Back in the early 2000s, the Swedish junior hockey program was in a shambles. It hit rock bottom in 2003, when they were on the verge of relegation at the world junior championship in Halifax. As a nation that had always prided itself on developing top hockey talent, an eighth-place finish was embarrassing.
Tommy Boustedt helped change that. One year earlier, he left his job coaching Frölunda in the Swedish Elite League to become his country’s national director of hockey development. His first task was to investigate what was going wrong in their junior system.
Under Boustedt’s direction, the Swedes overhauled their entire junior hockey program and invested their resources in player development. In 2012, Sweden won gold at the world junior championship for the first time since 1981. Of the 25 players on that Swedish team and the one that won silver at the 2013 tournament, only four played hockey in the CHL.
“Our professional men’s teams have put more money into their junior programs,” said Boustedt of Sweden’s feeder system. “All our junior teams now have professional coaches and they are run in a more professional way than they were 10 years ago.”
As a result, more Swedish teenagers are playing at home and the good ones, like top 2013 NHL draft prospect Elias Lindholm, are getting paid to play against men in the Swedish Elite League.
Since 2005, only 62 junior players have left Sweden to play in the CHL. In that same time frame, there have been 171 Czechs, 103 Russians, and 73 Slovaks. Unlike the Czech Republic, parts of Russia, and Slovakia, Sweden has built the infrastructure to support their own junior hockey system.
“We had that same problem 10 or 11 years ago,” said Boustedt of the lack of development in some European countries. “But we turned that problem around . . . but if you grow up as a Czech or a Slovak you have to go to North America and play or else you won’t get any competitive games. If you live and grow up in Sweden you can have good (competition) before you enter the NHL.”
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At the 2010 world hockey summit, Slava Lener, the director of the Czech national teams, said the CHL had played a part in crippling junior development in both his country and Slovakia. He said losing top players early to the CHL was not only stunting their own development, but also hurting the quality of Europe's junior leagues.
According to his data, between 1997 and 2010, 840 players left Europe for the CHL. Of those players, more than 500 were either Czech or Slovak. His numbers showed that only 4.2 percent of those imports drafted by the NHL went on to become full-time NHLers playing in at least 400 games.
Still, for some Europeans the CHL is the most viable place to chase their NHL dreams. As teenagers they leave the familiarity and stability of their homes to come to a foreign country – in some cases not knowing English, or for the QMJHL, French.
It can be a very lonely experience.
“The Canadian style is a different style from a European style in all matters – not just in hockey – in society, in everything,” said Boustedt. “I think that many of these players still need their parents, their siblings, and their close friends. If you move away to North America, you move away from all that security. For some players that could be good, but for many players it’s not good.”
And, it doesn’t guarantee an NHL contract. Some imports who don’t make it return home as “hybrid” players, Europeans trained to play with a North American mindset. They can find it difficult to re-adjust to hockey in their native land.
“There are many players from Europe – from Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Russia – that have tried to go through the CHL system and they have failed,” said Boustedt.
“And they quit hockey.”
In a statistical breakdown done by Yahoo! Sports contributor Cam Charron, 8.7 percent (70 players) of the players taken in the NHL entry draft since 2005 have been CHL imports. But if you look at the last two NHL drafts, the numbers jump to 13.5 percent. Of the import players selected by NHL teams, the greatest share has come from the QMJHL with 14 percent since 2005 (it’s been 19.5 percent in the last two drafts).
The maximum a CHL team can pay to acquire the release for a European player is $2,000 plus tax. That “drafting fee” is paid directly to Hockey Canada which works with its international counterparts to secure that player’s release and transfer. These transfers between countries must be approved by the International Ice Hockey Federation. It can become tricky however, if an import player has signed a contract with a team in their homeland.
Speculation has always been rampant about which CHL clubs have paid large sums to players and/or European teams under the table to get prospects across the pond. There have also been instances of European clubs holding player rights hostage in order to get more money directly from a CHL team.
It’s hard to blame them. In many cases these European teams have invested time and money into developing the player through its feeder system. If a European player is drafted by an NHL club out of the CHL, it’s the CHL team that gets to keep the NHL development money even though the player might have only played a few years of junior hockey in North America.
“The CHL teams are owned by companies and people and they make revenue on junior hockey,” said Boustedt. “All junior teams in Sweden, it’s just a big cost for their (parent) clubs. You don’t make any money on junior hockey in Sweden. You run it just as a development program to produce players for the men’s (elite) league and national teams.”
The best players Sweden has ever produced -- Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, the Sedin twins, Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Lundqvist, et. al -- have all benefited from playing at home. And while Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog might be an exception to the rule, winning the Calder Trophy in his first season out of the Kitchener Rangers program, Boustedt said the young Swede still has a way to go before catching the greats.
"All our big Swedish stars have gone that way through our junior system to our men's league (SEL) and then to the National Hockey League," said Boustedt. "There are some that have gone to the NHL from the CHL, very few, but most stay here."