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Jaromir Jagr of Czech Republic elbows his way past Richard Zednik of Slovakia at Canada Hockey Place during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Jaromir Jagr of Czech Republic elbows his way past Richard Zednik of Slovakia at Canada Hockey Place during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Talent dries up in Czech Republic, Slovakia Add to ...

For years, international hockey has been filled with battles between the game’s so-called Big Seven countries – the two North American and five European teams that almost always top the podium at the end of every tournament.

Given recent developments in two of those hockey powers, however, the Big Seven could soon be down a couple charter members.

A second session at the world hockey summit on Tuesday focused on junior development in the hockey world, and depending on their country of origin, the various speakers offered starkly contrasting views.

The most compelling theatre of the afternoon came from Slava Lener, the director of national teams in the Czech Republic, who offered a frank assessment of the suddenly sorry state of Czech and Slovak hockey.

In a series of detailed charts and graphs, Lener highlighted how both countries are producing far fewer elite players than a decade ago, falling off drastically in players taken in the NHL draft and in results in international junior competition.

In one particularly glaring example, Lener revealed the number of players drafted out of Czech and Slovak leagues into the NHL has dropped to just one this past June from 22 in 2004.

“When I was doing the research, a lot of the numbers surprised me,” said Lener, who helped coach the Czechs to their greatest international triumph – a gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. “I’m sure there were a lot of people surprised.”

A large portion of Lener’s speech on Tuesday focussed on the loss of roughly 30 young Czech and Slovak import players to the Canadian Hockey League every season, but he admitted in an interview after his presentation that that’s only one of many issues their development systems face.

“I’m far from blaming the CHL for bringing [European juniors]over here,” Lener said. “Obviously we have to pick it up. We have to work harder.”

A former assistant coach with the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers, Lener said that one of the major causes for talent drain in his country is simply fewer players playing the game, with youngsters picking up less expensive sports such as soccer, golf and tennis in the past 15 years.

“We’ve lost a lot of players,” Lener said. “Ten years ago, we had 80,000 [junior]players, now we’ve got only 30,000.”

Those numbers are backed up by a falling Czech and Slovak influence in the NHL, where many of the top players from those countries are in their 30s and will retire in the near future. At the junior level, the Czechs and Slovaks placed seventh and eighth at the world juniors last January, narrowly avoiding relegation.

Lener’s grievances with the CHL drew some support on the panel from fellow European hockey executives Jan Filc, vice-president of hockey programs in Slovakia, and Tommy Boustedt, Sweden’s director of hockey development. Both agreed that losing players to North American junior leagues before they turn 18 is problematic in terms of building a development program.

“That system can break down,” Boustedt said. “If we lose too many players to North America too early, the elite clubs won’t finance this system. Then we can’t work with it.”

Representatives from the CHL, NHL and USA Hockey, meanwhile, were less sympathetic.

“I’ve always looked at [competition with]U.S. college hockey and appreciated the fact that they made us better,” Brandon Wheat Kings general manager and coach Kelly McCrimmon said. “We had to address things to make our program better so that we were the right alternative for every player, where we could be the best of both worlds.”

Even though Sweden manages to retain many of its young players, Boustedt offered a number of solutions for the teenage talent drain from Europe, advocating for CHL import players to be drafted at 18 instead of 16 and for NHL teams to have a four-year grace period to sign their prospects from overseas.

Another issue with young players coming to the CHL – and one not discussed at length at the summit – is that of development fees, which NHL teams pay to junior leagues based on the number of players they produce.

Because of a lack of a transfer agreement with several European countries, many are no longer compensated for players coming out of their system.

“There is no compensation,” Lener said. “When the player comes over here [to North America] at 16 or 17, there is not one single dollar coming into our bank account.”

International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel said the lack of funding is part of the problem.

“That’s what I try to tell my NHL friends all the time – it costs a lot of money to develop players in Europe,” Fasel said. “It’s a huge investment.

“We need this balance – it’s just not a product that you take and use and when it’s over you throw [it]away. Try to help us balance. [Europe]can produce stars, we can produce players – give them the means.”

IIHF vice-president Murray Costello ended the day’s discussion by saying he hoped the Czech program would find a way to rebound to help keep international hockey competitive.

“I would really like to see the Czech system come back because quality wise, over the last 30 years, the Czechs probably produced better than anyone in the game in the sense of the number of arenas and players they had,” Costello said. “The quality of product that came out of there was wonderful. For them to get back to that, we’re all beneficiaries of it.”

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