The dropout rate has skyrocketed among 14- and 15-year-olds, the age when kids move from playing pee wee to bantam hockey. "For the most part, these kids are making the right decision," says Dryden. "There are lots of other things to do. Is the system a good one? For those who make it, yep. For those who don't, probably not. Is there anything we can do about it? At this point probably not."
Critics of Canada's development program say that, especially at the elite levels, the honing of basic skills like shooting, passing and skating—skills at which European players excel—is being neglected. "It's simple," says Glen Sather, patriarch and general manager of the Edmonton Oilers. "We've slipped. The Europeans' minor hockey coaches and organizations are better than ours. It's obvious we're getting left behind."
"Nothing against our coaches, but they often happen to be Dad or the guy who lives on the corner," says Vancouver general manager Pat Quinn. "And often they haven't got a clue. We're improving, our players are becoming more skilled, but we're not good enough. We're simply not competitive with the Europeans coming in, on the whole."
Many hockey types get bent out of shape at the suggestion that this is somebody's fault. "I don't think the quality of Canadian players is going down at all," says Brian Burke, the Hartford Whalers' general manager. "The quality of players in the rest of the world is going up."
"There's nothing wrong with Canadian hockey," says Ranger general manager Neil Smith. "For every European, you need five Canadians who are willing to go through the boards and battle for the puck. Let's be honest about it. You don't get too many European grinders."
More often than not, the stereotypes fit. Canadians—and Americans, for that matter—are big, strong, aggressive and tough, while the Europeans, who developed their skills on bigger ice surfaces that foster less hitting, are smaller and faster and like to avoid smashups in the corners. With the notable exception of Jagr, who sparked the Penguins to their second consecutive Stanley Cup last spring, Europeans also have a maddening tendency to disappear during the playoffs.
"The Europeans have to learn how to compete," says Quinn. "They look pretty without any opposition, but throw a few body checks on 'em and bang 'em into the boards, and it shakes 'em up. They don't know how to handle it."
Says John Davidson, a former goalie who is now a Ranger broadcaster, "You don't win with skill alone. You win with grit. That's what Canadians bring to the game."
Henry states this case most eloquently. "I don't think there's anything that compares with the Canadian heart," he says. "The Canadian heart is the heart of a winner."
But business is business. "The world has become more of a global marketplace," says Smith, who is hoping 19-year-old world-class winger Alexei Kovalev of Russia will join his already formidable cast. "We're looking for more supply for our demand. Canada can produce only so many players."