I once was showing the Polish national team roster to a friend of mine, he made a joke involving John Murray. It is funny to look at the Polish roster as for most North Americans, most player names just seem like someone smashed their head into the keyboard. Then there is John Murray. The plainest and simplest name possible.
As an import on team Poland, his name easily stands out. In recent years Poland has had a lengthy history of players that they hoped to turn into imports like Murray for the national team. I mean, it is all the rage for some national teams. As team China gears up to the host the Olympics, they have pretty much signed any North American player with Chinese heritage. I question if there will be a single player on that team that was actually born and raised in China. You can’t also forget about Kazakstan, who have taken full advantage for their KHL team to stock their national team. If the Polish KHL team actually came to fruition, I’m sure Poland would have used it as well.
The problem with imports in Poland and countries like Poland is when you’re using imports that are playing in your own league, are they pushing the needle? There is no doubt that players Poland has tried to bring to the national team are among the best players in the PHL. The question is, are they going to have the impact that even a Tipsorts Extraliga player like Aron Chmielewski has?
They’re also only bandaging for temporary problems. Imports are usually already nearing or past their late twenties. If they can elevate the national team and bring more attention to the team, they do provide significant benefits for the sport in a country.
One of the biggest stories in international hockey this year was Great Britain. The British were behind Poland in hockey just a few years ago, but they have been able to rise up from Division 1B to the Elite and stay there. That Great British team features seven imports on their 25 man roster, including leading scorer Mike Hammond. The team was big news in the country and probably inspired a whole new wave of talent and money into the sport. Thus meaning when those imports are gone, there should hopefully be an ample amount of players ready to take their place.
I am often critical of the import system but completely understand. It is a better system to develop the sport in one’s country, to be honest. You also have the downside of developing players that are too good for your domestic league. The IIHF almost punishes small country talent that gets into higher leagues. If a player gets to a high enough level, they’ll probably never be able to represent their nation due to club commitments. This is due to the World Championship schedule.
The best example of this is Australian forward Nathan Walker. Walker plays mostly in the American Hockey League (AHL). The AHL regular season ends on April 13th, while Australia’s World Championship division began on April 9th last year. The IIHF has moved the dates back this year. In all three of the North American professional leagues, 50% of the teams make the playoffs. This means it still just takes one playoff round to wipe out a player’s chances. This year in Division 1 Group B, the Netherlands was pretty much without 40% of their roster as they all had club commitments to the Dutch club in the Oberliga.
There are valid reasons for why every team should pursue the import route. Poland has definitely fallen on the believer side of that. Former head coach Ted Nolan often stated it as part of his big plan for the team, but only added one import to the team. In fact, John Murray maybe the only successful import for Poland. The recent history of Poland is filled with Polish Americans and Canadians that once came to Poland intending to represent Poland, only to disappear within a couple months. I wanted to take a look at some of those names and why they turned out as they did.
The first of these imports was Ondrej Raszka. Raszka came over to Poland for the 2010-2011 season to start his professional career. He would play in Poland for two years before returning to the Czech republic for a season. He then came back to Poland, earning his Polish citizenship in 2015. Since then, he has firmly planted himself among the top three Polish goaltenders and is continuously among the best in PHL save percentage. It is actually kind of a shame that Raszka has not been able to make his senior IIHF debut. He has continuously been the third goalie for Poland. The time will come as he is younger than both Odrobny and Muray by three years. Overall you can call Raszka a success as he provides Poland with some excellent goaltending depth and a possible starter for the future.
The next two players are going to have a combined entry. In 2010, Dave Kostuch and Rafal Martynowski were both brought in by Wojciech Śniegowski. Śniegowski led a group of Polish Canadians that wanted to help further Polish hockey by supplying players. Both players spent two years with Cracovia Krakow. Rafal Martynowski had an okay minor league career in some third-tier American leagues and also spent some time in the Oberliga. His first year in the PHL showed some promise with 42 points (22-20-42) in 47 games, including a very strong playoff run. Martynowski next season saw a 12 point drop while playing 49 games. Dave Kostuch had an amazing first year recording 55 points (34-21-55) in 47 games. He returned the following year, but only managed three regular-season games, despite that he did play in the playoffs and overall posted 16 points (9-7-16) in 12 games. Both players had gained their Polish passports but never represented Poland.
Nick Sucharski was the next to arrive in Poland. The 6’1 Left Winger came in with am an impressive resume that included being a 5th round pick in the 2006 NHL entry draft after the Columbus Blue Jackets selected him 136th overall. Sucharski would play five years with Michigan State being named the captain for his final year in 2009. He would spend a year in the Central Hockey League before signing in Poland with Cracovia Krakow in 2011. Sucharksi spent the next two years in Poland recording 72 points (28-44-72) in 75 games with Katowice and Krakow. He would retire the following year after his season with GKS Katowice.
Justin Chwedoruk entered during the 2012-13 season with the goal of representing Poland. His grandparents were Polish, and he was excited about honoring his heritage in such a significant way. Despite being undersized, Justin Chwedoruk battled and fought hard. He excelled in a power forward style, and it helped him remain a top 6 forward in leagues like the Central Hockey League, ECHL, and International Hockey Leauge. Chewedoruk posted above a point per game season with GKS Katowice in his first PHL year. For his second year, he moved to KH Sanok, there he suffered a concussion in the fourteen game of the year and was forced to retire.
