You've likely heard of the feud between the European national federations and the Canadian Hockey League about the use of import players on major junior rosters, and how it has negatively impacted some European junior leagues. That debate, however, is largely being put forward by only four federations: Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. I'm unsure of how exactly Germany feels about the situation, but Switzerland seems to have little issue with the idea, and many other smaller countries often embrace the opportunity for their best players to develop in other countries, as they cannot provide them with the level of competition they need back home. Anze Kopitar, Slovenia's big star, was playing professionally in Sweden before being drafted 11th overall in 2005. Latvia's top prospects are Kristians Pelss and Zegmus Girgensons, both of whom are playing in North America. Norway's best players often play in Sweden or Canada, and Denmark is pretty similar as well.
So while that issue is a big one in those countries, once we hit the Division 1A level, such animosity disappears. Let's have a look at each country's tendencies as they try and reach the top rung of international hockey:
Germany is the top dog of the current Division 1A group, and are the only nation with a major professional league in their country. However, Germany doesn't really have a true junior (U20) circuit, and their players have to prove themselves within the tiered adult circuit in order to gain experience. So perhaps its not surprising that a large amount of the players go to the Canadian Hockey League for more experience. In fact, that is where the majority of their top prospects go. Only two of the players are playing in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, showing that it is tough for young players to gain quality ice time in Germany. Without that option, going to Canada makes a heck of a lot of sense for Germany's best young players.
Join me after the jump to look at the other five Division 1A nations:
While none of the Belarus players plays in the Kontinental Hockey League, the top circuit available for them, the Belarussian Open League is a decent quality European minor league and provides some opportunity for their young players to play against men. Where Belarus has a real advantage is the access to the Minor Hockey League, the KHL's junior hockey circuit which is quickly expanding and gaining credibility as it strives to become a competitor to the junior leagues in North America. Now, I haven't differentiated here between the two tiers of MHL, as the MHL is like Sweden, which has a "SuperElit" and an "Elit" division of junior leagues, so not all 17 players here are playing against the same quality of competition. Still, it should serve Belarus quite well, as they get to play teams of top Russian, Latvian, Kazakh, and even Slovakian juniors throughout the year, with a pretty decent schedule of games. North America remains an option, although its not a very open line between the increasingly isolated Belarus and Canada/USA.
|Position||EBEL||Aut2||Aut4||RBHRC U20||Swiss Jr A||SEL||USHL|
Austria does have a small junior circuit, but the players on the national team are generally too good for it. All the Austrian leagues shown there are men's leagues, with the EBEL being likely the top European 'minor' league. The RBHRC actually stands for 'Red Bull Hockey Rookies Cup', a circuit designed by top club Red Bull Salzburg to bring international juniors into a competition in central Europe. It is quite an interesting mix of talent they have there, and yes, there are even Japanese and Canadian prospects in this league. Austria has a couple of weirdos playing in Switzerland and the USA, but their top player is Konstantin Komarek, who plays for Luleå of Sweden's Elitserien. Most Austrian juniors are good enough to play in the country's second circuit, their National League. The 'Aut4' league really is just a glorified beer league.
Great Britain definitely does not have much of a junior hockey development circuit, and their placement in this group is quite suspect, as the current tournament results are showing. The Elite Ice Hockey League is the UK's top hockey circuit, and very few juniors are good enough to play even at that level. Most play in the second tier EPIHL, while a couple are trying their luck overseas (the DNL is in Germany, the EJHL is in New England). It should be noted that the top British national is likely Liam Stewart, a forward for the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL (and famous offspring of Rod Stewart and Rachel Hunter), and he is not with the team at this tournament.
|Position||GET-L||Nor2||J20 SE||Jr. A SML||CHL||EmJHL|
Norway's top league is the GET-Ligœn, and they're doing a good job getting their top junior aged players into that league. However, the best players tend to leave the country, either for Sweden, Finland, or North America. Both of Norway's NHL drafted players play outside Norway, and Markus Søberg, a 16 year old in Sweden's J20 SuperElit, is arguably the top player his age playing in Sweden. Norway is doing quite well for a small hockey country, but a better national league would probably help a lot.
|Position||EBEL||Slohokej||RBHRC U20||Cze U20||Cze U18||Jr A SML||J20 SE||USHL|
As you can see, the Red Bull Hockey Rookies Cup Circuit is quite popular with Slovenian players. Only one player plays in the top league operating in Slovenia, the EBEL, and oddly enough he plays in Croatia. The Slohokej is Slovenia's national league, and houses most of the top junior Slovenians, although as you can see, Slovenians like to travel in pursuit of furthering their hockey careers. There are top Slovenian juniors in the Czech Republic, Finland, Sweden, and the USA. It's a very small hockey nation with not a lot to offer in their homeland as a result, but the sport is relatively popular there and these players are eager to emulate their hero, Anze Kopitar, who left for Sweden as a young teenager en route to international stardom.