Igor Bobkov is the lone member of the Russian Junior team this year with North American experience.
It’s that time of year — no, not the holidays, although that certainly has taken up most people’s resources lately. It’s time for the World Junior Championships. Unable to attend this year (the goddesses trip to Moscow is less than a month away) I’m relegated to watching this exciting event on TV. As usual, however, I watch the Russian team with great interest.
The Russians have chosen an interesting approach this year. Rather than select players with North American experience in the CHL or NHL, they have gone with an entire line-up (save for goalie Igor Bobkov of the OHL) of home grown players from the KHL or Russian junior league. While this has allowed them to choose exceptional players such as Maxim Kitsyn and Vladamir Terasenko, it has also excluded talents such as 2011 draft prospect Vladislav Namestinkov and Washington Capitals prospect Stanislav Galiev.
What does any of this mean? One could certainly say not much, as defense appears to be their weakness. The physical play is certainly good — much better than we’ve seen from Russian players in the past and these kids are really working hard on the forecheck. Yet the defense has been guilty of making poor decisions at inopportune times and has been unable to contain some good forechecking teams.
While the Russians as a team are still one of the more feared rivals of the Canadians and Americans, the TSN announcers pointed out that the number of Russians in the NHL are less than half of what they were in 2003 and, according to Pierre McGuire, those that are aren’t “as good.” The insinuation is that despite the lure of the KHL, Russians just aren’t good enough to make the NHL anymore.
Clearly, this is a case of xenophobia by Mr. McGuire. First, let’s look at the players that aren’t “as good” as the Russians of the 90′s and early 21st century. Ovechkin? Datsuyk? Malkin? Really, Pierre? I doubt anyone would say these players are less talented than Fedorov, Bure and Mogilny. Last year, there were 3 Russians in the top 20 in points and 3 in the top 7 in goals. Ovechkin won the Hart trophy (league MVP) an unprecedented 2 years in a row in ’08 and ‘09 and Pavel Datsyuk has taken 5 of the leagues top honors at the awards ceremony in the past 3 years.
So, let’s dismiss the premise that the Russians aren’t as talented anymore. Then why aren’t Russian players choosing to play for the best league in the world? Is it because of the advent of the KHL? Perhaps. Yet everyone by now has heard of the financial troubles teams are having. Playing for certain teams is a risk: You may or may not get your monthly paycheck.
I think one has to look deeper into the culture and socio-political history of Russia for the answer. While hardly a first world country, communism is no longer a reality. Before, players were lured by the opportunity of fame and fortune that North America could present them. After the initial breakup of the Soviet Union, the streets were filled with virtual chaos and North America still provided a safe and stable alternative for talented hockey players.
Now? Things are different. Hockey players make decent salaries in a land of the have and have-nots.
Nikita Filatov chose to play in the KHL last year rather than the Blue Jacket's AHL affiliate.
In a cash based economy, the hockey players are certain part of the “haves.” One can live a relatively luxurious existence without having to leave home. Russian’s, after all, are just at ethnocentric as anyone else, despite what many consider an inferior standard of living in their country. Most importantly, however, I feel the reason the kids aren’t coming to play is something that is universal with that generation — they can play in the KHL and not really have to try.
Yep, I’ve said it. The culture of entitlement reigns supreme in the under 30 crowd these days, regardless of ethnicity and country of origin. They want it all without having to work for it. The Russians of old must cringe at the lack of work ethic in many of these players. This seems to permeate through the ranks of the KHL and the youth see no reason to try too hard to make the NHL. Things get tough and you get sent down to the AHL? No problem (a favorite saying among Russians.) Just come back to the KHL and work half as hard for more money. Although there is clearly a large amount of talent in the league, there is almost no hitting and you won’t have to risk too much night in and night out. What is the incentive to play for the best hockey league in the world when you may have to work hard in the minors for a few years to get there? You can have it now in the KHL! There are just enough NHL veterans and old school Russians with the talent there to keep the league afloat as a legitimate threat.
So, as I watch this talented group of under-20 Russians skate their hearts out up and down the ice I wonder where the breakdown is. When do they decide to take the easy way out? And will the Russian program eventually collapse, leaving the KHL without the experienced veterans and hard working youth, going back to a second rate European league with little sponsorship and support. The Russian Hockey federation definitely has a challenge on their hands and only time will tell if they can maintain their position as one of the top hockey countries in the world.
Photos: Igor Bobkov by Elena Rusko (rusko.fishup.ru), Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved. Nikita Filatov by Goddess Sasha, Copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved.