Since its inception in 1992, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Import Draft has served as a way for the three major junior leagues to manage international talent entering their storied franchises.
The 30th edition of the Import Draft featured 57 CHL clubs participating; all 22 of the Western Hockey League (WHL), 18 of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and 17 of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Only the Halifax Mooseheads, the Hamilton Bulldogs and the Mississauga Steelheads opted to pass, as they retained both of their previous import draft choices.
The CHL clubs traveled the globe for their selections; a breakdown by countries of origin paints a very diverse picture of a talent pool.
What may garner some eyeballs is how quickly Latvia and Ukraine appeared on the draft board – No. 1 and No. 3, to be exact.
Fitting surprises for the strange situation that was this year’s Import Draft, as it took place before the NHL Entry Draft, not afterward like usual. Normally, the Import Draft is filled with recent NHL draftees who make the decision with their new parent organization to come to the CHL in order to acclimate with the North American game immediately.
Let’s take a look at the Top 10 players, normally all a safe bet to appear in the CHL the following season (there’s already one exception, which is noted below):
Rounding out the top ten was the first Swiss player selected in the CHL Import Draft, as the Rimouski Oceanic selected right winger Louis Robin. A 2003 birth-year skater, he went undrafted this summer by NHL clubs, but after racking up 51 points and 81 penalty minutes in 45 games with Zug of the U20 Elit league in his native Switzerland, the Oceanic must like what they saw. He has been with Zug for the last three seasons; before that, Robin skated in the Lausanne organization from 2014-18. Robin wore an “A” for his Swiss club at the Under-18 Worlds this past spring, recording two points in three games.
The Kitchener Rangers opted for Slovakian forward Filip Mesar, a 2004 birth-year winger who is considered a possible first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. At 5-foot-10, he won’t be an intimidating presence, but those 41 points in 33 games with his HK Poprad U20 team in 2019-2020, and 14 in 36 against professionals a year later looks appealing to any franchise. As it stands now, however, Mesar is not on the Rangers’ preseason roster; perhaps another season of pro hockey in his home country will be Mesar’s preferred route leading into the NHL Draft.
The first of five Swedish products was selected at No. 8, as Jesper Vikman was claimed by the Giants to make it back-to-back net minders in the import draft. Vikman is older than most of the prospects selected, as he is a 2002 birth-year goaltender who was drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights in 2020 (fifth round, 125th overall). Elite Prospects lists him as a dual citizen between Sweden and Finland, but he has spent the majority of his days skating with the AIK club in Stockholm. While the Giants haven’t released a preseason roster to date, Vikman has been skating with the team and he told members of the media that he’s excited to be in Vancouver.
The first goaltender selected was the 6-foot-3, 165-pounder Ivan Zhigalov, who hails from Minsk, Belarus. He caught some scouts’ eyes at the U18 Worlds but went undrafted in the NHL selection process. This will be his first taste of North American hockey, after Zhigalov rose through the ranks with Dynamo Moscow.
Another ’04 birth-year defenseman, Kirill Kudryavtsev was the first Russian product taken in the 2021 CHL Import Draft. A native of Yaroslavl, Kudryavstev has been playing for his hometown Lokomotiv Yaroslavl through his formative years, playing in the top U20 league in Eurasia in 2020-21. He’s been a key piece of a Russian club that has dominated in prestigious international tournaments, helping his country to gold at the Youth Olympic Games with four points in four games, and then gold again at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup with two points and a plus-5 rating.
This one’s definitely coming across the pond. Rayan Bettahar, a prospect eligible for the 2022 Draft, is a 2004-birth year defenseman who is listed as a native of Germany on the CHL site, but a dual citizen with Poland, citing a hometown of Nowy Targ on EP. He racked up 29 penalty minutes in three games at the U18 Worlds, so the Broncos know they’re getting somebody who won’t be afraid of fighting some battles in front of the crease and in the corners. Bettahar has been playing for Jungadler Mannheim of the Germany U17 league for three seasons, while getting the call up to the U20 team on occasion.
In the weird world of 2021, it looks like the No. 4 overall pick in the CHL Import Draft may not be coming to North America. Cape Breton took a chance on defenseman Simon Nemec of Slovakia, but he doesn’t appear on their preseason roster. It was certainly worth the risk, as Nemec is rated the No. 3 overall prospect in the upcoming 2022 NHL Draft in Elite Prospects’ consolidated rankings system. The 6-foot-1 native of Liptovsky Mikulas appears to be playing another season with HK Nitra back home. He wore the ‘C’ for Slovakia at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup this summer, recording six points in five games from the backend.
