Globe Trotters

American players discover a land of opportunity living and playing in Europe
By: 
Brian Lester

Brett Sterling with his wife Elizabeth Weiss and their bulldog Cooper enjoy their surroundings in Salzburg, Austria.

Ryan Shannon won’t pretend that playing in the NHL wasn’t the high point of his hockey career. He skated with four different teams, including the Anaheim Ducks that won the Stanley Cup in 2007, and savored the opportunity to live out his childhood dream.

But when he wasn’t offered an NHL contract after the 2011-12 season, the Darien, Conn., native packed his hockey bag and headed to Europe, something North American players have been doing for decades.

“The NHL was the pinnacle. I can’t argue with that,” says Shannon, who is in the midst of a three-year deal with the ZSC Lions in Switzerland.

“However, going to Europe gave me an opportunity to further my career, and use my strengths because of the bigger ice and the style of play there. It’s been a great opportunity for me.”

Keeping The Dream Alive

Every year, hundreds of players like Shannon make the journey overseas seeking an opportunity to jumpstart their hockey dreams or extend their careers while experiencing a different culture in some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

While life in a foreign country is not without its challenges, there are a number of benefits that make it worthwhile. The money, in many cases, is very good, the seasons are shorter with fewer games, and the style of play is not as physical as it is in North America, which suits some of the smaller statured players. 

Brian Rafalski is one of those whose career received a boost from playing in Europe. A four-year starter at the University of Wisconsin, Rafalski spent four years in Sweden and Finland before embarking on a Hall of Fame NHL career.

Rafalski said the style of play in Europe has a different feel to it, which suited his game as a small and skilled defenseman.

“There’s definitely more of an emphasis on the skill level, the skating,” recalls the 5-foot-10 Rafalski, who was recently inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. 

“Not that I wasn’t a good skater before or didn’t have skill, but it really took it to the next level. Playing with some much higher-skilled players, it wasn’t just the banging, it was the playmaking, the passing, the puck possession on the bigger ice. I was fortunate enough to translate that when I came back to the NHL.”

Transition Game

Ryan Shannon has lived out his NHL dream by winning a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks. These days he continues to find success with the ZSC Lions in Switzerland.Ryan Shannon has lived out his NHL dream by winning a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks. These days he continues to find success with the ZSC Lions in Switzerland.

Every country is unique in its approach to the game and the adjustment of living in another country adds to the challenge players face in making a smooth transition.

For Shannon, it wasn’t so bad. Sure, he had to adjust to the pace and speed of the European game, in addition to getting his timing down. Yet, the speed, skill and finesse of the hockey played in Switzerland are well suited for Shannon’s skill set.

He also had an advantage that few Americans have while playing overseas.

“My coach [Marc Crawford] won a Stanley Cup in Colorado, and his wisdom and experience have helped me greatly with playing here,” Shannon says. “I can’t imagine being over here in a situation where I didn’t have a coach like him.”

While speed and skill are certainly highlighted in the European game, what can easily be forgotten is how difficult it can be to play defense.

Former University of Massachusetts-Lowell standout Nick Schaus has experienced hockey in a couple of countries. After helping the Stavanger Oilers win the Norwegian Elite League championship last season, Schaus joined the Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams in Germany. As a defenseman, he says there is an adjustment period that comes with playing on a bigger ice surface.

“It takes time to get a feel for the game over here because the style is different,” says the Orchard Park, N.Y., native. “Being a defenseman, there is a lot more skating involved because of the size of the ice.”

Brett Sterling, a former Hobey Baker finalist at Colorado College, is in Austria this season, playing for the EC Red Bull in Salzburg.

Sterling’s transition to the international level wasn’t too tough because of his experience with the National Team Development Program in addition to competing in the World Junior Championships in 2003 and 2004.

“It’s a much more defensive game in Sweden. It’s a lot tougher to score goals,” says Sterling, who spent last season with the HV71 Jonkoping. “But in Austria, the game is more offensive. The open ice creates a lot more scoring opportunities.

“One of the coolest experiences was an international tournament we played in. There were 44 teams from seven leagues and it was cool to see the different styles of hockey.”

Like Sterling, Peter MacArthur has fit in well in the Austrian Hockey League. A forward for the Vienna Capitals, the larger ice surface has taken some getting used to, but he enjoys the shorter season, which affords players more time to practice and experience the European lifestyle.

“You train differently and you play 25-30 games less than you do in a [North American] league,” says MacArthur, who bounced around the minor leagues after a four-year career at Boston University.

“You also don’t play back-to-back games, so you get a little more recovery time. At the same time, you practice a lot more and that can be taxing on your body.”

Culture Club

Ben Eaves spent five years playing in Finland before the lingering effects of a concussion forced him to hang up his skates.

