Hockey is a world sport, and the NHL is made up from players from many different countries. One of the countries that has the largest proportion of players in the NHL is America.
What percentage of the NHL players are American? Players born in America makeup 24.8% of the players in the NHL during the 2019-2020. That accounts for 157 players from American origin playing in the NHL, putting them as the second highest group behind Canada (42.7%) and ahead of Sweden (12%).Embed from Getty Images
Let’s look at the story behind these numbers, and how the Americans got to where they are.
Percentage of Americans in the NHL over the decades
The percentage of players from the United States has not been high over the years. This may be surprising since two-thirds of the teams in the NHL are based in the U.S. and four of the six ‘Original Six’ franchises are American.
For instance, at the start of the 1970s only 2.3% of the NHL players were American with Canadians making up the vast majority at 96.1%. The NHL which started in 1917 really had few American players in it until they finally started to expand in the 1970s.
From 1970 until now there has been an impressive and steady increase of American players playing in the NHL.
How has hockey increased in popularity in the US?
There are a few events that have helped hockey grab a larger footprint into the U.S.:
- NHL Expansion
- 1967 – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Oakland)
- 1970 – Buffalo
- 1972 – Atlanta, New York Islanders
- 1974 – Washington, Kansas City
All of these teams added to the NHL increased the number of teams in the US from 4 to 15. Now, not all of them would survive, but what they all did was to increase the exposure of the game of ice hockey to Americans. And, what has been shown is that once people are exposed then people will start playing the game.
This is exactly what happened as teams moved into these cities, the youth in the those cities would start playing the game, and some of them would eventually make the NHL.
- Miracle on Ice – This may be the greatest milestone in American hockey. For those of you who are new to hockey the Miracle on Ice is when the 1980 USA Olympic team defeated the heavily favoured Soviet Union team in the semifinals at the 1980 Olympics on their way to the gold medal. It had all the backdrop of the cold war, and capitalism versus communism, and the dramatics caught the attention of a nation. There were several kids who were watching that game who went onto become the first big American starts in the NHL – Modano, Tkachuk, Roenick, Leetch. These guys all remember where they were when that game was played.
- Gretzky traded to Los Angeles Kings in 1988 – Perhaps the biggest impact on American hockey was when Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988. When Wayne was traded to LA it instantly thrusted hockey into the national spotlight, and hockey became one of the cool things.
However, the most remarkable thing that it did was that within the next decade it helped the NHL move into the warm weather states. The NHL would expand and gain franchises in San Jose, Anaheim, Dallas, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Miami, Nashville, Carolina – all gained from the momentum caused by the Gretzky trade.
How did that play out with kids in those areas growing up to be NHLers? Very, very well. Star Auston Matthews is the most famous case as he grew up in Scottsdale, where he was a big Coyotes fan. Others would include Matt Nieto born in Long Beach, the Jones brothers Seth and Caleb from Texas and Blake Geoffrion from Tennessee. As the young leagues in those warm weather areas have had a couple decades to develop around these teams – expect more southern NHL players to start coming rapidly.Embed from Getty Images
What has USA hockey done to increase the number of players at higher levels?
The US has done two things very well: increased participation from youth in the game of hockey and revamped their development programs.
In terms of registered ice hockey players in 2018/2019 the U.S. came in second in the world and was only slightly behind Canada. The US had 567908 registered players versus 621026 in Canada. When you get to numbers that high it is essentially the same amount.
So how do you take all of that energy and love for the game and develop it?
The US – for a long time – did lag behind Canada in their high-end coaching and development programs. USA Hockey launched a cutting edge development program in 2009. This involved coaching certifications and age-appropriate coaching development.
As well, they started high-end hockey teams including USA Under18 development team. Look through the NHL draft records and you will see a lot of current NHL players who have been developed and then drafted from this team.
What is the talent level of the Americans in the NHL?
A final note – and I think this is really important to mention – is that not only is USA hockey developing more players but the quality of players that they are developing is outstanding.
If you guy through all of the young American players in the game it is a list of all-stars – Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Brady Tkchuk, Seth Jones, Johnny Gaudreau, Charlie McAvoy, Jack Hughes, John Gibson, Quinn Hughes, Jack Eichel – that is an amazing grouping of young talent.
What I expect from the U.S. is that they will keep on producing MORE top end talent. In another decade or so they may become the dominant hockey country. I think at this moment I would rank them as number 2 behind Canada. They now have greater depth than the Russians or Swedes.
The U.S. still hasn’t produced a generational superstar along the lines of Howe, Orr, Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, but I think that will be coming sooner than later.