Living in North America, we are exposed to the highest level of professional hockey in the world. Today's NHL is filled with talent from across the globe, and we don't think twice about the hockey that is played in other countries. Well, I grew up in a different era. I was exposed to the game outside of the confines of this corner of our planet... And you know what? It's just as great overseas.
I played my first international tournament in Czechoslovakia. The Rude Pravo Cup was an amazing experience for me. The walls at the arena in Prague were covered with bullet holes. This was the scene of the game played behind the Iron Curtain. The KGB was there, guns in hand. In 1979, no one would even think to defect from the Soviet Union. The concept of hoisting the Stanley Cup over your head was not a consideration. The Grail wasn't even a priority.
Winning the Rude Pravo Cup meant just as much to them as the Stanley Cup means to us. Winning at the international level also meant a great deal to me - as it does to this day.
To understand the importance of international hockey, you have to understand what it is to represent your country. Overseas, they never used to grow up dreaming of Lord Stanley. It's tournaments such as the Spengler Cup and - the biggest of them all - the World Championships, that people in countries such as Russia, Sweden, and Finland dream of winning.
The men who represent their country are competing at the highest level, to gain bragging rights that transcend the entire nation. The energy that the fans bring to the arena, far surpasses that of any barn in North America. The songs they sing, and the intimidation they impose over the visiting team's fans, are truly experiences to behold.
I do not belittle my NHL accomplishments when I say to win the Spengler Cup means just as much to me as to win the Stanley Cup. The skill level is absolutely amazing, and the competition is fierce. But one thing does separate these two events: The concept of representing Canada.
My professional career ended in 1997, but not before I had the chance to represent Canada one last time. Having played in Europe throughout 1995 and 1996, I competed in one last Spengler Cup.
Five games in six nights.
How things changed since 1979. In 1996, Skoda Cars surrounded the international ice surface instead of KGB gunmen. Still, my opponents were just as hungry as always to honor their country with a victory. We won. I was the "Key Player" (MVP) of the tournament, and of the championship game.
When my country called, I answered the bell every chance I could. Be it for the Rude Pravo Cup, the 1979 Pacific Rim Tournament, the 1980 Olympics, the numerous World Cups throughout the 80s, the World Championships in 1989 and 1995, or even attempting to play in the Lillehammer games in 1994 - when NHL players weren't permitted to compete...
To have the maple leaf on my chest felt special. I played against and amongst some of the best hockey players in the world, and to this day it's a feeling that goes unmatched.