The NHL’s biggest cash grab to date (the World Cup of Hockey) is in full swing now, and believe it or not the most interesting narrative to this point is how the gimmick teams have fared.
Yes, I’m talking about Team North America and Team Europe. Both teams got off to solid starts, and Team North America dazzled crowds with their lightning-fast speed and youthful exuberance.
Of course fans enjoyed this tournament because it’s been a few months since they’ve seen hockey and they’re craving it, and surely we’ll all forget about this silly little tournament when the season is in full swing. The gimmicky teams did make me think, though: what would an International all-time all-star team look like?
Today’s list will uncover just that. The rules were simple: find out which 15 nations have the most man games played in NHL history, and select the best player of all time from each country. I didn’t set out to make it even position based, although it just so happens I ended up with nine forwards, four D, and two goalies, so let’s call it a happy accident.
Without further ado, here is the all-time international NHL all-star team, listed in order from most man games played (Canada with an incredible 1,335,842) to least (Poland with 1,888). A few decent hockey nations didn’t qualify due to man games played, but we had to cut it off somehow. Enjoy:
15 Canada - Wayne Gretzky
Do I really need to justify this selection? Wayne Gretzky is the highest scoring player of all time by nearly 1,000 points, and that’s just ridiculous. Of course an all-time dream team of all Canadian players would likely be able to skate circles around our international all-time all-star team, but I digress.
There’s really no point in making any honorable mentions here because there’s Wayne Gretzky and everybody else. I suppose if I had to name a few it would be Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, maybe even Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur—but in the end none of those guys come close to matching Gretzky’s legacy. This was the easiest choice to make for this list, and anyone who argues with this is just trying to be difficult.
14 U.S.A. - Mike Modano
Mike Modano was pretty much the clear winner for U.S.A., only because I don’t personally count Brett Hull as an American because he’s Canadian born. Setting Hull aside, Modano has scored more goals and more points than any other American skater. He’s also played the second most NHL games, bested only by Chris Chelios, because he refused to go away.
Modano played almost his entire career with the North Stars/Stars franchise, and he helped the club to its only Stanley Cup win in 1999. A few other Americans challenged for this title—Phil Housley, Brian Leetch and Jeremy Roenick among them—but Modano has the slight edge here. Perhaps in 10 years we can give the title to Patrick Kane, but he’s got a ways to go yet.
13 Sweden - Nicklas Lidstrom
For its representative on the international all-time team, Sweden sends defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom. There have been a ton of great Swedes to play in the NHL throughout history, but Nicklas Lidstrom is the best of the bunch. He’d make my list of top five defensemen of all-time—he really was that good, and he was that good until the end of his 1,564 game career.
Lidstrom is the third-highest scoring Swedish skater of all time, and he’s the sixth-highest scoring NHL defenseman of all time. He won seven Norris Torphies throughout his career, which is tied with Doug Harvey for second most of all-time (Bobby Orr won eight). With a legacy like that, Lidstrom edges out Mats Sundin for the title of best Swedish NHLer of all time.
12 Czech Republic - Jaromir Jagr
The Czech Republic have had two hockey players who separated themselves from the pack, and that’s Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek. Jagr gets the edge here because it is very likely that he'll have the second most all-time points in the NHL once he finally retires, whenever that might be. He currently sits in third all-time, 19 points back of Mark Messier for second place.
With Jagr virtually guaranteed to be the highest-scoring player ever not named Wayne Gretzky, he earned this spot over Hasek—who, to be fair, was the best player on the planet in the late 1990s for a few seasons. Jagr will be 45 for the bulk of the upcoming season, and it’s scary to think how many NHL points he’d have if he didn’t take three years off to play in the KHL. Perhaps he'd be closing in on 2,000.
11 Russia - Alexander Ovechkin
Alexander Ovechkin has been good enough for long enough that we can finally safely say he’s the best Russian player of all time. It was a close call to be sure—Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Datsyuk all received consideration—but Ovechkin became the first Russian 500 goal scorer last season, and if he has another stellar season in 2016-17 he will be second in all-time points of all Russian skaters (he’s just 66 points behind Alexander Mogilny, who is in 2nd).
Ovechkin is already legitimately one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the game. Currently, nobody comes close to Ovechkin’s goal potency, and if he continues for the next decade at a similar clip he’s been at for the past decade, he could best Gordie Howe’s 801 and perhaps even approach Gretzky’s 894 (though that's unlikely).
10 Finland - Teemu Selanne
It was tough to not pick Jari Kurri for this slot, but in the end I had to give the edge to Teemu Selanne. Selanne leads all Finns in games played, goals, and points. He also produced in many different situations throughout his career, whereas Kurri played the bulk of his career with Wayne Gretzky—often skating on the same line as the Great One.
Selanne currently sits 15th on the all-time scoring list, sandwiched between Bryan Trottier and Stan Mikita—not bad company to keep. It doesn’t hurt that Teemu has a heck of a personality as well. He was a fan favorite throughout his career and beyond thanks to that charisma, and the guy still holds the rookie goal scoring record with 76 in his first season with the Jets in 1992-93.
9 Slovakia: Zdeno Chara
There have been some damn good Slovakians to play in the NHL, but very few had the impact that Zdeno Chara has had. He’s the first and only Slovakian to captain his team to the Stanley Cup, and he leads all Slovakian defensemen in points (he passed Lubomir Visnovsky this past season).
Chara is 39 years old now, but he’s still ticking away, recently manning the top unit on Team Europe at the World Cup. Despite his towering stature, Chara has proven to be quite durable, leading all Slovakian players with 1,275 GP. There were some other players who were considered for this spot—Marian Hossa, Peter Stastny, and Peter Bondra (the only 500 goal scorer of the bunch), but in the end Chara’s overall dominance got him the nod here.
