Montreal – Thomas Vanek may be the first Austrian to ever suit up for the Habs, but he’s not the only player in the franchise’s history to hail from an unlikely hockey country.
Throughout the team’s recent history, three other countries from a narrow corridor between Western and Eastern Europe, going from the Baltic to the Alps, have seen one of theirs perform in the NHL as a member of the Montreal Canadiens.
Location: In Northern Europe, 200 miles south of Helsinki, Finland
Population: 2.0 million (roughly the sum of Montreal and Laval’s populations)
Staple dish : pīrādziņi (crescent-shaped baked pastry filled with meats, cabbage or cheese)
Well-known athletes: Arturs Irbe (hockey), Ernests Gulbis (tennis)
First Hab: Sergei Zholtok
- A native of Latvia’s capital city, Zholtok signed with Montreal as a free agent in 1998 and led the team in goals with 26 in 1999-00. In total, he played two and a half seasons with the team before being dealt to Edmonton in return for Chad Kilger. Tragically, Zholtok succumbed to a heart ailment during a Belarusian league game in 2004. The lessons learned during the incident would later save the lives of Jiri Fischer and Rich Peverley in similar circumstances.
Location: Southern neighbour to Latvia and bordering Belarus and Poland
Population: 3.2 million (one-tenth of the population of Canada)
Staple dish: Dark rye bread flavoured with caraway seeds
Well-known athletes: Zydrunas Ilgauskas (basketball), Arvydas Sabonis (basketball)
First Hab: Dainius Zubrus
- Lithuania’s lone NHL representative, Zubrus was born and raised in Elektrenai, a hockey-mad enclave in a country where basketball is a second religion. After honing his game in Ukraine and Canada, Zubrus was drafted by the Flyers and traded to the Canadiens in his third pro season. The centerman has played over 1000 NHL games, including 139 with the Habs between 1999 and 2001.
Location: East of Germany and the Czech Republic
Population: 38 million (10% more than the population of Canada)
Staple dish: Pierogi (boiled potato dumplings)
Well-known athletes: Agnieszka Radwanska (tennis), Mariusz Pudzianowski (powerlifting)
First Hab: Mariusz Czerkawski
- The shifty scorer was the first Polish-trained player to break into the NHL, scoring 215 goals in 745 games played. Acquired from the New York Islanders in exchange for Arron Asham and a fifth-round draft pick, Czerkawski became the only Pole to suit up for the Habs by taking part in 43 games during the 2002-03 season.
Location: South of Germany and the Czech Republic
Population: 8.4 million (15% more than the population of Quebec)
Staple dish: Wiener Schnitzel (breaded and fried veal cutlets)
Well-known athletes: Niki Lauda (formula one), Matthias Sindelar (soccer)
First Hab: Thomas Vanek
- In his first six games since arriving at the trade deadline, Vanek has dominated opposing defensemen and fired 25 shots on net. A career 14.7% shooter, he lit the lamp three times against the Colorado Avalanche to score his first goals as a Hab.
Jack Han is a writer for canadiens.com.
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