Hockey fans love the underdog. Whether it's a Swiss goalie who stonewalls the Russians, or a Japanese goalie just making it to the NHL, underdogs capture the imagination of hockey fans in a way that other sports can't duplicate. Small countries with rich traditions generate teams that fans can't help but root for, and some fans root for all of the plucky underdog players from national teams full of heart. The players and teams make it easy for fans to break through national and international barriers.
Nearly 7000 players have appeared in an NHL game since the league formed. 70% of those players were born in Canada and another 14% in the United States, but 45 countries are represented by NHL player birthplace, including Lebanon and Japan. Nealy half of those countries are represented by players born to Canadian or American parents while living abroad, but the international hockey community is growing. Six Danish players have reached the NHL since the lockout: Frans Nielsen, Peter Regin, Philip Larsen, Mikkel Bodker, Lars Eller, and Jannik Hansen; and Austria has delivered three players to the NHL in recent years - Michael Grabner, Andreas Nodl and Thomas Vanek. Now there are two countries, both with a lesser-known hockey tradition, each with a chance to deliver their first player to the NHL in the coming years - Australia and Hungary.
It seems strange that Hungary, a country surrounded by Austria, Slovakia and the Ukraine hasn't delivered a player to the NHL yet. They're ranked 20th in the most recent World Rankings, ahead of countries that have had players matriculate to the best league in the world. They've had no problems staying in Division I of the IIHF World Championships, and managed to win Division I en route to appearing in the Elite Division of the 2009 World Championship.
But there is a chance, albeit a slim chance, that this could change in the near future. The Hungarians now have three young forwards playing professionally in the United States or Sweden. Dániel Koger, a 6'2" 195 lb left wing, left Székesfehérvár of the Austrian League for the Laredo Bucks of the CHL last season. He scored 29 goals and added 23 assists for 52 points, which might not seem that impressive because it's the CHL, but consider that Koger was the highest-scoring 20-year-old in the CHL over the last five seasons. He was the highest-scoring 21-and-under player in the CHL over the last two seasons. His performance earned him a deal with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL. He's got NHL size and by doesn't lack skating ability, so a strong year in Cincinnati might cause the Rochester Americans or Florida Panthers to take notice.
Aside from Koger, the Hungarians also have 19-year-old Janos Hari, a 5'9" 159 lb left wing in the Swedish Elite League. Hari is widely regarded as the best player to come from Hungary thus far and moved to Sweden in order to take advantage of the Swedish developmental system in the hopes of playing professionally. Hari was drafted in the first round (#12 overall) of the 2010 CHL Import Draft by the Montreal Juniors out of Färjestad's juniors system. Hari left the Swedish league for Montreal last season, where he posted 10 points in 23 games before being traded to Rouyn-Noranda where he posted 7 points in 23 games. He went back to Sweden to start the 2011-12 season and was quickly promoted to MODO's SEL team. He has a goal and an assist in 7 games.
The third player in the group is the longest shot to make the bigs. Istvan Bartalis, a 6' 185 lb center, is playing for Troja-Ljungby, in the Allsvenskan, Sweden's second division. The 21-year-old has 5 points in 15 games. The three of them together form the best hope for Hungarian success on the world stage. They've all participated in the lower divisions of the World Junior Championships and will carry the Hungarian banner into the World Championships for at least the next ten years. The Hungarian President has taken notice:
"We talked with the President of the Republic about the future and present of Hungarian ice hockey, and after that, he signalled that he would like to get a comprehensive strategic plan about the future."
So the Hungarians have a shot (a longshot) at the NHL, but will they make it before an Australian does?
Nathan Walker is a 5'9" 176 lb forward from Sydney, Australia. At 5'9", Walker is small, but he's got the speed to play in any league. Most people have been denied a chance to see Walker play internationally, where he's competed in the B division of the World Juniors and scored 4 goals in 4 games.
Like Hari, Walker left home to pursue a hockey career and better himself. He left Sydney for the Czech Republic and joined the HC Vitkovice system. He's been better than a point per game player during his time in the Czech Junior Leagues, including 18 points in 10 games in the Under 20 league this season. His performance earned him a promotion to Vitkovice's Extraliga team:
Australia's Nathan Walker made history on Sunday when he played for Vítkovice, becoming not only the first Australian to play in the Czech Extraliga, but to play in any European professional hockey league.
Like the Hungarian crew, Walker is the best hope for an Australian to play in the NHL. Though the odds are against all four of them, the story of being the first of your countrymen to play on the world's biggest stage is a great one. They could each become the most meaningful of athletic figures in their entire country. They are underdogs in the most significant sense of the word and it comes through in Walker's own words.
"I hope to play the NHL, but it remains to be seen."
Hockey fans hope so too, if only to root for the biggest of underdogs.