European Gifts Forgotten
The most thought-provoking question to ask about professional athletes is “what if?” What if Bobby Orr didn’t retire early? What if Boston didn’t trade Babe Ruth to the Yankees? What if Kerry Fraser had called a high stick on Gretzky?
During the 1980s, North American hockey saw an influx of European players. Most came over during the prime of their careers; Slava Fetisov, for instance, was 31 years old during his rookie season with the New Jersey Devils. The years of North American play lost to European leagues begs the question: what if Europe’s best hockey players had begun their careers in the National Hockey League?
This list will talk about 10 of the greatest European hockey players who had reduced careers in the NHL. The list, however, excludes those who had injury-plagued careers, including Pavel Bure. It also excludes those who had deaths or life-altering injuries, like Pelle Lindbergh or Vladimir Konstantinov. In no specific order, here are 10 of the greatest Europeans to ever have played hockey in the NHL for a short-length of time. There is one special exception, which shall be explained.
Requirements: Skaters: Maximum 600GP (games played)
Goalies: Maximum 400GP (games played)
Hakan Loob 450GP, 193G, 236A and 429P
Upon joining the Calgary Flames, came to the Calgary Flames Loob was considered to be too small for the NHL and was told he would struggle. The Swedish star did quite the opposite. Loob’s incredible skating helped him move around the ice seamlessly. Loob scored 50 goals and 106 points for the Flames in 1987-88, his best NHL season. Future Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk said that the luckiest thing to happen to him was being put on a line with Loob in his first year in Calgary. Nieuwendyk added that Loob could “put pucks in areas and, make plays that nobody else would dream of.” In his final season, Loob helped lead the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final, where they defeated the Montreal Canadiens. At the peak of his career, Loob decided he wanted his children to grow up in Sweden and not have to assimilate to North American life. Loob retired from the NHL at 29 years old and returned to play in Sweden, where Loob holds the record for most career goals and points for his club, Farjestad BK.
Pelle Eklund 594GP, 120A, 335A, 455P
Pelle Eklund was an incredible playmaker, and an important part of the Philadelphia Flyers’ Stanley Cup run in 1987. In that post-season (only his second season in the NHL), Eklund recorded an astounding 27 points in 26 games. Similar to many other Europeans at the time, Eklund was much smaller. Eklund, used his size strategically to avoid checkers, and loved to drive wide, then cut to the net to create a scoring opportunity. Unfortunately Eklund’s production dropped off in the 1993-94 season, and the Flyers traded him to the Dallas Stars. After that season Eklund decided to return to Sweden and play professionally. In his first season back home Eklund was named the Elitserien’s (Swedish Elite League) most valuable player.
Roman Cechmanek: 212GP, 110W-64L-28T, G.A.A. 2.08, SV% .919 and 25SO
Not a lot of people realize how good Roman Cechmanek was. The guardian of a good Philadelphia Flyers team in the early 2000s, Cechmanek won the William M. Jennings in the 2002-03 season allowing only 1.83 goals per game. Cechmanek only played 212 games in the NHL, a surprise to many, given his unforgettable performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2002-03 playoffs. After three exceptional seasons in Philly, Cechmanek played one lackluster season for the Los Angeles Kings and then departed to Europe. Playing from age 29 to 33 in the NHL, Cechmanek felt he was past his prime and went on to play in the Czech Republic well into his 30s. If Cechmanek had come over earlier, perhaps he would have had a much more decorated and illustrious career.