Poland then became home to Mike Danton in 2014. Danton was a controversial player, to say the least. He was a promising young NHL player until he hired a hitman to kill his agent. Danton was in prison from 2004 to 2009. After being released in 2009, Danton enrolled in Saint Mary’s University in Canada. He later joined their hockey team for two seasons. In 2011, Danton would return to professional hockey for the first time since 2004 when he signed in Sweden’s Division 1. Danton played in quite a few countries before signing with STS Sanok in Poland. Danton spent parts of the next 2 and half seasons in Poland. He was a physical force in the league and eventually was offered a spot on the Polish national team. Danton played six games at non-IIHF events. Drama arose though towards the end of his time in Poland. Danton alleges that the PZHL did help him obtain legal documents needed to represent Poland at IIHF events. He accused of the PZHL of not being paid for the two tournaments he did play with the national team. I have been told that Danton’s deal with the national team was pro-bono. Danton left Poland after the 2016 season and played one last year in a semi-professional Canadian league.
Former Montreal Canadiens 7th round pick, Mike Cichy arrived in Sanok during the 2014-15 season. Since then, he has become one of the most known players in the PHL. Since 2014-15 no player has more points in the PHL than Cichy, the next closet, Damian Kapica, is 88 points behind. Cichy also set the record for points in PHL season during the 2015-16 season with 113 beating the previous record by ten. He also has Polish heritage, which made offering him a spot on the Polish national team a no brainer. His offense in the PHL did not translate to the international stage. In 17 games with team Poland, he only recorded 4 points (2-2-4). He also made what has to be one of the worst plays in recent history for team Poland.
Cichy is currently apart of the group of players boycotting the Polish national team participation. His lack of production and poor defensive play already put his further inclusion in doubt, though. The 29-year-old is in the midst of his sixth straight season in the PHL, and his second with GKS Tychy.
John Murray was never intended to play for team Poland. He first came to Poland in 2013 after a solid junior and minor league career in North America. He played in the; American Hockey League, Central Hockey League, ECHL, Ontario Hockey League, and United States Hockey League. Murray is an outstanding goalie and one of the best in the PHL, this has always led to rumors that the tender had offers from clubs in stronger leagues. He took one of them in 2015 and left Poland after 2 years to go to Kulager Petropavlovsk in Kazakhstan. This team offered him a potential path to the Kontinental Hockey League, the top league in Europe. After a stellar year in Kazakhstan, Murray would return to Poland and has played there ever since. He meant his wife in Poland while playing in the PHL, her being Polish-made, gaining a passport easy. Murray has become a part of the great duo that Poland has in the net. He gives the red and white eagles a chance to win every game. He is the biggest import success Poland has ever had.
While Murray was never supposed to join team Poland, there was a goalie that arrived in Opole, that was supposed to. In 2015-16, Frank Slubowski signed a deal with Orlik Opole with the eventual goal of representing team Poland. The young goalie had two steller years at Western Michigan University that lead to him getting a lot of professional interest. His junior and senior did not go well at all, both being his two worse NCAA seasons by save percentage. Slubowski did fine his first year in Poland besides a poor playoff run. It would be his only year in Poland, and he has retired since.
Another significant import joined Slobowski on that Opole team though in Alex Szczechura. Szczechura was a top player at Ohio State from 2010 to 2014. It didn’t look like professional hockey was going to be a long time thing though for the 5’9 forward. After graduating college, he only played 7 games during the 2014-15 ECHL season. In 2015-16, he had signed in Poland and played in the PHL ever since. He has always been teammates with fellow national team imports Mike Cichy while playing in Poland. Since he entered the league in 2015, he has the second-most points among all players. Szczechura was not able to obtain his passport as easy as longtime teammates Cichy and Murray. He was not able to represent Poland at any IIHF events but did play 8 non-IIHF games recording four points (2-2-4). He is currently part of the group of players that are choosing not to represent team Poland over benefits disputes.
The newest import came under Ted Nolan, who wanted imports to be a big part of his early teams. Jan Steber was the lone import that Nolan added to the national team. The Czech forward had an interesting career, he showed some promise early in his career. Steber was able to post respectful numbers in the QMJHL enough that the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted him in the 8th round of the 2004 NHL draft. He would never make it the NHL and only spent a year in the ECHL before returning to the Czech Republic. In 2009-10, after an unsuccessful stint with a Czech2 team, Steber signed in Poland with Stoczniowiec Gdansk. In Gdansk, the Ostrava native posted two strong years before not playing in 2011 and 2012. Steber would return to professional hockey in 2013, after a successful tryout with GKS Tychy. Then the following year, he moved to JKH GKS Jastrzebie.
Steber left pro hockey again for the 2015 season but played for some lower-level teams in Gdansk. The next year, he decided to return to professional hockey again playing for Gdansk and serving as their captain for the past 4 years. Ted Nolan had named Steber to the Polish national team in 2017. He played at three games for Poland during an EIHC tournament but would get injured before the World Championships. He has yet to represent Poland since.
In the end, Poland has had a long history of failed imports. The strength of the PHL in the past years just wasn’t strong enough to attract players that would push the needle. Poland did gain some excellent goaltending depth, while the jury will always be out on what Cichy and Szczechura could have provided. The current head of the national team Tomek Valtonen is not a big fan of the import idea. But we once again have a Polish North American tearing up and making headlines in the PHL with Christian Mroczkowski, who has expressed interest in joining team Poland. His talents and abilities are something Poland should not deny as he excels in a much stronger PHL. Only time will tell if any more non-Polish players will be wearing the red and white.