8 Germany - Olaf Kolzig
Germany isn’t known for producing top hockey talents, but the nation has contributed its share of stars over the years. Former Ranger legend Walt Tkaczuk leads all German-born skaters in points with 678, but I had to give the nod to former Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig.
'Olli the Goalie' won the Vezina Trophy in the year 2000 as the league’s best goalie, and he has the sixth most wins among European-born goaltenders. Kolzig is one of two goalies to appear on this list, and if this team were to hit the ice in their primes Kolzig would be the undisputed starter for Team International. In addition to edging out Tkaczuk, Kolzig beat out Marco Sturm, Christian Ehrhoff and Dennis Seidenberg for the honor. Remember, this list is all about finding a representative of each country.
7 Switzerland - Roman Josi
It’s true that Roman Josi is just 26 years old, but he’s already progressed far enough for me to confidently say he’s the best Swiss NHL player in the history of the NHL. There have been just 32 Swiss players in the NHL, and Josi already has played the fourth most games among them and already has the second most points.
Fellow rearguard Mark Streit is the only Swiss player who has more points, but with the way Josi has produced over the last few seasons (116 points), it won’t be long until Josi passes Streit, who is fast approaching the end of his career at the age of 39. Other candidates up for the title of best Swiss NHLer of all time were Nino Niederreiter and Jonas Hiller, but Josi got the edge in the end.
6 Latvia: Arturs Irbe
Rounding out the crease on the international all-star team is Latvian Arturs Irbe. Irbe was a goaltender who was a fan favorite wherever he went, and that included four NHL cities: San Jose, Dallas, Vancouver, and Carolina. Irbe played a total of 568 games and racked up 218 wins in the process, posting a career 2.83 GAA along the way.
There certainly was a bit of competition for Irbe, as Latvia has actually produced some pretty impressive players over the years. Sandis Ozolinsh would probably get runner-up here, as he put up an impressive 564 points as a defenseman playing for San Jose, Colorado, Carolina, Florida, Anaheim, and the Rangers. Other solid Latvians include Sergei Zholtok, Karlis Skrastins, and newcomer Zemgus Girgensons. None of them though, could match Irbe.
5 Denmark: Frans Nielsen
It was only recently that Denmark started producing hockey players at a somewhat regular clip. The top four scoring all-time Danes are all currently in the NHL, but for the title of best Dane of all time we had to go with the all-time Danish points leader, Frans Nielsen. Nielsen has compiled 349 points in 606 games, and will start 2016-17 on a brand new team.
There are a few young Danes who could very well be competing for this title in a few years; goaltender Frederik Andersen has had a fine start to his career, picking up 77 wins in his first 125 games. And then there’s Winnipeg prospect Nikolaj Ehlers, who put up 38 points in 72 games in 2015-16, his rookie campaign.
4 Belarus: Ruslan Salei
Of all the Belarusians to have played in the NHL, Ruslan Salei had greater longevity than any of them, by far. While Salei played in 917 contests, the second most games played belongs to the only current Belarussian player, Mikhail Grabovski, who just cracked the 500 game barrier last season.
Salei made a name for himself playing in Anaheim, but he also made stops in Florida, Colorado, and Detroit before calling it quits at the end of the 2010-11 season. Not an offensive juggernaut by any stretch, Salei registered 204 career points and racked up 1,065 PIMs. The only other real options for the crown (other than Grabovski) were the Kostitsyn brothers (Andrei and Sergei), but they didn’t last long enough to earn the honor.
3 Ukraine: Dmitri Khristich
Shockingly, there have been just eight Ukrainians that have ever played in the NHL, and only four who have played more than 100 games. Dmitri Khristich gets the nod here, edging out two-time Stanley Cup winner Ruslan Fedotenko. An argument can certainly be made for Fedotenko, who actually leads all Ukrainian-born players in games played with 863.
Khristich’s stats are superior to Fedotenko’s though, as he registered 230 more points in fewer games played. While Fedotenko had the luxury of playing on some of the league’s best teams, Khristich was stuck toiling away on middling teams—in the 1990s, he played with Washington, L.A., and Boston; franchises that were anything but juggernauts in that decade. Khristich retired in 2002 with 596 points in 811 games played.
2 Austria: Thomas Vanek
While it was difficult to pick the all-star from many of these nations, Thomas Vanek of Austria was a shoo-in. Fifteen Austrians have played at least one game in the NHL, but only five found their way in to more than 100 games. This is another nation whose players just recently started excelling, as the top three point producers from Austria are still playing in the league. Of those three, Vanek is the best.
Vanek has lost a step in recent years for sure, but his 649 career points in 817 games speaks for itself. He’s 32 years old, so he still has a few years left in him and could crack the 1,000 game milestone before he retires. The only other two Austrians who garnered attention (not necessarily consideration) are Michael Grabner and Michael Raffl.
1 Poland: Mariusz Czerkawski
Poland is an anomaly, as they have seemingly stopped producing NHL hockey players. Their most recent NHL players last played in 2006, and one of them just so happens to be the player we selected for best Polish NHLer of all time, Mariusz Czerkawski. Czerkawski leads all Poles in games played, goals, and assists. He played for Boston, Edmonton, the Islanders, Montreal and Toronto.
There have been just six players from Poland to make it to the NHL, but five of those players had longevity, each playing over 200 games. Czerkawski played 745, and second most would belong to enforcer Krzysztof Oliwa, who racked up 1,447 PIMs in his 410 games played. As you can see, Czerkawski is the clear winner here; there’s a reason they called him the Polish Prince.