Slava Fetisov: 546GP, 36G, 192A and 228P
The NHL and Russian players have Fetisov to thank for breaking down barriers and being the first Soviet to ever be allowed to leave the Soviet Union freely and join the NHL. Fetisov’s off-ice impact was incredible, but his on-ice contribution were amazing as well. Fesitov was an exceptional two-way defenseman and honed his craft with the Soviet Union’s National Team, after being recruited by legendary Soviet Head Coach Anatoli Tarasov. Fetisov went onto be part of the Russian Five for the Soviet Union, and the re-created Russian Five of the Detroit Red Wings. Fetisov was the leader of both Russian Five squads. Their unit played as one, making passes without looking, constantly supporting and making highlight reel plays every night. Fetisov was 31 years old in his first NHL season with the New Jersey Devils, yet he was still able to be an all-star well into his 30s. Fetisov won back-back Cups in 1997 and 1998 with the Red Wings. Fetisov was also one of the six members of the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team receiving 54 of 56 votes. Fetisov also, won an unprecedented seven World Championship Gold Medals, three World Junior Gold Medals, two Olympic Golds, a Canada Cup Gold and a grand total of 18 medals for the Soviet Union. He was insanely good at hockey.
Sergei Makarov: 424GP, 134G, 250A and 384P
Makarov was a member of the original Russian Five for the Soviet Union, playing alongside linemates Igor Larionov and Vladimir Krutov. Similar to Fetisov, Makarov was 31 years old, when he came to North America and joined the Calgary Flames. Makarov instantly made an impact with the Flames, scoring 24 goals and 86 points in his first season, and winning rookie of the year. Makarov’s shot percentage that year was 25.9%, the best in the NHL. Makarov put up over 50 points in every full season he played. Makarov holds the record for most points in CSKA Moscow’s history, scoring 678 points in only 472 games. In 2016, Makarov was finally inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Alexei Kasatonov: 383GP, 38G, 122A and 160P
Kasatonov was the other defenseman of the Soviet Union’s Russian Five, playing alongside Fetisov. Like many other Soviets, Kasatonov came over in his 30s and had a short stay in the NHL. In his time in North America, Kasatonov was reunited with Fetisov in New Jersey, and got an All-Star selection with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1994. Oddly enough, Fetisov and Kasatonov, once best friends, hated each other during their time in New Jersey, as Kasatonov had not been supportive of Fetisov’s political stance against the Soviet Union. Yet every night in New Jersey the two would play alongside each other and dominate opponents. The NHL was lucky to have seen the two together, even if it was for a small period of time.
Kent Nilsson: 553GP, 264G, 422A and 686P
Nilsson played two seasons in the WHA (World Hockey Association) before entering the NHL. Nilsson broke onto the scene with the Atlanta Flames scoring 93 points in his rookie season. The next year he would top that, scoring 131 points, the most points ever by a Swedish player and the most points in a single-season by a Flame. “The Magic Man” was the sixth fastest NHL player to reach 300 points, doing-so in only 215 games. A great representation of Nilsson’s dominance was his one-season stint in Italy playing for HC Bolzano. Nilsson scored 132 points in 35 games; no other player had over 95 points that season. The best Nilsson story, though, came out of an on-ice media session in Calgary. Nilsson told a reporter he could hit the crossbar from the blue-line. The interviewer said he would give Nilsson five tries. Nilsson hit the crossbar on his first shot, and skated off the ice.
Anders Hedberg: 465GP, 172G, 226A and 398P
Without the WHA it is quite possible North America may have never seen one of the greatest lines in hockey history. Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson were a marvel to watch, playing for the Winnipeg Jets. The line terrorized the WHA, with Hedberg putting up at least 100 points every year in the WHA. When the WHA began to crumble, he joined the New York Rangers. In his first season the Swedish superstar put up 79 points in 80 games and helped lead the underdog Rangers to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Hedberg was a true pioneer for all Europeans, especially Swedish-born NHLers, with Kent Nilsson and Hakan Loob following Hedberg’s footsteps into the NHL. Nilsson and Loob even shadowed Hedberg’s short career, as Hedberg left North America in 1985 and returned to Sweden.
