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Scouting Europeans From a Beach in Mexico

In 1997, Barry Fraser and the Edmonton Oilers pulled off a miracle.

Through some trick, or possibly an astounding stroke of luck, one of the ten best players in the 1997 NHL Draft had fallen into Edmonton's lap in the fourteenth position. The Calgary Flames, geniuses that they were, had taken some underskilled scoring winger from Toronto named Daniel Tkaczuk. Then the Tampa Bay Lightning had wasted a pick on a short defenseman who couldn't play defense. So it must have been with a combination of confidence and joy that Fraser and Oilers godfather Glen Sather had strode to the podium at Civic Arena, picking a kid with skills to spare and wheels not out of place on a Ferrari, Swiss slickster Michel Riesen.

In the next few years, it actually got worse.

We all know about the Oilers' first round foibles, of course. The last years of the Sather/Fraser partnership which brought us more Hockey Hall of Famers than you should shake a stick at were historically bad. It's not just that Riesen, Michael Henrich, and Jani Rita were awful hockey players, though they were. It's not just that Barry Fraser's idea of scouting was sitting on the sand sipping pina coladas, though it was. It's the fact that those last three legendary busts have stayed in the game, played in good European leagues, and done well for themselves.

Well, for the most part.

Michel Riesen was neither Fraser's worst nor his greatest sin against the art of hockey scouting. Plucked out of Davos in the Swiss national league, Riesen really was ranked that highly, really was All That and a Bag of Chips. He was the highest-ranked European skater left on the board and none of the North American skaters really inspired confidence. When he first came to North America, skating out with the Hamilton Bulldogs at age nineteen, he posted a respectable 23 points playing with men in limited ice time. The next year he flirted with thirty AHL goals and was the Bulldogs' second-leading scorer, behind only Dan Cleary.

The American Hockey League of 1999 was not the same American league of a decade later. Cleary had only seventy-four points thanks to an NHL callup but was in fact tenth in AHL scoring that year, with mostly journeymen ahead of him on the list and superstar Chistian Matte running away with proceedings on 104 points. But it's significant that the 1999-2000 Bulldogs had two point per game players - Cleary and the pride of Birmingham, England, Kevin Brown - while Riesen had only .82 points per game.

In hindsight, there was something of Rob Schremp in Michel Riesen at the time. He never met a powerplay he didn't like but his even strength contributions were middling at best. Defense? Forget about it. He played defense like Forrest Gump played ping pong except the exact opposite. Like Schremp, he was exciting and brilliant, got his NHL look, didn't do a thing with it, and was sent away for scraps, in Riesen's case as the "and the rest!" in the Doug Weight trade. Riesen never bothered to report to St. Louis, instead returning to his old club Davos in Switzerland.

Where he promptly excelled.

Riesen remained with Davos through the 2008-09 season, gradually becoming one of the most respected veterans in a pretty good hockey league. In the lockout year of 2004-05, he played with Joe Thornton and Rick Nash - teammates better than he ever would have gotten with the Oilers - got his ice time drastically cut as a result, and wound up with 34 points in 44 games anyway. The next year Thornton and Nash returned to the NHL, Riesen returned to the top three, and he picked up 29 points in 39 games. Riesen's career in Switzerland has not been phenomenal, but with 299 career NLA regular season points through 2008-09, it has been steady.

Signing with HC Rapperswil-Jona for 2009-10, Riesen left Davos for the first time since his ill-fated North American tour, taking with him four league titles and a formidable reputation on the Swiss circuit. Also, his favourite drink is iced tea. How can you not respect a man like that?

Michael Henrich, the thirteenth overall pick in 1998, is harder to respect. Fraser and Sather pulled Henrich out of the Barrie Colts after a year in which he scored forty-one goals and added twenty-two assists despite being saddled with Daniel Tkaczuk as a linemate. Henrich had never come close to such an askew ratio of goals to assists before, and today we'd be asking if such an atypical if promising season was sustainable (well, if the Rob Schremp years are any indication, most of us would just be drooling over the forty goals but still). It transpired that those totals weren't even remotely sustainable. Henrich would never score forty again in any league in the world.

