From the 1920s to the 1970s, almost all NHL players were Canadian, and a handful were American. But in the mid '70s and beginning more so in the '80s, a wave of superstars from Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and other places moved to the NHL.
That has since made the NHL one of the most diverse sports leagues in North America, where fans from all over the world in different countries can watch athletes play in the best hockey league on the planet. It's been awesome to see players from outside of Canada and the United States contribute to the beautiful game.
One thing nobody will deny? Hockey is Canada's game. It's life, and Canadians cannot breathe without air nor hockey.
Ask some foreign NHLers, and they'll happily tell you about their great memories and experiences in the world's craziest hockey market. But some didn't seem to handle the pressure of playing hockey in Canada very well, as these guys will show.
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15 Loved It: Pavel Bure
After years of incompetence and mediocrity, the Vancouver Canucks franchise got a huge rocket boost from The Russian Rocket himself, Pavel Bure. They drafted him 113th-overall in 1989, and he wound up being one of the most accomplished scorers of the '90s.
Bure notched 60 goals in his second and third NHL seasons (1992-93 and 1993-94), scoring 217 points over those campaigns. He was a huge part of the Canucks reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 1994 - where they fell just a game short of winning their first championship.
Though Bure only played seven seasons with the Canucks, he was a huge part of their success. The team retired his legendary number 10 in Nov. 2013; I was there to witness the emotional speech by Bure and the glorious moment of the franchise ensuring the Russian Rocket's legacy was never forgotten.
14 Hated It: Alexei Kovalev
Alexei Kovalev was one of the top players the country of Russia ever produced. He played with the Montreal Canadiens from 2003-04 to 2008-09, notching a trio of 20-goal seasons. It was in Montreal where Kovalev was so beloved and he surely had to enjoy his tenure there. But it was a little more west in Canada where he didn't appreciate his time.
The Ottawa Senators signed Kovalev to a two-year contract in the summer of 2009. His first season wasn't so bad, scoring 18 goals and 49 points. But Kovalev fell out of favor in Ottawa the following season. General manager Bryan Murray didn't hold back in calling out one of his players:
"Not very good.It looks like his skating isn't where it was last year. I think there's lingering effects maybe from the surgery he had. I'm hoping that's part of it and, as time goes on, he gets going."
Kovalev also accused the media of not watching hockey "at all," and that their bags at the airports "were filled with beer." He also said he didn't understand head coach Cory Clouston, and that he would "scoff at players."
Tell us how you really feel, Alexei.
13 Loved It: Saku Koivu
The Montreal Canadiens have arguably the most storied franchise in North American sports. They've had many legends suit up in the iconic sweater: Jean Beliveau, Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey, Henri Richard, Patrick Roy and Guy Lafleur, among others.
However, it was Saku Koivu that donned the captain for a team-record 14 seasons. The Finnish sensation left quite a legacy in Montreal. His 641 points place him 10th on the Habs' all-time scoring list. But Koivu's admiration in Montreal was best displayed during the 2001-02 season. Koivu was diagnosed with Burkitt's Lymphoma before the season began, and he was expected to miss the whole season. But Koivu made a full recovery, beat cancer and returned for the final three games -- helping the Habs reach the playoffs.
Montreal endured some tough years after trading Patrick Roy, but the leadership of Koivu turned them into a consistent postseason team. His classiness and all-around ability as a player made him an icon in Montreal.
12 Hated It: Mikhail Grabovski
Mikhail Grabovski spent five years with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and they were the team that turned him into a quality goal-scorer. He posted 20 goals in 2008-09, 29 in 2010-11 and 23 in 2011-12. However, Grabovski started to fall out of favor in Toronto and was bought out in the 2013 offseason.
Sufficed to say, Grabovski didn't take the news well at all, lashing out at head coach Randy Carlyle:
"I play in the (expletive) Russian KHL I make lots of fucking points and what’s going to happen? He make me fucking play on the fourth line and he put me in the playoffs on the fourth line and third line again."I don’t feel any support from this (expletive) idiot."
Grabovski also said that Carlyle didn't lend any support and barely spoke to him. Also playing in hockey's most demanding market didn't lend any favours to Grabovski. Despite having his most productive seasons there, it seems that Caryle made Grabovski hate playing in Canada.
