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What's Wrong With This Picture?
Jon Scher
October 12, 1992
Two of the NHL's biggest stars, Detroit's Sergei Fedorov and Chicago's Chris Chelios, are in it, and neither is Canadian
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October 12, 1992

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Two of the NHL's biggest stars, Detroit's Sergei Fedorov and Chicago's Chris Chelios, are in it, and neither is Canadian

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One Canadian—one very loud Canadian—isn't willing to accept that. "It bugs me!" booms Don Cherry, former coach of the Boston Bruins and the Colorado Rockies (remember them?) and now a proudly, profoundly jingoistic commentator on Hockey Night in Canada. "It bugs me that these Europeans are coming over here and taking our jobs! Are they better?

"Fedorov, I have to admit, and Jagr, as much as I can't stand him, they deserve to be in this league. And Sergei Nemchinov of the Rangers, I like the way he plays. But what about a guy like [Sergei] Makarov? He's 34 years old, he scores 22 goals, and Calgary signs him to a four-year deal worth $2 million! And it had to pay the Russian Hockey Federation on top of that for the privilege of watching this guy float around and pout for four more years! Just imagine what he's going to be like at 38! This is the thinking in the NHL. Oh, I know, it's very trendy, very progressive. Is it right?"

"That drum-beating is part of Don's little shtick," Quinn says with a chuckle. "Should Canadians be given jobs? Of course not. I think the number of Canadian players will dwindle even further. Eastern Europe has a vast population, and we've only seen the very top, the elite players so far."

Cherry's voice may echo like a cry in the wilderness, but he insists he's not alone. "What I'm talking about has racist overtones," he says. "Not too many people have the guts to say it. But it's the truth. There should be quotas. There should be a limit to how many of these guys we bring in. Players and fans tell me that all the time."

Cherry's view certainly isn't supported by the rock-star popularity of Bure in Vancouver, which at last check was still part of Canada. "Canadians are the strangest people in the world,"

Cherry says with a sigh. "They really are. Just look at our immigration policy. We accept everyone. Yes, in Vancouver they cheer louder for Pavel Bure than they do for Trevor Linden. But there are plenty of good ol' boys like me who would rather see a guy with a name like Billy O'Reilly."

At the NHL's amateur draft in Montreal last June, a number of spectators apparently felt that way. The crowd applauded politely when a Czech, Roman Hamrlik, was selected first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and when a Russian, Alexei Yashin, was picked second by the Ottawa Senators. Fans in Canada have gotten used to the idea that a sprinkling of top prospects each year won't be Canadian. In 1983, for instance, the Minnesota North Stars made history by drafting an American, Brian Lawton, with the No. 1 pick; in '89 the Quebec Nordiques set another precedent when they took a European, Mats Sundin of Sweden, first overall. But when 11 Europeans were selected in the first round last June, it was too much for some in the crowd to take. For the rest of the eight-hour draft, the announcement of every non-North American name drew a chorus of boos. Ultimately, 133 Canadians were drafted, slightly more than half the total.

"Our kids were sitting around with their parents, waiting to be drafted, and the clubs kept picking those cossacks from Siberia!" Cherry says. "If I'm a racist and a bigot, then on that day there were at least 14,000 other racists and bigots inside the Forum. It was an awful day, an awful slap at Canadian hockey."

Give that man a two-minute penalty for exaggeration, says Mike Smith, general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, whose roster reads like a list of delegates to a United Nations conference on global warming. "The draft was an aberration," he says. "An exceptionally bad year for North Americans and an exceptionally good year in Europe. Next year will be different."

Maybe it won't. The Russians, Swedes, Czechoslovakians and Finns, who are already skilled in the finesse aspects of the game, are becoming harder to intimidate. Even Cherry, once he simmers down, will give you that. "If the younger ones coming over are more like Nemchinov and Fedorov, then we're going to be in trouble," he says. "They're pretty good. They're skilled, and they're a lot more aggressive. They play more like Canadians than some Canadians. That's what scares me."

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