Playing hockey in another country also provides a cultural experience that the players wouldn’t have otherwise. There are challenges to the life as well, such as driving, adjusting to life away from family and friends and learning to speak another language, at least enough of it to get by.

Former Boston College standout Ben Eaves played five years in Finland. He said the key for him was welcoming the opportunity to step out of his comfort zone.

“At the start, it’s like you are going on an adventure. You aren’t sure what to expect,” says Eaves, who was forced to retire in 2013 due to lingering effects of concussions. “You have to embrace the uncomfortable. You have to laugh at yourself when you say something wrong in another language and not take yourself too seriously. If you do that, it can be a special experience.”

Shannon has enjoyed experiencing another culture and one of the most unique things to him is the diversity in languages in Switzerland.

He said the Swiss people speak multiple languages and are extremely well educated. Shannon has a pretty good grasp on the language, but understanding those who speak Swiss-German isn’t easy.

“You can’t learn it using Rosetta Stone and you can’t take a class that teaches it,” he says. “It’s a neat thing and it’s really almost like a secret language.”

What isn’t a secret is that despite the challenges that come with the territory of playing in another country, the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.

Bumps In The Road

Nick Schaus has learned to deal with the challenges of playing defense on the bigger surface as a member of the Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams in Germany.Nick Schaus has learned to deal with the challenges of playing defense on the bigger surface as a member of the Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams in Germany.

Still, every player has his own unique challenges and interesting stories of adapting to living and playing in a foreign country.

“At my first practice [in Norway], the drills were written on the board in Norwegian,” recalls Schaus. “It took some time to figure things out, but my teammates were very helpful and most of them spoke English. Everything became easier as time went on.”

It can also be tough to stay connected with friends and family when you’re going to bed while they’re enjoying the middle of the day back home. Rafalski also found it tough to deal with the long European winters.

Still, the advances in technology have made being far from home a little easier to handle.

“The big thing is being willing to adapt and embracing the new life. If you do that, you are going to have success.”

“I can’t imagine what it was like when you had to get a phone card to make a call or you had to mail a letter,” Sterling says.

“Now, you can email, you have social media and you can video chat. It makes it easier to stay in touch back home.”

Driving is a different story, proving to be a daunting task at times.

“It’s tough at first because it’s not like getting in a car and driving around back home,” Schaus says. “The rules are different and the signs aren’t in English. It’s a big adjustment, but I’ve definitely gotten used to it.”

Most players do enjoy trying new foods, although grocery shopping can prove to be interesting.

“You have to learn new things being in a different culture,” admits MacArthur.

“Learning how to grocery shop is a challenge at first. You don’t want to buy the wrong salt or the wrong sauce because it can change how a meal turns out.

“The big thing is being willing to adapt and embracing the new life. If you do that, you are going to have success.”

Shannon agrees. Keeping an open mind to trying new things and being open to new experiences both on and off the ice can be the key to fitting in.

A Great Experience

Schaus heard mixed reviews from other players about their experiences and it made him a little unsure of what to expect going into it.

“You hear stories from other players about how things didn’t go so well, including not getting paid on time, but it wasn’t like that for me at all,” Schaus says. “I was in a North American type of city on the west coast of Norway and it was a great place to live. Our team won a championship. I had a lot of fun playing over there.”

Sterling has enjoyed his experience as well, especially since so many locals also speak English, including teammates, which makes communication in practices and games, along with day-to-day living, go much more smoothly.

“I’ve had a great experience,” says the Pasadena, Calif., native. “I have several North American teammates who I played with or against in college and the pros, and that makes things so much easier for me.”

These types of positive experiences provide the best publicity for players who may be on the bubble about venturing overseas.

Even today, Rafalski says that players will seek him out to ask him about living and playing overseas as a means to either jumpstart their careers or to keep playing after opportunities may have dried up in North America. The Dearborn, Mich., native has always given an enthusiastic endorsement to playing in Europe.

“If you’re good over there and you produce, just like anywhere else, you’re able to make a decent living out of it,” Rafalski says. “When I went over there I didn’t know if the NHL was in the cards for me, but for a young player I think it’s a great opportunity.”

A Lifetime Of Memories

While there are no guarantees an NHL career will result from playing overseas, what is assured are memories that last a lifetime.

“I am thankful for the friendships I made while I was over there and loved the chance to play with guys from different countries,” Eaves says. 

“You also to get to live somewhere that you might not ever see otherwise. It was amazing to have a chance to be a part of that. I’m thankful for the opportunity.” 

 

Brian Lester is a freelance writer based out of Pensacola, Fla.


Photos Courtesy of ZSC Lions; Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams; Getty Images

Issue: 
2015-02

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