For two years in Barrie his assist totals climbed gradually but his scoring impressed nobody. By 1999-2000, ending the year as a 20-year-old in the OHL, Henrich should have dominated but was instead the fourth leading scorer on the Colts, behind younger men Denis Shvidki, Sheldon Keefe, and Mike Danton. Michael Henrich, a mid-first round choice, had peaked in high school.

Three seasons in the minors convinced any remaining doubters that Henrich was useless; a big skilled type who wasn't all that big and certainly not very skilled. In 2002-03, he played twelve games in Hamilton without recording a single point. Despairing, the Oilers sent him to the Hershey Bears where he played nine more games and got a single assist. Finally, Henrich retired to Mora IK of the Swiss Elite League and washed out of there too. With the Toronto Roadrunners in 2003-04, Henrich played a full season but had fewer points than, to name but a few, Chad Hinz, Joe Cullen, J.J. Hunter, Sean McAslan, and Mikko Luoma.

When the lockout came, Henrich's contract expired and his career seemed to expire with it. He spent the lockout year out of professional hockey, reportedly trolling the European leagues for tryout opportunities. With the market flooded by underworked NHLers it was a bad time for Henrich to catch a break. The next season, though, Henrich began what would ultimately be a very profitable tour in Germany, latching onto the Duisberg Foxes of the German first division.

The Foxes were typical of DEL teams at the time, containing a number of Germans to fill out the roster but with its star roles occupied by old North American journeymen such as Steve Brule, Mathieu Darche, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, as well as North Americans who had become German lifers after washing out like Stephane Robitaille and leading scorer Shawn McNeil. Henrich was a scrub on a pretty good team, scoring ten goals, and his contract was not renewed. But he impressed somebody enough to drop down to the second division and Wolfsburg EHC, later the unfortunately-named Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams. Henrich, by now twenty-six years old and allegedly in the prime of his career, picked up thirty-six points his first year in Wolfsburg as predominantly a second-line right wing, good enough for eighth on the team charts. His team achieved promotion and Henrich returned to the first division with a bit more style, becoming a bad team's third-leading scorer with a thirty-one-point campaign.

Thanks in part to Henrich, Wolfsburg avoided the drop and remains in the DEL to this day. But his time with the Grizzly Adams was over. Perhaps it was the name, perhaps it was the uniforms, but for whatever reason Henrich left Wolfsburg and indeed, for a time, left hockey. The 2008-09 season contains no trace of Henrich. Had, after nearly a decade spent floating and failing through bad hockey leagues, Henrich finally given up on his dream?

Hardly. 2009-10 brings news that Michael Henrich is back, once again taking a step down in league and signing with Fernando Pisani's old boys Asiago HC of the Italian league. Where, remarkably, Henrich and fellow former Oiler failure Ralph Intranuovo are forming a murder's row of sorts. Early in the season, Henrich is over two points per game and Intranuovo has eleven points in eight appearances (although take the Italian league's statistics with a grain of salt: Intranuovo allegedly has one penalty minute)

Finally, there is Jani Rita, thirteenth overall in 1999. It hardly seems fair to blame Fraser and Sather for Rita's failings, however. The last first rounder of their distinguished and mercifully extinguished Oiler careers, Rita was, as we all know, a supremely gifted hockey player ruined by that blackguard Craig MacTavish and his stifling hatred of offensive creativity. After being traded away from Edmonton for Dick Tarnstrom (of all people!), Rita played out the string in Pittsburgh before returning to his former youth club Jokerit in the Finnish SM-liiga and promptly recording a fifty-point season.

So there. Take that, CrackTavish.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2007-08, injury limited Rita to 37 games but he recorded only twenty points, whereas the previous year he'd been nearly a point per game. In 2008-09, Rita rallied to thirty points but this time he played the full 58-game schedule. And in 2009-10, in his first seventeen games, Rita's point total was... two.


I checked and there's no record of MacTavish secretly becoming the head coach of Jokerit this season. In fact I saw him just the other day on TSN, trying not to throw up as he watched Dustin Penner dominate another gang of mere mortals. So unless he's pulling off the most spectacular moonlighting gig in history, we might just have to come to grips with the idea that Jani Rita's just not very good at hockey.

But... no. No. This is MacTavish's fault somehow. I just haven't figured it out yet.