Selected in the NHL Draft shortly after the CHL edition, Artur Cholach became the first Ukrainian to be selected by an NHL club since 2007. A native of Lviv, Ukraine, Cholach played with Sokol Kyiv of the Ukrainian Professional Hockey League in 2020-21, playing an increased role in the playoffs (he recorded a pair of goals in nine games). This won’t be his first time playing North American hockey, as Cholach came to the United States to play with the New Jersey Jr. Titans of the NAPHL and AYHL in 2019-2020. Before that, he skated for CSKA Moscow of the Russia 16U junior league, while being called up for a few games at the 18U level with the same club. His 6-foot-4, 201-pound frame made him an appealing late-round choice for the Vegas Golden Knights, who selected him in the sixth round this summer.
Niko Huuhtanen, a native of Helsinki, Finland, heard his name called twice this summer, first by the WHL’s Everett Silvertips at No. 2 overall, and then, by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh round of the 2021 NHL Draft. After playing many of his formative years with the Espoo Blues organization, this past season Huuhtanen suited up for Tappara U20 in the SM-Sarja — Finland’s top Under-20 league — where he posted 34 points in 37 games, along with 73 penalty minutes. In the 2021 Under-18 Worlds, he recorded two goals and three assists, along with a plus-3 rating, for Finland in seven games.
Baie-Comeau selected Niks Fenenko with the first overall pick of this summer’s selection process, a notable pick as there hasn’t been much talk about the 2004 birth-year defenseman out of Latvia. Fenenko, a 6-foot-1 left-handed blue-liner, has been playing for HS Riga, his hometown club, in the top-tier Latvian league. He skated for Latvia at the IIHF World Under-18 Championship this past spring, finishing with a minus-3 rating in four games. Before his time with Riga, Fenenko spent two seasons playing in the Latvia U17 league with HK Pirati, playing up multiple age groups.
The CHL is still widely considered the top developmental league for junior hockey players around the world. More than 1,100 active professional players first competed in one of the CHL’s three subsidiary leagues before being drafted into the NHL. It routinely bridges the gap between youth hockey and college/professional hockey for hundreds of players each year, and the season is set to start next month.
World Hockey Hub continues to monitor and track top youth hockey athletes as they climb the hockey ladder to higher levels of competition. For more from WHH, follow us on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.
Let’s be honest, hockey season never ends. Critics will point to burnout and the negative impact of specialization in sports. Advocates will say that kids are constantly looking to get better and improve their game. Pros, cons, positives, negatives, good, bad and ugly. Wherever you’re at on the spectrum regarding spring and summer hockey, it really boils down to a personal preference and what’s best for each individual.
For the hockey hungry, puck crazy athletes and families, WHH has compiled a calendar of some of the best spring and summer hockey tournaments in the world. From breath-taking destinations to elite-level exposure, this list of 10 events has something for everyone in youth hockey.
(Philadelphia, USA) A new event in 2021, it has drawn the interest of some very strong North American spring selects teams. Operated by the team at Play Hockey, and is one-of-30 tournaments run by the organization. This year’s event is slated to feature teams at the 2004, 2005 and 2006-birth years in June and July with a five-game guarantee. There are currently 63 North American teams registered across all three age groups.
(Exeter, New Hampshire) The Atlantic International Trophy (AIT) is an up-and-coming event that prides itself on attracting a diverse pool of teams greater than your average summer showcase. Slated for the second weekend in July, the AIT will feature an ‘04-05 combined division as well as ‘06 and ‘07 divisions, with teams from the U.S., Canada and Europe on the invite list. This New England city won’t disappoint either, with plenty of tourist attractions in the area.
(Finland) The Finland Lions Cup was a European summer event before the idea of summer events in Europe ever existed. Run by Pelimatkat, the event operates like a well-oiled machine with good competition that attracts a nice mix of Scandinavian and Russian teams each year. North American teams would be considered a novelty, and any organization willing to travel would be treated like royalty, welcomed with open arms. The event is held in the middle of the summer camp season, providing a tournament-camp combo option for those interested as well.
(Foxboro, Massachusetts) An iconic East Coast event nestled in the New England hockey hotbed of Massachusetts. If bigger is better, then there are few events that would top the Chowder Cup in size. Multiple age groups competing over multiple weekends spread out over a large geographical region. The talent level varies from super selects AAA all-star teams to AA-level teams that all compete in one open division.
(Europe, various locations) DraftDay and World Hockey Group – Europe teamed up to present the Eurofest Summer Festival. The event caters to a broad audience of AAA-level talent and hosts six different birth years on three different weekends in three different European destinations. Prague, Reykjavik and Stockholm are the host cities for 202. Attendees are treated to opening ceremonies and exclusive player parties with a festive atmosphere. It feels more like a play-cation combining beautiful locations with great competition for an unforgettable experience.
(Oakville, Ontario) The International Prospects Showcase is a relatively new offering but the team at DraftDay has a deep history of success in the youth hockey space. This event is geared towards the best of the best in North America, highlighted by the top-tier local players from Ontario. It has grown wildly in popularity since its inception and pending the lift of COVID restrictions in Canada, should quickly return as a must-attend event.
