Red Deer Rebels Kristian Reichel, was the team’s first round selection in the CHL Import Draft last tear. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate staff) Red Deer Rebels Kristian Reichel was the team’s first round selection in the CHL Import Draft last year. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate staff)

Column: Don Cherry takes ill-advised jab at CHL Import talent

Canadian hockey icon Don Cherry has plenty of controversial opinions on all sorts of hockey-related matters.

The 83-year-old mostly sticks to the NHL with his criticism, but occasionally, the former OHL owner and long-time proponent of major junior hockey wades into CHL matters.

On the eve of the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game Thursday, Cherry weighed in on a problem he believes is plaguing minor hockey and the junior ranks as well.

After being asked about Europeans coming to North America to improve their game, Cherry ranted before stating, “Do I believe in Europeans playing in the Canadian Hockey League? No, I don’t.”

According to The Canadian Press, the rest of his quote went as follows:

“I’m not happy for that, to be truthful,” said Cherry, who is coaching one of the teams for the CHL showcase event. “I’m supposed to say, ‘Here, yes, we’re a wonderful country and accept everybody here.’

“What happens is, if you look at it, there’s a Canadian kid not playing. No matter how you cut the mustard, I said this a long time ago and we have it now in bantam, we have them coming over in bantams, if you can believe it. We have them in minor midget as I go all the time and they’re very rich when they come over and you’re asking me, ‘Do I believe in Europeans playing in [the] Canadian Hockey League?’ No. I don’t.”

I whole-heartedly disagree.

It’s not the first or the last time my stance will differ from Cherry, but over the last two seasons covering the Red Deer Rebels I’ve gained some perspective on the matter.

Simply put, the players on the ice want to play with the best players possible, no matter where they are from. They want to earn the chance to play in the best development league in the world and compete against the best.

There are also boundless European players with all-world talent and first-class work ethic that exceeds plenty of Canadian-born players.

Teams don’t just frivolously place European players in their two import positions for the fun of it either, the majority of those players have eye-catching ability that excites fans, scouts and players alike.

If a Canadian player feels like he’s being squeezed out, here’s some advice: work harder. There are 20 roster spots on CHL teams, two of which are reserved for goalies. European goalies are already barred from CHL competition.

Sixteen spots on every CHL roster for a kid born in Canada, and just two for a European player. Over a 60 team league, that’s 1,080 spots for Canadians (and Americans too, as eight CHL teams are based in the U.S). For import players, there are 120 available positions.

If you want a shot at playing in the NHL, the ultimate dream for most hockey players you must defy the odds anyway, so why not start by overcoming the competition in Canada.

This country has been a relatively dominant hockey nation for decades and will continue to be that because of the sheer number of players and development system in place in this country. Players can get a high-level coaching from the tender age of five and push their hockey career as far as they are willing to do so. It’s competitive right off the hop.

European players are leaving their native country, settling in a place where they don’t speak the language all because of their passion for hockey and an opportunity to play in North America.

Don Cherry, the almighty protector of hockey in Canada, shares a similar passion for the game. He’s gone to bat for the sport week-after-week for decades, but here, on this point, he’s misguided.

The best want to play against the best, and they want to compete alongside the best, because at the end of the day, that level makes everyone better, even our own Canadian talent.

Email sports tips to Byron Hackett

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