Since 1981 the Viking Cup has been a prominent stop on the schedules of scouts throughout the hockey world. Scouts from the NHL and Canadian Major Junior teams as well as recruiters from U.S. colleges have been flocking to the small city of Camrose, Alberta for the past 22 years in order to catch a glimpse of some of the game’s future stars.
Camrose is a community of just under 20,000 people but the injection of players, scouts and media that come to the city every winter temporarily boosts the population far over that figure. With Augustana College playing as the host team for the tournament, the Championship trophy and the contest itself are named after the local squad. The Vikings are the perennial hometown favorites but there have been plenty of players from around the world who have made their marks during the tournament and then gone on to good careers in the NHL.
The Viking Cup is a week and a half long battle between a collection of international junior teams, most of which consist of players at the right age for the next NHL Entry Draft. That fact alone is the reason why the tournament ranks very highly on a scouts ‘to do’ list each season.
James Patrick was a tournament All-Star at the premier event back in 1981 and has since gone on to have a long lasting professional career most notably with the New York Rangers, Calgary Flames and the Buffalo Sabres. Also in the tournament that year was current bench boss of the Dallas Stars Dave Tippett who went on to play eleven seasons in the NHL.
In 1982 Petr Klima made his North American debut for Czechoslovakia, who would go on to win the tournament backstopped by a little known goaltender named Dominik Hasek. The Czechs have quite a storied history of players who have come to Camrose for the Viking Cup. Aside from Klima and Hasek, Martin Straka, Patrik Elias, Milan Hejduk, Bobby Holik, Jan Hrdina, Roman Turek, Milan Kraft, Josef Vasicek and Vaclav Varada have also made tournament appearances.
Sergei Zubov was named an All Star in 1998 when he was representing the Soviet Union in Camrose with fellow countrymen Igor Korolev and Andrei Kovalenko. Boris Mironov came with the 1990 USSR team that also included Darius Kasparaitis. The Russians, who did not participate this year, also had notable representation from Maxim Afinogenov and Oleg Kvasha in 1996.
Slovakia has been a frequent participant at the games since the political split with the Czech Republic. 2003 marked the fourth consecutive tournament that a team from Slovakia has made the pilgrimage to Camrose. Notable players to have represented that country in past years include Ziggy Palffy, Jozef Stumpl and Pavol Demitra.
Finland has been a mainstay at the Viking Cup almost since it began. The Finns sent their national 18-year-old squad over for the sixth straight time this year. Previous players to have showcased their talents for Finland at this tournament have included Ossi Vaanananen (PHX), Mika Noronen (BUF), Olli Jokinen (FLA), Jani Rita (EDM), Niko Kapanen (DAL), Antero Niittymaki (PHI), Thomas Pihlman (NJ) and Mikko Koivu (MIN).
Since 1996, the United States has been sending an All-Star junior team to compete in Camrose, this year the team was made up of players representing the USHL and the NAHL. David Tanabe (PHX) and Jordan Leopold (CGY) are two American born NHL players to have played in the Viking Cup in recent years. Matt Greene (EDM), David Hale (NJ), Adam Hall (NSH), Barret Heisten (DAL) and Jason Platt (EDM) are also alumni of the tournament.
Switzerland, Germany and Norway made their Viking Cup debuts in 2003 replacing several Canadian tier II provincial All-Star teams as well as Sweden’s 18-year-old national squad. Having only one Canadian team involved obviously gave the tournament a much greater international flavor but in the eyes of many scouts, it didn’t make the competition better.
In fact, because the Czechs sent a completely underage team over for the first time, the number of draft eligible players to watch was actually down from previous years. Because the Germans and Norwegians are considerably weaker hockey nations, their contributions to the tournament went largely unnoticed by scouts because of the lack of high-end talent.
"Obviously when the Czechs send over a completely underage team it takes away from it and Augustana, as much as them being the hosts, it’s tough when they’ve got 21 and 22-year-old guys," explained Edmonton’s VP of Player Operations Kevin Prendergast.
