Cluster of countrymen proves successful for some

Updated: April 28, 2006, 6:51 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

It has been almost a decade since Scotty Bowman made hockey headlines when he sent his five Russians over the boards en route to the Detroit Red Wings' first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

A gimmick? Maybe.

A visionary move from one of the game's true visionaries? That, too.

A trend?

Well, nine springs later, three teams are in the Stanley Cup mix largely because of significant contributions from a large contingent of players from one European nation.

And although coaches and GMs from Detroit, Dallas and the New York Rangers insist they didn't necessarily set out to corner the market on Swedes, Finns and Czechs, respectively, they are mightily pleased with what thus far has been a pretty good case of international karma -- karma that has gone a long way toward disproving the old notion that too many Europeans spoil the hockey broth.

Witness the discussion between GM Ken Holland and venerable captain Steve Yzerman early in training camp. Holland took Yzerman aside and told him he was thinking of signing another Swede to a roster that already included Niklas Kronwall, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Andreas Lilja and Henrik Zetterberg.

"I was worried that maybe we had too many and I was worried about the chemistry," Holland said. Specifically, Holland was worried that with that many Swedes, they might become a separate and autonomous faction within the team, a mini-Team Sweden within the Red Wings dressing room.

Holland didn't tell Yzerman whom he had in mind, but the Canadian-born captain was unequivocal in his assessment.

Can he play? Yzerman asked.

Yes, Holland said.

Mikael Samuelsson, the player in question, came on board and chipped in 45 points in 71 games and was a plus-27 for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Red Wings.

"It wasn't like I was trying to accumulate 10 or 12 Swedes," Holland said. "But they all think the same."

Dallas GM Doug Armstrong said the Stars have been targeting prospects in Finland for a number of years because of the nation's habit of producing positionally sound, skilled, hardworking players.

"We like the way they prepare their players," said Armstrong, who still admitted, "one day, we did wake up and we had five Finns."

Whether more and more teams will try to produce or acquire pockets of players from the same country is unclear. But it is clear the NHL's thought process on team building has changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

As the NHL's borders expanded and grew the past two decades to embrace the former communist countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia, and scouting staffs spread farther afield, looking for gems in Finnish and Swedish towns, the international flavor of most NHL teams has changed. No longer were the Montreal Canadiens the domain of the rural French Canadian boy. Vancouver and Toronto have long had Swedish captains. Montreal, a Finn captain.

But there remained for many years the idea that teams who had too many Europeans ran the risk of not having enough chemistry, not having enough chutzpah to win when it counted. Mike Smith, a former GM in Winnipeg and Chicago, was a master at uncovering European talent but couldn't quite translate that into playoff wins, which added fuel to the debate.

Then, when Bowman looked down his bench and decided it made sense to roll out a forward line of Sergei Fedorov, Slava Kozlov and Igor Larionov backed up by defensemen Slava Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov in 1996-97, the hockey world waited for the collapse that didn't come.

The fact the Russian Five helped the Wings to a championship, sweeping a mostly North American-based Flyers team in the 1997 finals, was a significant moment.

In the days after, Konstantinov, now permanently disabled after a limousine accident in the days after the Cup win, said he hoped the championship would make him known simply as a Red Wing, not as a Russian Red Wing.

"I think we were able to take the next step" by winning with such a group, said Holland, who has been a member of the Red Wings' front office since 1985.

Every team is looking for the same qualities in its players. But beyond that, teams are hoping the 20 guys sitting around their dressing room somehow develop that often-discussed-but-difficult-to-create intangible of team unity.

"On every team, you're looking for chemistry," said former Calgary GM Craig Button, now a top scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Look at the success Craig Conroy and Jarome Iginla enjoyed during the 2003-04 playoff run. When Conroy signed with Los Angeles, the big story out of Calgary this season was trying to find a player with whom Iginla could mesh.

"It doesn't have to be a nationality thing," Button said.

But it can be.

"Chemistry can come out of a lot of different beakers," Armstrong said.

One Western Conference GM said he couldn't quite get his head around how good the Stars were this season, but believes the Finnish posse that includes longtime Star Jere Lehtinen, Niklas Hagman, Janne Niinimaa, Antti Laaksonen, and youngsters Antti Miettinen and Jussi Jokinen is a significant part of that success.

Regardless of the nationality, there's a bond that's different from one that comes from simply being on the same NHL team.

"You go back and look at how many national team games these players have played together," Button said.

And it's not just at the top levels. Players who meet and play together as juniors form bonds and remember tendencies, Button added.

Is it a trend?

"I don't know. It's only a trend if people value it," Button said. "I don't think it's a flash in the pan."

In New York, coach Tom Renney makes no bones about the fact the influx of Czech players this season was to create an atmosphere in which the team's best (not to mention highest-paid) player, Jaromir Jagr, would have the best chance to succeed.

The fact players such as Martin Straka and Michael Nylander, Jagr's linemates for most of the season, were the types of players that looked as though they'd excel in the new NHL was a bonus. The Czech group, including surprising rookie Petr Prucha, shared a sense of creativity and style that borrowed heavily from the Czech national team, and Renney was comfortable with that.

"We certainly thought it wouldn't be the wrong thing to do," Renney said. "Certainly, there was rhyme and reason why that was going to happen. We looked at the Czech contingent and said, 'How can they help us?'

"I'm not sure it's a trend, to be honest with you," Renney added. "I think the proof will be in the pudding."

Well, the regular-season proof was significant as the Stars, Red Wings and Rangers combined for 336 points. In the playoffs, though, the proof has been less evident.

The Rangers are down 3-0 to New Jersey and have been outscored 13-2. Jagr missed Game 2 but came back for Game 3.

Likewise, the heavily favored Dallas Stars are inexplicably trailing the Colorado Avalanche, 3-0, although the Finnish contingent did play well in a Game 2 overtime loss.

Meanwhile, the Red Wings find themselves down 2-1 in their series with the Edmonton Oilers entering Game 4 on Thursday. Zetterberg did notch his first goal of the playoffs in Game 2, set up by Holmstrom and Kronwall.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.