Some of our best hockey players are European. Now some of theirs are Canadian

By Robert Sarner, Today magazine, May 17, 1980

Who would have thought a decade ago that Canada would one day import her most time-honoured renewable resource - hockey players? Yet for several years the National Hockey League has ceased to be a showcase for exclusively homegrown talent. Some of the league's finest hockey these days is played by foreigners - Borje Salming, Anders Hedberg and Vaclav Nedomansky to name only the first three that come to mind.

With few exceptions - notably Carl Brewer and Andy Bathgate, who went to Europe in the late 1960s - hockey migration has always been from the old world to the new. Only recently has Canada begun to return the favour. And this season, as if it were an exchange program, there have been approximately as many Canadian pros playing in Europe as there have been Europeans playing in the NHL.

"More Canadian players than ever are showing an interest in playing over there," says Derek Holmes, the former technical director of Hockey Canada in Ottawa and the man responsible for placing many of the 40-odd pros overseas. "Especially since the demise of the World Hockey Association, there have been more players available. And the European teams are really attracted to the Canadian players. They like their pizzazz, their individuality."

For the NHL veteran facing retirement or demotion, Europe offers a chance to extend his career while widening his horizons. And compared to the hellish grind of professional hockey at home, it's paradise. Gone is the pressure-packed atmosphere of the NHL, with the relentless road trips and the interminable schedule. Gone is the hooligan hockey that has infected the game in North America. Gone is the fear of being traded to another city and having to uproot oneself in midseason. Compared to the NHL, the sojourn in Europe is a holiday on ice.

And a well-paid one at that. Salaries, while decidedly lower than the enormous sums paid in North America, tell only part of the story. European teams offer imports attractive fringe benefits, including return airfare, an apartment, a car, payment in foreign (read "stronger") currency and income taxes paid by the team.

Although Derek Holmes contends that more and more Canadians will move to Europe in the next few years, league regulations in most countries limit the number of imports to two per team. If anything, the numbers won't increase as much as the celebrity and caliber of their imports, such as former NHL star Mike Walton who played in Cologne, Germany this year. Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings is being wooed by two Swiss teams for next season. And Guy Lafleur has already ruminated aloud that he might finish his career in Europe. They aren't likely to be dissuaded by the testimony of their confreres.


At first glance, it is an unlikely spot to find one of Canada's finest centremen. Just behind the railway tracks in a tiny town on the edge of the Swiss Alps, in a 4,000-seat arena that is covered but not enclosed, Jacques Lemaire directs a drill with his Swiss teammates. The setting is thousands of miles from the venerable Forum de Montreal, the players a far cry from the Canadiens, with whom Lemaire played 13 seasons.

Despite an excellent 1978-79 season and a lucrative offer from the Habs, Lemaire said farewell to the NHL and with his wife and three children took off for Sierre, Switzerland (population 10,000). Ironically, it was during last spring's playoffs (in which he was the leading scorer and led the Canadiens to yet another Stanley Cup) that Lemaire made up his mind.

"I wanted to discover another way of life, new people, a different environment," says Lemaire. "In Montreal, the essential thing was to win the Stanley Cup. But that I was fortunate to do eight times. I thought, now that I'm 34, it's time to try a new challenge, like coaching. At the same time, I felt it was important to give my children an enriching experience."

His first year as player-coach saw mixed success. Undefeated during the first six weeks of the season, the team faltered badly in the stretch, finishing third in the eight-team western conference of the Swiss B Division. The play is roughly comparable to that of a good junior league in Canada. "The Swiss play hockey only as a sport," explains Lemaire. "They hold down full-time jobs off the ice."

Not surprisingly, since Lemaire arrived in Sierre, interest in hockey and attendance at games have increased dramatically. "Our fans are amazing; when we get 4,000 people, they make as much noise as 16,000 back at the Forum."

Lemaire earned a reported $75,000 salary this winter - a pretty fair wage for a 28-game schedule finishing in February. He will spend the summer in Montreal before returning to Switzerland next season.

"You don't know until you change your life how little time you've given to yourself or your wife or your kids," Lemaire says. "I used to think that I loved that old pressure, but when it's gone you wonder how you tolerated it."


When Jim McKenny broke into the NHL more than 10 years ago, he was favorably compared to Bobby Orr. McKenny spent most of the ensuing decade with the Toronto Maple Leafs and never came close to meeting those expectations; he was a good defenceman but never a great one. Then, last summer, after one season with the North Stars in Minnesota, at age 33, he found himself suddenly unemployed, taking acting lessons in Toronto, and unsure of his future. When he received an offer to play in Rapperswil, Switzerland, he accepted it almost immediately.

"Basically, I had my choice: play 28 games in Europe or get a 9-to-5 job in Canada," says McKenny. "At least here I have some sense of worth. The last two or three years for me in the NHL were demoralizing. I probably lasted a few seasons longer than I deserved to because I was on a five-year contract."

Still, the adjustment required was considerable. He went from a large North American city to a small European town whose population of 7,500 speaks German, a language completely foreign to his ears, although some of his teammates also speak English. Home ice is an open-air arena that holds 2,500 and is subject to all the vagaries of winter weather. For his two children, school means two hours on the train each day to and from Zurich.

"There's a culture shock when you arrive," McKenny says, "and if you don't watch it you can go crackers or become an alcoholic. You can't be just into hockey or you'll go nuts."

But compensations there are: McKenny earned about $30,000 for his six months' duty. The language barrier imposed some hardships but not enough to keep McKenny and his wife, both avid skiers, from taking to the slopes at every chance.

Rapperswil failed to make the conference playoffs, so, like Lemaire, McKenny did not see action beyond the regular schedule. As a defenceman, however, he enjoyed a respectable one-point-a-game average this year and expects to be back next season.


Of the 16 positions open to imports in Austria's eight-team A division, one is filled by Richard Grenier, a left winger with Feldkirch. He hopes to hold on to it for years. Feldkirch, a town of 18,000 near the Austrian-Swiss border, is the latest stop for Grenier in a career that began with the Quebec City Ramparts (where he played alongside Guy Lafleur) and culminated (after stints in the NHL and WHA) with two dismal seasons in the American Hockey League.

"I was all ready to quit hockey after last season," Grenier admits. "It had become too much of a jungle and I was fed up." During the summer, Danny McCann, a Canadian sports promoter who also works as a hockey headhunter for European teams, contacted Grenier in Montreal. The idea of playing in Europe had instant appeal, and Grenier signed a one-year contract for $20,000 (U.S.).

A francophone Montrealer, Grenier also speaks near flawless English but no German. "The first few weeks I was really down," he says. "What can you do when you have an 11 p.m. curfew? You can't watch TV, because everything's in German. You can't really get close to other players because here they all have other jobs during the day. Yet, it's funny how things eventually work out."

Indeed, both on and off the ice, Grenier himself has worked out beautifully. During the 28-game season, he collected 45 goals and 33 assists, finishing second in the scoring race. He made several friends, including an Austrian woman with whom he now lives. And he helped propel the Feldkirch team from the cellar last year to sixth place this season, a mere two points out of fourth.

"It's a lot easier here," Grenier admitted over drinks in the studio apartment provided by his team, "but still you can't float. The management puts a lot of pressure on you because you're an import. All in all, it's a lot more fun than back home. You don't have to work 100% to score."

Having made the transition, Grenier feels the future can only improve. "If I can play 10 more years in Austria, I will."


The longer Rick Cunningham stays in Europe, the less he expects to return to Canada. The Toronto-born defenceman has spent the last three years in Austria, playing his first season in Salzburg and the last two in Vienna. Before that, Cunningham spent five years in the WHA during which he became thoroughly disillusioned with North American pro hockey. "By the end," he recalls, "I was turned off the game itself."

Today, Cunningham, 29, is the undisputed leader of the Vienna team, spending 45 minutes on the ice per game, and he says he enjoys the sport more than ever. "Here, I try a lot harder than I did in North America," he says. Before he joined Vienna, the team was a perennial loser; it drew few fans to its stadium, situated beside the United Nations Third World Centre on the edge of town. This year, Vienna finished in second place, and Cunningham led all the league's defencemen in scoring, finishing ninth over-all.