Ulf Nilsson: 170GP, 57G, 112A and 169P
Nilsson is the only exception on this list as he suffered a “serious leg injury” at 30. However, Nilsson’s fate could have been different if he did not spend his younger years playing in Sweden and in the WHA. Nilsson is too incredible and forgotten of a player to leave off this list. Nilsson was part of one of the greatest lines in hockey history, and like Hedberg, put up over 100 points in all four of his seasons in the WHA. He recorded 66 points his first 59 games in the NHL, using his blazing speed as himself and Hedberg would fly up and down the wings. Perhaps Nilsson never would have been injured had the NHL allowed Europeans into the league earlier.
Reijo Ruotsalainen: 446GP, 107G, 237A and 344P
Finally we have one of the best names in hockey. Reijo Ruotsalainen (try saying that 10 times fast), at an incredibly small stature of 5’8, was, at the time, one of the youngest Europeans to ever play in the NHL. At 21 years old, Ruotsalainen made his debut for the New York Rangers and while starting as a defenseman, was quickly moved to forward by Rangers Head Coach Herb Brooks. Brooks called Ruotsalainen the best skater in the NHL. He used this skating ability to cover all 200 feet with little effort and could dominate puck possession. Ruotsalainen moved to Edmonton after five seasons with the Rangers and won a Stanley Cup in 1987. After the victory Ruotsalainen returned to Europe breifly, coming back to North America in 1989 to join the Devils. Later that year, Ruotsalainen was traded back to Edmonton, and once again won a Stanley Cup. After his second Cup he went back to Europe played in Switzerland and Finland, and was regarded as one of the greatest Finns to ever play the game.
The Penalty Box
- The Calgary Flames burnt right out. The Flames are tied for the most games played in the league right now at 51, and this youthful group is struggling to keep up. After an impressive stretch, where they sat safely in a wild card positon, the Flames now find themselves with only a one point lead over the Los Angeles Kings. As well, the teams chasing them have games in hand, which is not the positon Calgary wants to be in. The All-Star break cannot come soon enough for the Flames, who have been outscored 20-7 during their current four-game losing streak.
- The Carolina Hurricanes were on the verge of being in a Wild Card position, but now find themselves in the log-jammed group chasing the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. All bottom six teams in the East have the same amount of points, with differing numbers of games played. This four-game losing streak for the Canes, and their abysmal 6-14-6 away record is why they sit down this far down. Fortunately for Carolina, from January 26th to February 17th they only play seven games, and will get plenty of rest for the last haul of the regular season.
Stars of the Week
- It is steaming hot in the Bay Area, as the San Jose Sharks have won their last six games. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this stretch, is that the six games were played in just nine days. The Sharks now find themselves ahead of the Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers and, sit well-above the wild card teams. Much of the credit is due to Brent Burns, who has 16 points in 12 games this month. Burns is leading the way for the Sharks and defenseman around the league and looks poised to receive his first Norris Trophy. Burns and the Sharks, though, have their eyes on a bigger trophy: the Stanley Cup.
- The Ottawa Senators look revitalized. In their last eight games the Senators have earned 13 of a possible 16 points. This impressive stretch has been highlighted by wins over Pittsburgh, Columbus and Washington, three of the league’s top teams. On top of their on-ice success, they have also re-signed Zack Smith to a 4-year, $13 million contract, and acquired Tommy Wingels for Buddy Robinson, Zack Stortini and a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft. Should the Sens take care of business against the reeling Flames on Thursday, Guy Boucher and the Senators will enter the All-Star break very satisfied.
The Weekly Rap
- The Toronto Raptors had a week to forget. They have lost four in a row, including two losses to teams below .500, a blowout loss in Charlotte, and a heart-breaking loss to an undermanned San Antonio Spurs squad. The Raptors need to get back on track soon, as the rest of the Eastern Conference is catching up to them and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
- DeMar DeRozan has earned some rest to rehab his ankle and he will surely use it. He should also consider skipping the All-Star Game if his ankle is still not ready. DeRozan’s Player Efficiency Rating is 25.05, which has him 13th in the league. While Kyle Lowry can continue to do his best to carry the team while DeMar recovers, the two of them need to be together if the Raptors want another deep playoff run.
