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Look out Canada, the rest of the hockey world’s catching up

It’ll be just past 2 a.m. in Finland when the NHL Draft gets underway, so most kids will be sleeping. Olli Juolevi wants them up. It could change their lives.

It did for him.

Juolevi, one of the top defensemen available in this year’s draft, remembers a magical moment in 2010. The Minnesota Wild used the ninth overall pick on Mikael Granlund, a forward playing in Juolevi’s hometown of Helsinki. From that moment on, Juolevi knew he wanted to follow Granlund to North America and the best league in the world.

He’ll get the chance Friday. Juolevi will be an early pick in First Niagara Center, joining countrymen Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi near the top of the draft board.

“It’s pretty rare for Finland to have three such high picks, but it’s great,” Juolevi said. “I hope some young Finnish guys can watch and say that I want to be there some day because that was my thing when Mikael Granlund went to Minnesota. I was like, ‘I want to be there some day,’ and it’s pretty cool that I’m here.”

The trio of Finns are further proof that scouts need to look beyond their borders. While hockey has long been a global game, the draft was once a regional event. Those days are gone.

When Buffalo hosted its first draft in 1991, 14 of the 22 picks in the first round were Canadian. When the selection show arrived again in 1998, 16 of the 27 picks in the opening round came from Canada.

This year, Pierre-Luc Dubois might be the only Canadian in the top 15. There certainly won’t be any in the top three, and that hasn’t happened since 1999, when goaltender Brian Finley was the first Canadian off the board at No. 6.

Scouts have watched players from Arizona to Sweden to Russia, and they like what they see.

“It’s totally an international game now,” said Greg Royce, the Buffalo Sabres’ director of amateur scouting. “It just makes for a lot of travel for the scouts, but it’s good.”

The prospects’ willingness to move has helped the globalization. Juolevi left his homeland for the Ontario Hockey League, and he boosted his stock by helping London win the Memorial Cup. The prospect list is dotted with similar stories.

Mikhail Sergachev departed Russia late last summer knowing barely a word of English. He figured it would be tough in Windsor, Ont., and he was right. Living with a billet family he didn’t know while trying to fit in at home and on the ice, the defenseman got off to a slow start.

“I kind of missed home and missed my family,” he said.

By the time his parents visited in December, Sergachev had settled in with Windsor. The big blue-liner was named the OHL’s best defenseman after 17 goals and 57 points in 67 games. He feels the Canadian Hockey League allowed him to show his skills more than he could have in the Kontinental Hockey League.

“The CHL is much closer to NHL than KHL,” Sergachev said. “The NHL is the best league, so I want to play there.”

Right wing Vladimir Kuznetsov left Russia’s fourth-largest city, Yekaterinburg (population 1.3 million), for Acadie-Bathurst in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The team shares a home with only 13,000 people.

“It’s small city, but it’s good for hockey,” said Kuznetsov, who had 25 goals and 58 points in 68 games. “There’s nothing else, and you focus on the game, every game. I like it in Bathurst.

“It’s a smaller rink and the hockey is faster. I like playing here rather than Russian rink. It’s better for me because I’m a big guy and there’s more big guys and a faster game. It’s helped me.”

The top of the draft shows that playing in Europe is just fine, too. American Auston Matthews skated in Switzerland, and he’s the consensus No. 1 selection. Laine and Puljujarvi stayed in Finland, and they’re expected to go second and third.

“For them to spend the time in their own country playing in the system there, it’s a successful formula, particularly Finland and Sweden,” said Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting. “For those kids that have come over, they’ve also had some success here. It’s just a good option, and they have success with whatever choice they make.

“There’s just good players. They come from everywhere. USA Hockey continues to grow. Europe has brought good players in.”

Eight of the top 15 prospects are from the United States. Their hometowns show hockey is thriving across the country.

Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk are from Scottsdale, Ariz. Jakob Chychrun is a native of Boca Raton, Fla. Charles McAvoy is from Long Island. Logan Brown hails from North Carolina.

They grew up watching the Coyotes, Panthers, Islanders and Hurricanes. Now they’ll play for and against them.

“I think it’s all the ex-NHLers that move down there after their careers and start coaching, guys like my dad, Peter Worrell, Tomas Vokoun, Radek Dvorak,” said Chychrun, whose father, Jeff, played 262 games in the league. “There’s a whole bunch of ex-NHLers down there coaching.

“With the Florida Panthers getting better and better every year, it’s helping grow the game. It’s great to see the game growing in areas like California, Florida.

“It’s great for the sport.”