For the moment, Cunningham intends to stay put in Vienna, where he lives with his Austrian girlfriend. In partnership with a local businessman, he has established a growing chain of sporting goods stores, and he is the exclusive distributor in Austria for all Bauer and Cooper products. He is one of the highest paid players in the country, earning more than $50,000 per season. Ever wary of the tax man, Cunningham says simply that he's making "several times" what he earned his first year in Austria, when Salzburg shelled out $9,000 for his services.


Just before the opening face-off, 9,000 people stand and link arms. Then, holding sparklers, they join together in a rousing version of the Dusseldorf team chant. After nearly two seasons in West Germany, it's a greeting Bryan Lefley still can't get over. A defenceman, Lefley left the NHL in 1978. He played four seasons in all, for three different teams. "I was faced with an up-and-down situation," he recalls. "By the end, I realized I was a borderline player. I was with Colorado, but I wasn't a fixture. I had never been to Europe, so the thought of coming over intrigued me."

This year, Lefley is part of the five-man Dusseldorf international delegation, composed mostly of Czech and Romanian defectors. Of the five, Lefley is the only one who can return to his homeland at the end of the season.

In Germany, where teams play a 48-game schedule, fans like nothing better than a good offensive shootout. "Back-checking isn't too popular here," says Lefley. "Even the president of our team told me not to worry too much about defence. He said I should concentrate on scoring goals." The fans, especially, love them. Earlier in the season, when Dusseldorf won at home 2-0, they were booed. A few games later, they won 12-10, and the fans went crazy. After 33 games this season, Lefley had 13 goals and 22 assists.

Although now well adjusted to life in Dusseldorf, an often overcast Rhineland city of 850,000 where the team has provided a two-bedroom apartment for him, his wife and two children, Lefley admits he's still more nervous on the ice than he ever was in North America.

"It's more dangerous in Germany," says Lefley. "When they retaliate here, they do it with their sticks. It might not be as rough, but it certainly is as vicious as the NHL. A lot of these German players have no respect for the body. Actually they're not alone. There are a few Canadians in our league who play like a bunch of terrorists and ruin the reputation of all of us."


From the high hopes, high scoring and high finance of his early days with the Toronto Toros of the WHA to the obscurity of the Pacific Hockey League, where he plied his trade last year, Tom Simpson had tasted enough of North American pro hockey to know he wanted no more. Unwilling to languish in the minors for the rest of his career, the right winger jumped at an offer to play in Europe, ending up in Amsterdam, one of eight teams in the Dutch A Division. He went to Holland with his girlfriend (whom he has since married) and his pet Bouvier, and in 38 games this year, Simpson scored 54 goals and 34 assists - the sixth-highest point total in the league - and led Amsterdam to first place from its fourth-place finish last season.

"After the way I've been treated here, I could never return to play in North America," he says. "It's so nice to be able to play for people who appreciate you. Here you're much closer with your teammates. It's a lot more fun. When we play out of town, for example, the wives and girlfriends of the players are allowed on the bus back to Amsterdam."

Before leaving Canada, he had been told a few true-life horror stories of Canadian players double-crossed by European teams. "I'd play here even without a handshake," he says (he still has money owing to him from his days in the WHA). "The Dutch pay you either on the day they promised or sometimes even the day before." He refuses to discuss his salary, saying it would be unfair to his teammates who earn less.

Encouraged to talk of a future continental pro league in Europe, he is settling in for an extended stay. "It seems ridiculous," he says, "to train at a sport from the age of 8 only to quit in your 20s." But he still keeps a sharp eye on what's going on in the NHL. To do so, Simpson, like most of the other Canadian players abroad, relies on the International Herald Tribune, whose daily sports page is a cryptic, two-day-old source of North American hockey news. "Most of all," he says, "I like to see that Toronto, or at least Harold Ballard, is doing badly."

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