Europeans say they want to win just as much as North Americans.
By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published May 5, 2004
GAME 1: Flyers at Lightning, 3 p.m., Saturday.
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Lightning left wing Fredrik Modin appeared almost insulted. His voice rose, and he poked a forefinger into the palm of his hand for emphasis.
The subject was the Stanley Cup's relevance to European players. Modin, who is Swedish, was adamant it is as important to him as any player from North America, where the Cup, as Lightning center Tim Taylor said, "is a symbol of God, basically."
"When you play here for a team that competes for the Stanley Cup, that's huge," Modin said. "That's what I want to win. This is my team. This is what I do. This is what I play for."
Still, it is an interesting question with an answer that has changed with time.
Before the influx of European players to the NHL and the advent of satellite television and the Internet, the focus on the other side of the Atlantic was primarily the Olympics, the World Championships and each country's individual elite league trophies.
But as Europeans became a greater part of the NHL - The International Ice Hockey Federation says a record 300 were among the 1,018 players who played a regular-season game this season - things began to change.
Lightning defenseman Pavel Kubina, a native of the Czech Republic, explained it this way: Stories from European players and reports in the media about the NHL's fierce competition and the difficulty of winning the Cup raised awareness. More people watched more games.
And with so many home-grown NHLers for whom European fans can follow and cheer, "They know the NHL is the best league in the world," Kubina said. "If you bring the Cup home, everybody wants to see it and take a picture."
Kubina said when New Jersey's Patrik Elias brought the Cup after last season's playoffs to Elias' hometown of Trebic in the Czech Republic, between 5,000 and 10,000 people showed up.
"They had a big party," Kubina said. "You bring it to your hometown or the arena you played in. It's amazing."
Amazing is the reverence for which the Stanley Cup is held among North American players.
Taylor, from Stratford, Ontario, said he took the Cup home after winning in 1997 with the Red Wings and put it on display in the rink in which he played while growing up. He and the Cup rode on an old fire truck through the streets.
Then there was the "private" party for every local coach and teammate with whom Taylor played.
"When we had the Cup, people couldn't believe they actually got to touch it," Taylor said. "Their childhood dream all of a sudden came to life because the Stanley Cup is right there in their grasp. Some guys have tears in their eyes. Some guys were in awe of it."
"You just have to talk to a guy who experienced it, to realize the emotion involved," Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk said. "Fulfilling one of your dreams. That doesn't happen very often. There's a lot of emotion involved."
It apparently is growing in Europe, especially among players.
Former Canadiens great Mats Naslund, speaking from his home in Sweden, said Europe's hockey fans hold Olympic championships in highest regard, much more than world championships that are decided during the NHL playoffs and do not include all of the best players.
Most prestigious: the Stanley Cup.
"You see how much work it is to win a Stanley Cup," said Naslund, who won with Montreal in 1986 and Olympic gold in 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway. "You have to play 120 games against the best players in the world. You fight for the whole year, so that's the biggest."
Word is apparently getting around.
Lightning head scout Jake Goertzen, who travels extensively in Europe, and especially in Russia, said during a recent interview of a Russian goaltender whom Tampa Bay might draft, the player's No. 1 priority was "to win the Stanley Cup.
"I never really heard that before," Goertzen said.
Taylor said he believed the Stanley Cup was elevated in Europe when Russians Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov held the trophy and skated together around Joe Louis Arena after winning the 1997 title.
"They had gold medals in the Olympics and World Championships, but what they wanted most was the Cup," Taylor said.
But it started before that.
Lightning center Martin Cibak, 23, of Slovakia, said he could not get enough of countryman and NHL star Peter Stastny while growing up.
"We watched on TV these guys play in America," Cibak said. "You want to be there and play. It was a dream for me to win the Stanley Cup."
Wing Dmitry Afanasenkov, 23, of Russia, said he idolized countryman Alexander Mogilny, who scored 76 goals for the Sabres in 1992-93.
"So when I was young, I was always thinking about the Stanley Cup," Afanasenkov said. "The Stanley Cup is the best."
The Stanley Cup, Modin said, "is No. 1."
"But it's not about being American, Canadian, Russian or Swedish," said Lightning goaltender John Grahame, of Denver. "You're a hockey player. It's the Stanley Cup, and that's all that matters. When you grow up as a kid. That's all you want to win. As a player, that's the top of the hockey world."