11 Loved It: Peter Stastny
The greatest Slovak-born NHLer of all-time joined the Quebec Nordiques in 1980-81 as an undrafted star. Peter Stastny scored 39 goals and 109 points in his rookie season, then scored 100 points again over the next five seasons. Coming to Quebec was an emotional time for Peter and his brother Anton. They were two of the very first NHLers born in the Eastern bloc, setting the path for future Slovaks and Czechs to come to North America.
Stastny is far-and-away the Quebec Nordiques all-time scoring leader with 380 goals and 1,048 points. He led the Nordiques to the playoff seven times, turning a new NHL franchise into a relevant one.
Stastny built a bond with superstar Joe Sakic, and pushed his friend to play for Canada in the 1989 World Hockey Championships. Stastny also obtained Canadian citizenship during his playing career. We can assume he loved playing in Canada then, right?
10 Hated It: Nikita Filatov
Nikita Filatov is one of the greatest NHL draft busts in recent memory. He went to the Columbus Blue Jackets sixth-overall in 2008, but failed to develop into the superstar that was expected of him. A lot of that has to be with his porous effort, attitude and selfish approach towards the game.
Filatov played just 24 games over three seasons with the Blue Jackets before getting traded to the Ottawa Senators for a third-round pick in 2011. The hope was that the Sens could help Filatov find his full skill and potential to succeed.
What followed was a rather complicated sequence. Bryan Murray and head coach Paul MacLean were frustrated with his development and let him go back to the KHL. They sent him back to the AHL, and it was a flip-fop between Binghamton and the KHL. Filatov eventually gave up on his NHL dream and went back to Russia for good. Surely, a lot of that had to be linked to his frustrating tenure in the nation's capital.
9 Loved It: Jari Kurri
Though Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were the two primary leaders and stars on the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the '80s, Jari Kurri (the other Finnish Flash), did his due in helping the team win five Stanley Cups.
Kurri was one of the first NHLers to come from Finland, and he took every advantage of it. He scored at least 30 goals and 70 points in his 10 seasons with the Oilers, and reached 100 points six times and scored 50-plus goals in four different seasons. His 68 tallies in 1985-86 led the NHL.
He has always been beloved in Edmonton. Kurri had his number 17 retired and is often seen at Oilers alumni games. The man built a monumental legacy with Edmonton, and the franchise has repaid him by honouring him any chance they get.
8 Hated It: Sergei Kostitsyn
His more famous brother, Andrei, was a standout with the Montreal Canadiens from 2005-06 to 2011-12, scoring 20-plus goals in three different seasons. However, Sergei Kostitsyncouldn't match Andrei's success in Montreal, thanks in large part to a rather porous attitude with the team.
Before the 2009-10 season began, the Canadiens sent Sergei back to the minors, only he refused to report to the team and asked for a trade. The Habs suspended him for his immature behaviour. Kostitsyn then went back to the minors for a short period, then got suspended again for failing to report.
The Canadiens eventually cut ties with him after head coach Jacques Martin told Kostitsyn to not participate in practice. Kostitsyn had the chance to have a promising career in Montreal, but his arrogance got in the way. We don't think he has happy memories in Montreal at this point.
7 Loved It: Borje Salming
Borje Salming was a superstar with the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing with the organization from 1973-74 to 1988-89. The Leafs discovered him while scouting in Sweden, and made him one of the league's first international players. Salming paid the Leafs back by becoming one of the premier defencemen of his era.
He had four 70-point seasons and totaled 148 goals and 768 points during his tenure with the Maple Leafs. Few blueliners had the ability to move the puck so well while defending their own end extremely well. Salming was one of the few stars on a Maple Leafs team that struggled for much of the '70s and '80s.
Salming was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996, and is one of the most accomplished Maple Leafs ever. Given how they gave him the chance to succeed in Canada and how he performed, it's safe to say Salming will always look back happily on his time in this beautiful country.
6 Hated It: Olli Jokinen
Olli Jokinen has the misfortunes of having a trio of rather forgettable tenures with two Canadian NHL teams. First, the Calgary Flames gave up a fancy package to acquire him in 2009. Jokinen had a frustrating 2009-10 season in Calgary and was traded to the New York Rangers.
Jokinen told the media "it was a slap of the face," after being told about the trade. The Flames questionably brought him back on a two-year deal in the offseason, and a number of Flames fans expressed their frustration over the deal. Jokinen's second tenure in Calgary was also unsuccessful.
