As told to: Stephen SmithI first went to Finland, Helsinki, and played for Jokerit. As I was leaving the league, they were starting to clean up a lot of the obstruction. I played from the time the New Jersey Devils figured out how to trap their way to success, and as I was leaving, it was changing. But by the time I got to Europe, it was pretty similar. 2005/6/7 had players going back and forth — in the 10 years prior to that, it was rare to see a guy go to Europe and then come back to the NHL. It was just a completely different style. Europe would have been much more open and offensive-minded, and for a player to come back and trap his way to a job in the NHL would have been tough.
Europe would have been much more open and offensive–minded and for a player to come back and trap his way to a job in the NHL, would have been tough.
But in 2004/5/6, the NHL came back to being more like Europe in style. The ice is different — the game is different because of the ice being so much bigger. But in Finland, when I first went, about half of their rinks are the same size as ours. So I found it pretty similar. I thought it was a really good league. I’d played in the minors a couple of years prior and I thought, “Wow, this team’s much better than what I played on in Winnipeg.” We were an older team, we had an older Finnish coach who’d coached in Turku for years and won half-a-dozen championships, and so he was really good. I liked it. I wished I’d gone earlier. I’d waited until training camp broke, I was still skating, and I thought I’m just going to wait to see if somebody will bite and give me a contract here at home. And they didn’t, so it was the end of September, first of October when I went and I’d missed about a dozen games. I wished I’d been there at the start because I was a little behind. It was a good team — I played with Glen Metropolit there.
Switzerland was all about skating, it was good for me. I’d hurt my knee in Finland, so I played in the second league in Switzerland. Martin Gelinas and I played together during the lockout, and we played half the game as forwards – it was a lot of ice-time. I felt like I was a player again because playing in my last years in the NHL, I was a 10, 12, 14-minute player at best. And here it was, “Here, take the puck and go make some plays.” I hadn’t had that in a long time.
When I watch games now, it’s like, that’s exactly what they did in Germany 10 years ago. It’s hard to forecheck — it’s a long way to go and then the defencemen, you see now, they just bank it off the boards from their end, and somebody just tries to touch it, and then there’s two other guys racing after it. And they’ve done that in Europe forever, that’s how they play. Unless you make a smart dump, it’s really hard to get it back. So wire it up, chip it, then go get it. So I think it’s really a lot more similar than people think. The size of the ice scares some people because there’s less space here, so things have to happen a little bit faster, you don’t have the same amount of time. That’s one of the things you do notice in Europe, when you get the puck, there’s often times you have three steamboats to make a play, and that never happens here. We used to have Canadian coaches and they’d say, “Just because you have time, don’t use it. We still want the puck moving fast.” And that’s the biggest thing when you go to Europe, don’t stand around and think you have all kinds of time, you still have to play with pace.
STEPHEN SMITH is the tall author of the popular hockey blog PUCKSTRUCK, which also happens to be the name of his first book (Greystone), longlisted for the 2015 Charles Taylor Prize in non-fiction.
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