Calgary Flames. Since Feaster has taken the GM position we have seen the Flames acquire several Europeans. In no particular order Roman Horak, Markus Granlund, Sven of course, Karri Ramo and now Roman Cervenka.
The debate is going to have more relevancy in upcoming years for the Flames and I am going to explain why it is not as black and white as Don Cherry and Jonathan Willis like to make it.
There is a factor with European players, an additional risk they have that NA players do not. Don Cherry and his cohorts like to knock them for the wrong reasons but the notion of risk in acquiring them is real and should be considered at least to some limited degree.
It is the immigrant experience all European players have to go through.
The Don Cherry side of the argument is a house of cards built upon bigoted commentary but the overall sentiment that NA players are preferable to NHL teams over Europeans is legitimate. Cherry and company come to the conclusion for all the wrong reasons. Despite his illogical argument his conclusion does have some merit, in two players of perfectly equal skill, the team should pick the NA player.
The reason why is the NA player has no cultural adjustment, no off-ice challenges, no language concerns etc. Willis ignores this additional challenge of language, potential pitfalls with the media and just life overall in a new culture.
As far as drafting goes, European players like Sven Baertschi who come over from Europe early, prior to being drafted are a lessened risk. His commitment to making the NHL is clear and they are more desirable. There is also the clear advantage of seeing them play on the smaller NA rink and gauging their game in a better context.
Players like Tim Erixon and Roman Cervenka are much more significant risks. Will their game be as good? How will they adjust? How much NHL ice time should they get? Rookie years are hard on a team that wants to make the playoffs, a single mistake can lead to a goal that can cost a team a game and 2 points and from that it can cost them the playoffs and from that millions in revenue from playoff games.
It is all a domino effect that leads to real consequences. The Rangers gave Tim Erixon 18 games and he got his bus ticket to Connecticut.
I am not focusing in this article on all the obvious aspects of growing up playing the game on bigger ice, the less physical style and so forth.
Obviously several European players have made the adjustment successfully. Jaromir Jagr, the Sedins, Ilya Kovalchuk and on and on. It is the first challenge they meet and on that grounds they either rise to succeed or fail fairly quickly.
Hockey is still hockey and skill is still skill. Cherry and other commentators muddle their perspective by suggesting that European players have less will to win, less heart to push through adversity on the ice, less ability to rise to challenge in the playoffs.
This is all wrong. As Willis points out, floaters like Dustin Penner who are hard to motivate and so forth can be accused of similar problems, it is nothing to do with country of origin, nothing. Cherry builds his argument for all the wrong reasons but one thing that all European players have to go through that NA players don't is what I am going to call "The Immigrant Experience."
It is an additional challenge they all must overcome, something that NA players don't have to. It is also a reason why NHL teams, if they are wise, will plan for it and why analysts should be more patient in judgement for Europeans.
Quite the opposite of Don Cherry and Co quick to judge them as being "less than," it is the opposite - they have the potential to be "more than."
There are two kinds of immigrants.
There is the kind that are leaving a much poorer state of affairs in their own country. They are coming to Canada for the very real reason they fear for their lives or want to live in a country where their children will get more oppurtunites and have a better education, accessible health care and a whole host of quality of life improvements.
But in our global village today there is another type of immigrant. The one who is already in a 1st world country and immigrates to Canada, very likely for work related reasons. They are highly skilled, specialized workers that exceed the talent levels of the native inhabitants but their country socially may be superior or preferable to Canada's.
I am sure this is going to create some gasps but it is true.
There is very much a tendency to think your own nation is the best there is, the reality is if you actually immigrate to other countries to live there, especially European countries, you will see not only the limitations of your own nation but also its strengths.
Finnish hockey players who leave their country and who bring their families to Canada put their children into a less highly ranked education system as per here and here. Now Canada is not too bad on these rankings for education and health but nonetheless the fact European players are leaving very socially advanced cultures should not be lost on anyone. They are here for work and are highly unlikely to remain here once their careers are over.
They are here because it is all about their trade, their desire to play in the best hockey league in the world.
At best they are moving laterally in regards to the social level of their culture. Again you can just look at another link here.
So the additional risk for a hockey player is cultural adjustment and how that impacts them. It is a factor in any job because if you start to become unhappy in your job. If things start to go poorly, if you start to feel isolated or any number of factors it should never be overlooked that these players have the option to leave and in many cases return to even higher pay in the KHL.
Language is a critical factor. Mark Giordano on his jaunt to the KHL spoke openly about the challenges and going to the back of the line constantly in practice. He will be a valuable leader for Calgary and a possible influx of European players because at least he has the real life experience of being on the other side.
It felt like any other big city. It just that the language barrier was tough. It was tough to do everyday things like banking and groceries and all that. Mark Giordano on the KHL -Link
The bottom line is that European players are clearly worth acquiring but they also should garner at least a little extra effort from a team to assist them in fitting in. Even if they come over with a lot of enthusiasm and ability the draw of their own home country awaits them.
There are many examples, Ales Kotalik is just an easy one. Clearly a gifted player, a powerful shot and still even with many less shootout attempts remains one of the best career shooters in the shoot-out. Just as dangerous with his heavy accurate shot as with his quick dekes, Kotalik will be no ones idea of a great NHL player but the draw of his homeland was a factor and how could it not be. North American living is not appealing to a lot of Europeans and that is understandable.
There is many differences from food quality and simple home sickness. Some people get home sick just leaving their city of birth in Canada to live elsewhere in Canada, imagine the culture shock of a European coming to Canada or the United States.
It is an additional hurdle that includes the challenge of learning a new language and the challenge of day to day living. It isn't easy and it is an aspect that should not be overlooked in Europeans.
The Immigrant Experience is something all European Players share and it is a additional challenge that all must overcome to have a successful NHL career. Rather than being a "Don Cherry" and seeing them as less than, quite the opposite they should be admired more for overcoming something every North American player takes for granted.