PITTSBURGH | Sitting on top of the Empress riverboat riding down the Monongahela River, 13 of the top prospects who will be taken in the first round of the NHL draft Friday night talked about their paths to this moment.
Many were Canadian kids living out one more step toward a dream they cultivated as kids. But a few were European players who became highly touted prospects by leaving home and playing junior hockey in North America: Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta, Russian center Mikhail Grigorenko and Czech center Radek Faksa.
It was clear Thursday that it was worth the journey for all of them.
“I think if someone want to go here and they left family from home, it’s his dream to play NHL,” Faksa said. “I think it’s better for him go here because if he want to play NHL, it’s better him go for CHL and play here.”
In many ways, the biggest benefit is the extra exposure. While Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov and others elite stars have no trouble getting noticed, Grigorenko made sure he was at the forefront by playing for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“I already shown people that I want to play NHL. I will not go back to Russia,” he said. “In Russia I know we have a lot of good players there, but no one see them and they will not be drafted because of this. But if they would be here, everyone would see them; some scouts and general managers are always at the games, so they would draft them.”
On the ice, there are plenty of benefits.
“It probably has made my game more Canadian, a lot more American one. It probably makes it easier to make the jump to the NHL,” said Maatta, who played for Dale Hunter’s London Knights and could be there for the Caps at No. 11. Maata explained that adapting to a more North American style included “making the decisions faster, becoming more physical, being ready to get hit.”
The consensus was that the language barrier was the most difficult part of the adjustment. Maatta studied English for 10 years, but this was different.
Leaving home wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Faksa.
“It wasn’t too tough for me because I lived in Czech by myself because I played in other cities. It wasn’t problem for me,” he said. “Bigger problem for me was English because I didn’t speak English before I came here.”
As far as hockey itself, it was an adjustment, too.
“It was faster and harder for me because here is small rink than Czech and different style hockey, so it was something new,” Faksa said.
You can read much more about that trend of Europeans to the Canadian Hockey League in Friday’s Washington Times and online here.