(Various locations) A series of three events in Montreal, Nashville and Chicago, the Triple Crown by SuperSeries targets the upper echelon of AAA players in North America. The competition level is consistent and strong, and the events run extremely smoothly. The focus here is on the best possible players and it shows, as SuperSeries do a nice job of selecting desirable locations and spots in the events are highly sought after.
(Montreal, Quebec) Loved as much for the location as the hockey event itself. Montreal is a manageable drive from the Eastern U.S. border states, which provides a truly international and timeless feel to the event. It has a level of consistency that reeks of professionalism and win or lose, teams leave feeling like they had a great weekend. The pool of teams is primarily regional to Eastern Canada and New England, with plenty of competition levels and age groups for everyone.
(Edmonton, Alberta) One of the most prestigious events in all of youth hockey. Not only is it hosted in the unique venue of the West Edmonton Mall, it has featured the likes of more than 200 current and former NHL players when they competed at the 10U age level. From the TV broadcast, to the fans hanging over the glass, the environment of the week-long tournament is unparalleled in youth sports and arguably the most coveted roster invite in hockey.
(Various locations) The Granddaddy of all spring and summer events. It has it all, uber-elite talent levels, multiple age groups, amazing venues, breath-taking locations and truly the most international event of its kind. Participants from Russia, Europe, Scandinavia and North America competing in cities like Prague, Bolzano, Stockholm and Mont Blanc. There’s just as much for the parents to enjoy in terms of sightseeing as for the players competing on the ice. The North American event — hosted in Nashville, Tennessee — is the pinnacle of this tournament series, with top 15U selects teams from around the world all in one location for junior and professional scouts to see first-hand. Hundreds of current NHL players and more than 1,000 NCAA athletes have competed in this tournament series from both the boys and girls events. The combination of competition, culture, travel and experience is unparalleled by any one event on the hockey calendar.
College hockey will crown its champion for the 2020-21 season this weekend, as Massachusetts, Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota State and St. Cloud State square off in the 2021 Frozen Four. The field started with 16 teams, and after some having to forfeit due to positive COVID-19 tests, others surviving five-overtime thrillers and nail-biting regional action, only four teams remain. Three programs from the state of Minnesota and one from New England have survived one of the more challenging seasons in history and will meet in Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Last year was the first time in 72 seasons that the NCAA did not award a national champion in hockey after the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. So as the event returns to the spotlight, we take a closer look at where it all originated for the players competing for a title.
Percent of the 109 players rostered across the four teams are from Minnesota. Not all that surprising, given that three of the four teams remaining are from the State of Hockey. What may be a surprise is that this is the first year in history that multiple schools from the land of 10,000 lakes qualified for the Frozen Four in the same tournament.
Different Minnesota high schools produced at least one of the previously mentioned players. Hermantown High School (6), Holy Family Catholic (3) and Elk River High School (3) are at the forefront, and the Minnesota High School Hockey League (MHSHL) continues to be a leader in development of youth hockey players in the United States.
American youth organizations have at least one representative in Pittsburgh. The Arizona Jr. Coyotes, Chicago Mission, Chicago Young Americans, Colorado Thunderbirds, HoneyBaked, LA Jr. Kings and Selects Academy are among those with multiple alumni vying for the national title.
Canadians are represented on all four teams, including nine from Ontario, five from Alberta, two from Saskatchewan as well as one from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Four of them played their youth hockey in Ontario’s legendary Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) which has produced hundreds of current and former NHL players.
Countries — aside from the obvious U.S. and Canada — including three from Finland, two from Czech Republic and one from each of Germany, Slovakia and Japan. Six of those nationalities are represented on St. Cloud State’s roster, with the Huskies’ top two scorers hailing from the Scandinavian country.
Get more from the world of youth hockey by texting us at 603-541-7772 for the latest news, rankings, updates and events.
In 1998, a 16-year-old Slovakian forward set the Tipos Extraliga record as the youngest player ever to score a goal in league play. That teenager is now 38, and has played more than 1,000 NHL games for six different teams, having won a Stanley Cup in 2014 with the Los Angeles Kings. Marian Gaborik has compiled an impressive hockey resume, but last Tuesday, one of those accolades would be topped by Zvolen, Slovakia, native Dalibor Dvorsky.
The 15-year-old broke an Extraliga record that stood for 23 years, when Dvorsky scored his first career goal against HK Nitra. He was 163 days younger than when Gaborik achieved the same feat.
Dvorsky began the 2020-21 season in Sweden’s J18 league with AIK. He was having a very productive start to the campaign with four goals and 14 points in the first six games of the season. Then, Swedish youth leagues began pausing game action in November, into December and well into 2021 as the hockey federation has still limited on-ice play into early February.
That delay in Sweden brought on an opportunity for Dvorsky to return to his home country, playing for HC Banska Bystrica, in Slovakia’s top professional league. Not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2023, Dvorsky is quickly becoming one of the top young prospects in Central Europe and certainly a name to know in the years to come.