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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European Talent Gives NHL International Flair




TORONTO -- The 1998 Nagano Olympics proved it. So did the World team's 9-4 rout in the All-Star game. The NHL is a league of many nations.


Clearly, there is a new world order in what now is the inappropriately named National Hockey League, whose regular season resumed Tuesday with eight games.


There are numerous issues to be settled as the final two months of the season play 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 deals made by the March 14 trading deadline. There will also 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 is another point of concern, especially because the Canadian government pulled the plug on a bailout plan.


But what is becoming the centerpiece story of this 1999-2000 season is the NHL's diversity, not just in its talent, but its nationalities.


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. Now, it's only 65 percent.


This torrent of European talent, let loose a decade ago when the Berlin Wall tumbled down and communism collapsed throughout Europe, 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, Japan, 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 especially likes 4-on-4, and he has 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."


The Czech Republic's Jagr and Russia's Pavel Bure 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 in Toronto's Air Canada Center, only four were by Canadians or Americans.


Uh, oh, Canada.


Wayne Gretzky, now simply the Retired One, thinks he knows why the Canadian influence no longer dominates the NHL.


"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 film clip shot during last Friday's television All-Star broadcast. 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."