Even so, there were easily twice as many draft eligible players of important status playing in Camrose than the World Junior Championships going on at the same time in Finland. While prospects like Alexander Ovechkin, Yevgeny Malkin and a dozen or so other big names were skating in that tournament, there were upwards of 50 players of interest playing in Camrose all of whom are considered to be mid-round candidates.
"I think we probably added 20-25 players to our list from that tournament for maybe the third round on," said Prendergast. "From that stand point it was good but it just wasn’t as good as it has been in the past."
It was unfortunate that some of the teams were weaker this year than compared to in the past but the debuts of Switzerland and Norway were notable for what they did show.
Switzerland’s opening game was against the Czech Republic and it was an extremely physical affair that turned into a mammoth triple overtime marathon. The Czechs ended up pulling out the victory but it was the Swiss who impressed fans and scouts alike with their surprising aptitude for body contact.
"(Switzerland) plays pretty hard," agreed Prendergast. "They are becoming a pretty physical country."
The roster that Switzerland brought with them including several players ranked very high in that country by Central Scouting for the upcoming draft. Julien Sprunger, currently ranked as the third best prospect in Switzerland, had a strong tournament but could not bury his scoring chances, which were plentiful. Even so, Sprunger was named to the tournament All-Star team as a centermen. Goaltender Leonardo Genoni was often sensational despite only being 16 years old.
Norway, who was outclassed and overmatched in most of their games, may have had one of the single best players in the tournament. Mathis Olimb was dazzling one on one but couldn’t carry his team to any victories during the round robin week.
The Oilers had eight scouts taking in the tournament and even General Manager Kevin Lowe made the 45-minute drive from Edmonton to take in the event. In the past the Viking Cup has been stops for terrific Russian and Swedish teams made up of draft eligible players but that didn’t happen this year, which left a bit of a sour taste in the mouths of some.
"People always talk about the WJC as being the premier tournament," stated Prendergast. "But when the Viking Cup was bringing over those European teams then that was probably the premier tournament from a scouting perspective because of the amount of players there."
"There were still a lot of players there this year that are probably going to get drafted but not from a high end."
A few of the teams did not fail to disappoint though including Slovakia, the U.S. and Finland. Slovakia was led by a trio of players whose names roll off the tongue sounding like a law firm. The combination of Gracik, Bacek and Scurko were often dominant for Slovakia who actually upset the host Vikings from medal contention. The dangerous threesome accounted for 23 points in the six games Slovakia played.
The Americans were strong on many fronts as the favorites went all the way to the Cup final with a balance of strong defensive, physical play and high tempo offensive strategies. Paul Stastny, son of NHL great Peter Statsny who was in attendance, finished on top of the American scoring with 6 goals and 11 points. Kyle Klubertanz, John Dingle, Johann Kroll and Derek Peltier also had impressive tournament performances.
In the end it was Finland who would capture the gold medal at the 2003 Viking Cup with a shocking 8-2 rout of the Americans. Petteri Wirtanen, Jarmo Joklila and Mikka Tuomainen were highlights of the Finnish squad offensively and goaltender Tuuka Rask was exceptional in the final.
The All-Star team consisted of Matt Hartman and Klubertanz of the U.S., Julien Sprunger of Switzerland, Andrej Sekera of Slovakia, Augustana’s Tim Green and 16-year-old goaltender Alexander Salak of the Czech Republic.
Impressions were made all week long and despite the fact that the talent level may not have been as good as it has been in previous years, there was still a benefit for NHL teams to have scouted the contest.
"These are guys who it would have cost us a lot of money to go in and see play in their own countries but here we got to see them basically in our own back yard," summarized Prendergast.
Hopefully tournament organizers will be able to reacquire teams from countries who are willing to bring over the best teams they can and if they do, the Viking Cup will continue to be one of the most important stops on the winter scouting schedule.