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European goalies no longer welcome in CHL after next week’s import draft

By Gene Pereira, Special to Postmedia Network

Barrie Colts goalie Mathias Niederberger pauses at his net prior to the first period in Belleville, Ont. Friday, April 26, 2013. The Colts entered the Ontario Hockey League Eastern Conference final leading the series 3-1. Luke Hendry/The Intelligencer/QMI Agency

Barrie Colts goalie Mathias Niederberger pauses at his net prior to the first period in Belleville, Ont. Friday, April 26, 2013. The Colts entered the Ontario Hockey League Eastern Conference final leading the series 3-1. Luke Hendry/The Intelligencer/QMI Agency

Just how much did Mathias Niederberger mean to the Barrie Colts in their drive to the Ontario Hockey League championship final this season?

If the Colts had defeated the London Knights in Game 7 and advanced to the Memorial Cup, Niederberger would have most likely earned the 99 Trophy as the playoff MVP.

The German import goaltender, who was outstanding all season for the Colts, was also a finalist for the OHL’s goaltender of the year.

Thanks to Hockey Canada and a recent ruling by the Canadian Hockey League, the days of European goaltenders like Niederberger playing junior hockey here are coming to an end.

And that’s a shame.

After this year’s CHL Import Draft on July 3, European goaltenders can no longer be drafted.

Teams can select an import goalie born in 1994 or 1995 in the first round this year and that’s it.

Other Europeans currently tending net in the CHL will be allowed to play out what’s left of their junior hockey careers.

 The reasoning behind this?

Hockey Canada is concerned with the quality of our goaltending and believe that banning European goaltenders will open up more opportunities for Canadian puck stoppers.

Will it help?

I guess we’ll truly have to wait and see, but how does handing someone a job and not having them earn it help in that matter?

With the loss of the Europeans, more Canadian goalies will make CHL teams and receive playing time they may have never received.

Some will likely benefit from this development, but just because there will be more open spots that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll result in better Canadian goaltenders.

Not all will be perhaps deserving of the increased role in what is considered to be the best junior hockey league in the world.

Or, can we say that anymore?

The CHL has long boasted about being the best developmental league in the world with the best junior players filling their rosters.

Well, not anymore.

You can’t say the best play here when you are not letting the best play here.

“I don’t quite understand why,” Niagara IceDogs general manager/coach Marty Williamson told QMI Agency recently. “We believe we’re the best development league and we always take pride in making those comments. We have the Yakupovs as well as the Ryan Stromes and Dougie Hamiltons, so that makes for quite a league.

“Now, to me, there’s a little asterisk beside it because now we don’t have the best goalies,” added Williamson, a former Barrie Colts bench boss. “We have the best North American goalies, but we don’t have the best goalies in the world coming to our league.”

Last season, 11 import goaltenders, including Niederberger, played the league’s required minimum minutes.

It’s not like the CHL is flooded with European goaltenders. The ones who are here are playing major roles because they deserve to be.

The Colts believe they have a real good young goaltending prospect in Alex Fotinos.

After two seasons of backing up Niederberger, Fotinos will have the opportunity to grab the starting role.

The young Canadian goalie earned a spot on the team and then found himself battling with Niederberger for playing time.

He wasn’t handed anything.

How can being pushed by a top goaltender like Niederberger not help Fotinos’s development?

Niederberger’s determination to be the best and his solid work ethic were good teaching tools for Fotinos.

Another reason that it’s hard to like this move by the CHL is that it means perhaps squashing the dreams of Europeans like Niederberger and their chances of being noticed by scouts and being drafted.

Consider Niederberger’s story.

He’s 18 years old and playing behind former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin in Germany’s top pro league, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL).

Niederberger was hardly playing and knows the following season may be the same thing.

After being taken by the Colts in the 2011 CHL Import Draft, Niederberger arrived here and earned the starting job. It wasn’t handed to him.

Up until his arrival, Barrie was far from happy with its goaltending. But thanks to Niederberger’s outstanding play, the Colts were one of the OHL’s top teams during his two-year run. 

Niederberger was so good that the Colts, in a rare move in the CHL, used both an import and overage spot on him this past season.

“His dream was to play in the NHL,” Colts general manager Jason Ford said. “He got his school done so he could come over earlier.

“For him, it was just an opportunity and he did well with it,” the GM added. “He drew a lot of attention from scouts this year.

“The fact that he isn’t blessed with being six-foot-two or six-foot-three ... or he would have been signed by now.” 

Niederberger would have likely never got noticed because of his smaller five-foot-11 frame over in Germany by NHL scouts.

But his hard work in front of those same NHL scouts here every night put Niederberger on their radar.

Niederberger has yet to sign a free-agent deal, but he’s already received invitations to NHL camps this fall. Those are invitations he likely never would have received had he never played in the CHL. Invitations that likely will never come to other top European goalies in the future thanks to this recent ban.

The ban doesn’t affect American goaltenders. The Windsor Spitfires, Kitchener Rangers and Knights have done a good job grabbing top goaltending talent from south of the border, which is also home to eight junior teams.

That’s something other OHL teams will now have to perhaps explore a little more diligently.

One thing is certain, the days of passing on goaltenders early in the OHL Priority Selection and grabbing them in the import draft are gone.

First it was goalies, but will European import players be banned next?

The last few years I’ve heard whispers of the OHL considering that they would pare back on the Import Draft, taking it down to one round, or perhaps even doing away with it altogether.

While going that route would likely please the Don Cherrys of the world, imagine what a shame it would be for Canadian junior hockey fans not being able to watch the likes of the Nail Yakupovs, Olli Maattas or Alex Burmistrovs develop their magic here. 

We’re told that there is goaltending crisis. That this drastic move to ban European netminders is the right decision and that Canadian goalies and our national hockey programs will benefit from it in the long run.

Competition is something no one should run from.

Instead, learn from it and use it to push yourself to be better.

We have lots of top goaltenders in this country. I just don’t see a crisis here.

The competition from top European goaltenders only made Canadians better.

That’s gone now and that is a shame.

Gene Pereira covers the Ontario Hockey League for the Barrie Examiner.

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