The hockey world was buzzing earlier this month when top prospect Auston Matthews opted not to play with the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League or the college hockey route in order to travel overseas and play in the top division of Switzerland for the Zurich Lions. The Lions are coached by former NHL coach Marc Crawford, who should be able to hone the skill of Matthews with the ultimate goal of getting Matthews a leg up on his draft class.
By going to Switzerland, Matthews will be playing against experienced National League A (NLA). The hope is that the transition for Matthews into the NHL game will be much smoother than for the rest of the players who will be drafted in 2016. The European game, however, is a faster, more wide-open game than the North American with a little less physical play, and wider rinks that give more room to skate. The schedule is shorter, and the travel no more than three hours to each city. And then there’s the salary issue: Matthews will get paid a reported $400,000 US to play with Zurich as opposed to the WHL, where teams provide a small stipend (usually $50 a week), and the NCAA, which provides no pay at the moment for student-athletes.
Yet, this is not the first time a draft-eligible player has gone to the professional ranks to hone his craft before getting selected. It is, however, the first time a North American has gone over to Europe to do so.
Back in the 1990s, the International Hockey League (IHL) was going through quite a boom in minor league hockey. The league was putting some of their teams in major markets, they had taken some NHL affiliations away from the American Hockey League, and they had more lenient age-limitations for their players. Because of this, the IHL allowed undrafted prospects into their league before they had reached the NHL.
From 1992 until 1999, the IHL saw seven first round selections come from their league: Dmitri Kvartalnov (17th overall in 1992) Radek Bonk (3rd overall in 1993), Petr Sykora (18th overall in 1995), Ruslan Salei (9th overall in 1996), Sergei Samsonov (8th overall in 1997), Robert Dome (17th overall in 1997), and Patrik Stefan (1st overall in 1999). All of the players came over the year of their draft eligibility, with the exception of Kvartalnov and Salei, who were in their 20s when they were drafted.
The other common factor is that these players came from nations who underwent overwhelming change in their politics, ideology, and other social issues that not only disrupted their world, but the way their teams or leagues were run. To top it off, they finally had the ability to move to North America freely rather than having to defect from their country and risk the well-being of their families.
Radek Bonk was the first player with such a big hype going into the IHL with the Las Vegas Thunder. Bonk did not disappoint in the IHL, putting up 42 goals and 87 points in 76 games on his way to winning the IHL Rookie of the Year. Many had their doubts going into Bonk’s rookie season in North America, but by the time of the 1994 Draft, those doubts were laid to rest.
And yet, Bonk’s rookie season was one to be forgotten in the NHL, amounting only 11 points in 42 games and a demotion to the Prince Edward Island Senators in the AHL. Those scouts who were high on a player coming overseas to play in the North American minor league were not tentative. That reflected badly on the next player to go to the IHL, Petr Sykora. Not only did Bonk’s play make GMs shy away from Sykora, but an injury would restrict his playing time for the Detroit Vipers.
That same onus fell onto Sergei Samsonov as well. Some legal issues came into play as Samsonov and his agency in North America were sued by CSKA Moscow, the team that Samsonov left, claiming that he was in breach of his contract he signed despite CSKA Moscow not paying Samsonov what they owed him. Another issue in that case was Samsonov signing with the Detroit Vipers, but only being 17 and signing without the consent of an adult.
Luckily, the gamble was able to pay off for Sykora, who played over 1,000 NHL games and won two Stanley Cups. Samsonov was able to overcome all the off-ice wrangling to win the IHL Rookie of the Year and helped the Detroit Vipers win the Turner Cup in 1996-97. Samsonov won the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year in 1997 and got to the Stanley Cup Finals with the Edmonton Oilers in 2006, despite injuries hampering most of his NHL career.
However, the last two 1st rounders from the IHL weren’t as lucky. Robert Dome is a prime example of that. At age 15, Dome moved to the United States to play in the IHL with the Utah Grizzlies. Dome only put up 10 goals and 19 points in 56 games in his first season, then between Las Vegas and the Long Beach Ice Dogs in his second season, Dome only had 14 goals and 27 points in 56 games. The move had tarnished what could have been a top-5 selection. Dome only played 53 NHL games and didn’t provide much of a punch in those outings; but did find his touch in his last two seasons in the Slovakian League before retiring in 2009.
Patrik Stefan, the final first round pick taken from the IHL, came over to the Long Beach Ice Dogs on a try-out basis during the 1998 Olympics when the Czech Extraliga was on break. An impressive 15 points in those 25 games earned Stefan another chance with the Ice Dogs in the 1998-99 season, where he amassed 11 goals and 35 points in 33 games. For Stefan, his IHL tenure was enough for the Atlanta Thrashers to take Stefan with the first overall pick in the 1999 Draft. Try as he might, Stefan could never live up to his IHL days and is regarded as one of the biggest flops in NHL history.
Those days are done for minor league hockey in the present. There is no longer a renegade league that would take on a 17-year-old player, especially with the affiliations that most of these teams have and the age-limits that go with the league by-laws.
Though he is obviously doing it in more favorable conditions than those just mentioned, Auston Matthews will face some fairly heavy criticism for his decision. Should Matthews go on to have a serviceable NHL career, then the move will be looked at as a brilliant idea and one that some other draft eligible players could also contemplate. Granted, the cap for imports in the NLA is four per game and eight on the roster over the entire year and labor laws of the different countries will be one of the biggest factor for the prospective player going overseas, but it’s worth keeping an eye on. If Matthews is a disappointment, it would lead to a lot of hemming and hawing about why he would go overseas and devalue himself when he could have possibly dominated in the WHL or NCAA.