Originally created 02/08/00

NHL now a league of many nations



TORONTO -- The next time commissioner Gary Bettman delivers one of his state of the NHL speeches, perhaps his foreign affairs department should write it.

As the World team's dominating 9-4 All-Star victory Sunday over North America emphasized, there is a new world order in what now is the inappropriately named National Hockey League, whose regular season resumes Tuesday.

The brightest stars in a league once ruled by Lemieux and Gretzky, Richard and Howe now are named Bure and Jagr and Hasek. And the NHL is finding those stars not in Kanata and Medicine Hat, but Kladno and Moscow.

A quarter-century ago, 90 percent of the NHL was North American born and bred, now only 65 percent is.

This torrent of European talent, let loose a decade ago when the Berlin Wall tumbled down and Communism collapsed in the Soviet Bloc, has altered not only the NHL's statistics sheet and its standings, but its very personality.

The balance of power clearly shifted to the East during the European-dominated 1998 Olympics in Nagano, won by the Czech Republic. Canada didn't even medal in its most popular sport, and the only mark left by the United States was on its dormitory room walls.

The trend that began in Nagano is playing out in the NHL. One year after the league was stuck in a defensive mode, unable to free itself from its own neutral zone trap, scoring is up -- a byproduct not only of the European influence, but the 4-on-4 overtime format that has significantly cut down on ties.

Scoring leader Jaromir Jagr of Pittsburgh so likes 4-by-4 -- it has so speeded up overtime, perhaps it should be called 4-on-the floor -- that he proposed the league play it for 60 minutes, every game, every night.

"The players now are so big and strong and the rinks are too small," Jagr said. "If I was going to make hockey better, I would either make the rinks bigger or play 4-on-4 all the time. It's more exciting for the fans, they stand the whole five minutes in overtime."

Jagr (Czech Republic) and Pavel Bure (Russia) are heating up a scoring race that previously looked to be a Jagr runaway and now features four Europeans among the top 10 scorers.

Bure and St. Louis forward Pavol Demitra combined Sunday for five of the nine World team goals, all of them scored by Eastern Europeans. Of the game's 13 goals, only four were by Canadians or Americans.

The NHL could even gets its first European-born coach as early as next year, when Czech Republic coach Ivan Hlinka is expected to replace Herb Brooks in Pittsburgh.

Uh, oh, Canada.

Wayne Gretzky, now simply the Retired One, thinks he knows why the Canadian influence no longer dominates what now is a league of many nations.

"The one thing that we seemed to have lost that the Jean Beliveaus, Bobby Orrs and Gordie Howes of the world had is creativity and imagination," Gretzky said. "That creativity was basically founded by the fact they would go to ponds and skate for six, seven, eight hours a day, choose up sides, have two nets and no goalies, and away you go."

Frozen ponds, no doubt, like the one frequented by Gretzky, Howe and Mario Lemieux during the already popular film clip shot only last Friday for ABC's All-Star telecast. The film, which featured current-day stars Jagr, Bure, Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya playing on a frozen lake, was meant to symbolize the passing of the torch from one NHL generation to the next.

But who would have guessed a few years ago the route traveled by that torch would be through Moscow, not Montreal?

"When you lose players like Wayne Gretzky and Mario in the last short period of time, there's some slack to be pulled in," said Bure, who had three goals and an assist Sunday to win the MVP award and a new truck. "It was like changing generations and it meant a lot to me."

There are numerous other unresolved issues to be settled as the final two months of the NHL season is played out -- most important, the crowded race to win the Stanley Cup. As many as 10 teams look to be legitimate contenders, led by Detroit, St. Louis and New Jersey, but with Philadelphia, Florida, Dallas, Colorado, Toronto and Phoenix not far behind.

Injuries no doubt will play a big factor -- has Dallas played a game yet with its full cast of Stars? -- as will any trades made by the March 14 trading deadline. And there no doubt will be speculation whether this is the final season for two aging All-Stars, Mark Messier and Ray Bourque.

The financial state of the smaller market Canadian clubs also is a point of concern, especially since the Canadian government pulled the plug on a bailout plan.



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