He was then traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2014-15 season. Despite playing just six games there, he said there was "plenty of energy around here." It didn't take him long to let the world know how much he disliked Toronto.
5 Loved It: The Sedin Twins
The Sedin Twins made it clear prior to the 1999 NHL Entry Draft that they wanted to play on the same team. Then Canucks general manager Brian Burk worked his magic and obtained the second and third picks to draft both twins, who got their wish and repaid Vancouver handsomely.
The Canucks became one of the league's top teams from 2007-2013. The Sedins helped them win six Pacific Division titles, two Presidents' Trophies, reach the 2011 Stanley Cup final and breathe entirely new hope into a fanbase that suffered for years.
Henrik won the scoring title and Hart Trophy in 2010, while Daniel won the scoring title the following season. They are first and second all-time in scoring, respectively. They're the two franchise faces and love playing in Vancouver so much, they've chosen to stick around for these painful long-term rebuilding projects. Don't try telling us they don't like playing in Canada.
4 Hated It: Nail Yakupov
The Edmonton Oilers knew the risks of taking Nail Yakupov with the top pick in the 2012 NHL Draft. There were reports that he wanted to possibly head to the KHL after a few short seasons. Well, the Oilers took Yakupov, and he became a massive disappointment in his four years there.
Yakupov butted heads with Oilers management and coaches, and even the great Don Cherry (surprise), was no fan of Yak City, calling him a "coward," and attacking his goal celebrations. He scored just 50 goals and 111 points during his time with the Oilers, and failed to blossom into the star he was supposed to be.
And the Oilers are close to making the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Coincidence? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the whole locker room and atmosphere for the Oilers has gotten a lot better since they cut ties with Yakupov, who has also struggled to develop his game with the St. Louis Blues.
3 Loved It: Daniel Alfredsson
Daniel Alfredsson is the greatest Ottawa Senators player of all-time. The nation's capital got its hockey team in 1992-93, and the expectation was a long-term rebuild for this team. But 'Alfie' became the team's top player in 1995-96, and carried them to perennial dominance.
The Senators missed the playoffs just three times in the Alfredsson era, which lasted from 1995-96 to 2012-13. He helped them reach the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. His 1,108 points are the most in franchise history by miles.
Alfredsson captained the Senators from 1999 to 2013. He refused to get traded to a contender in 2009 and 2011, when the Senators were trying to start a rebuild. Alfredsson and his wife raised their kids in Ottawa, too. He has a front office job with the team and had his number retired in Dec., 2016. It's safe to say the man embraced the Great White North, who welcomed him with open arms.
2 Hated It: Alexei Yashin
For every Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa, there was one Alexei Yashin.
The Senators took Yashin with the second-overall pick in the 1992 NHL Entry Draft. Yashin had plenty of success with the Senators, ranking third-all time in franchise scoring with 218 goals and 491 points. He and Daniel Alfredsson formed a dangerous duo that brought prominence to Ottawa.
After the Senators season ended at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2001, Yashin failed to appear at the team's final meeting and was traded at the draft. Per the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch, Yashin constantly had contract holdouts in demand for more money while showing "indifferent play."
Yashin was traded to the New York Islanders which netted the Sens Jason Spezza and Zdeno Chara, so it's safe to say the trade worked out in the long run for them. Yashin seemed to enjoy Canada early, but it was clear near the end of his time here that he wanted to move on.
1 Loved It: Mats Sundin
The Toronto Maple Leafs are over a century old, and the dynasties of the '40s, '50s and '60s were carried by Canadian players. It wasn't until the '70s when the Leafs were recruiting players outside of North America.
Yet despite all of the great Canadian and American Maple Leafs, it's former Swedish star Mats Sundin that goes down as the best to ever wear the jersey. Sundin leads the franchise in all-time goals (420), and points with 987. The Leafs were a mess throughout the '80s and early '90s. But that changed when Sundin joined them in 1994.
Sundin guided the Leafs to the playoffs every year from 1999-2004. The Leafs won seven playoff series' during that time, reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 1999 and 2004 as well. Sundin loved Toronto so much, he refused to waive his no-trade clause before the 2008 trade deadline, with his contract expiring and Toronto way out of playoff contention. If that's not a sign of not loving Toronto, then what is?
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