Top 5 NBA Power Rankings
- Warriors (38-7)
- Golden State routed the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets this week, putting any doubt to rest about the best team in the league. Even James Harden could not keep them from earning the top spot. Oddly enough, they managed to lose to the surging Miami Heat on Monday evening. But, that loss does not mean much. The Warriors still score and distribute the ball better than any team in the NBA, and that will not likely change any time soon.
- Spurs (36-9)
- San Antonio beat the slumping Raptors without Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Jonathan Simmons and Pau Gasol. Gregg Popovich gets the best out of his players each and every night. The Spurs have a relatively easy stretch before the All-Star break, meaning starters will continue to rest. Still, the Spurs should find a way to win.
- Rockets (34-14)
- Houston had an okay week. They went 2-2 and while they got trashed by the Warriors, they managed to rebound the night after with a dominant 119-95 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. The Rocket got 30 points from Sam Dekker is one of many players to benefit from extra defensive attention being paid to James Harden. Dekker has used this to increase his output every night, which has seen an increase in his minutes.
- Clippers (30-17)
- The Clippers went 1-3 this week, but they are getting production from an unlikely source. Austin Rivers is having the best season of his career, and now the best month of his career. Rivers is averaging 18.4PPG in over 35 minutes a night, despite having previously averaged, 8.1PPG in his career. Obviously this increase of production has come with Chris Paul out of the lineup, and Blake Griffin just now returning. But, if the Clippers can get an efficient Rivers for the playoffs, they could make a run if everyone is healthy.
- Cavaliers (30-13)
- LeBron James is demanding for a back-up point guard for his Cavaliers. And despite 49 points from Kyrie Irving on Monday, the Cavs still found a way to lose to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Pelicans did not even play Anthony Davis in that game. This is a red flag, you cannot be giving up easy games like that, especially when your opponent does not play their superstar. The Cavaliers have suffered seven of their thirteen losses this season from December 26th to January 23rd, the tide will turn for the Cavaliers, but the question is when?
NFL First Down and Three & Out
- Matt Ryan dominated the NFC Championship Game. Giving the Georgia Dome a proper send-off, the Falcons dismantled the Green Bay Packers and flexed their muscles. Ryan threw for 392 yards, and totalled five touchdowns, including a rushing touchdown. He and star wide-out Julio Jones picked apart a weak Packers secondary, and paved the way to a Falcons victory and a trip to Houston for Super Bowl LI on February 5th.
- The Pittsburgh Steelers saw their Super Bowl dreams disappear quickly on Sunday. Le’Veon Bell left the AFC Championship Game injured, and the Steelers inability to run forced them to pass the ball lots, which did not pan out. After the game, things got worse, when Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said would not make any promises about returning next season. With Bell being a pending free agent, you have to think his decision to stay or leave will hinge on Ben’s committal to the team and vice-versa.
What to watch this week?
- Wednesday: Rockets vs Celtics 7:30pm ET, Flyers vs Rangers 8:00pm ET, Raptors vs Grizzlies 8:00pm ET, Oilers vs Ducks 10:00pm ET
- Thursday: Blues vs Wild 8:00pm ET, Oilers vs Sharks 10:30pm ET
- Friday: Raptors vs Bucks 7:30pm ET, Wizards vs Hawks 8:00pm ET
- Saturday: NHL All-Star Skills Competition 7:00pm ET, Clippers vs Warriors 8:30pm ET, Grizzlies vs Jazz 9:00pm ET
- Sunday: NHL All-Star Game 3:30pm ET, Thunder vs Cavaliers 3:30pm ET, The Royal Rumble 7:00pm ET, Pro Bowl 8:00pm ET
- Monday: Pistons vs Celtics 8:00pm ET
- Tuesday: Thunder vs Spurs 8:30pm ET, Wild vs Oilers 9:00pm ET, Blackhawks vs Sharks 10:30pm ET
Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.