Hockey is still Canada’s game. It produces the largest amount and the highest quality of players, but other countries are catching up. If you go back in time to the 1970s, almost 100% of the players in the NHL were Canadian, but not anymore!
What percentage of NHL players are Canadian? In the 2019-2020 season a total of 271 Canadian born players were in the NHL, which works out to 42.7% of NHL players. Although still the largest group of hockey players by nationality in the NHL, recent decades and years have had other countries catching up in numbers and talent.
Now, of course, numbers do not tell the whole story. Let’s take a closer look at the number of Canadian players in the NHL over the decades, where they are today, and how they got there. (And, I’m going to add some in some pictures of NHL players playing for Team Canada because it gives me good feelings!)Embed from Getty Images
Percentage of Canadians in the NHL over the decades
Let’s start of by taking a look at the percentage of Canadians in the NHL over the decades. I have highlighted seven years from 1970 until 2019 that give us a sense of the bigger picture and the trend.
So why did the NHL have such a high percentage of Canadians in the early years and even up until the 70s, but are now in a decline?
If you go back to the start of the NHL in 1917, almost 100% of the players in the NHL were born in Canada. Ice hockey was a game that was invented in Canada in the Halifax and Montreal regions.
Hockey quickly grew in Canada, where most of the teams, leagues and players originated from. Hockey would expand into the Northeast USA, but most of the American teams still had predominantly Canadian born players.
Even as the decades rolled on the NHL was still dominated by Canadian born players. In 1970 the NHL was still primarily composed of Canadian players as 96.1% of players had Canadian heritage. This makes sense as most of the development leagues were still Canadian, which were the main route to the NHL.
As the 1970s progressed, other countries started to finally develop a higher level of player development. This was witnessed in a few ways:
- Rise of the Soviet Union Hockey Program: Although, they won the Gold Medals in the Olympics and world champions in the 1960s; it was the Summit Series against team Canada in 1972 that put them on the map as equals. After almost upsetting the Canadians in an 8 game matchup, the Soviets let the world know they can play hockey too
- Borje Salming – he was really the first European and Swedish all-star that played in the NHL. This signalled to the NHL that talent could be developed in other countries beside Canada, and other countries were adopting this game.
- The Rise of USA hockey: Although the Miracle on Ice took place in 1980, it was in the 70s that all those players developed to the point that they could actually beat the Russians in 1980. The game would also go onto inspire a new generation of American hockey players (with increasing percentages) who would become stars in the NHL – Modano, Roenick, Tkachuk, Richter
By 1980 the number of Canadians in the NHL was clearly in the decline. By the end of the decade only three quarters of players were from Canada, which is still a lot but a clear fall from the almost 100% just two decades before.
The 1990s saw the Russians finally come into the league. Not only was more non-Canadian talent coming into the league, but the talent level was extremely high. One of the biggest indications of this was at the NHL entry draft where 1st overall picks were no longer just Canadians but were being chosen from players all over the world.
Before American Mike Modano was picked first overall in 1988, only one previous pick had been a non-Canadian (American Brian Lawton). After Modano was picked first overall, only about half of the first overall picks have been Canadian.
With the expansion of hockey into the U.S.A. in the 1990s and 2000s, which was initiated by the arrival of Wayne Gretzky in 1988, the U.S. has seen an explosion of growth in the numbers and development of players. The U.S. has gone from having 2.3% of players in the 1970s to 28.6% of players by 2019.
Why are there less Canadians as a percentage playing in the league?
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It is important to note that the quality of players that Canada has produced has not diminished. The talent level of who Canada produces as players is still extremely high. Canada still knows how to develop extremely high-end players.
However, it is not so much what Canada is or isn’t doing, but what other countries are doing. Other countries – USA, Scanadanivian countries, Russia – have improved their development programs immensely the past 3 to 4 decades.
They have looked to the Canadian development system and used that as a guiding post in creating their own. However, they have now become so good at what they are doing that the Canadian system now learns from them as well.
As well, Canada is not that big of a country in terms of the number of people. There are about 35 million people in Canada, which is the same population as California.
The USA now has almost the same number of youth in hockey programs as Canada does. They simply have so many more people that can potentially get involved. The game cannot grow that much in Canada, but it can in the USA, and as it does it will naturally produce more NHL players.
The same thing can be said about all the European countries. When you add up all the people in North, Central and Eastern Europe there is a lot of potential for growth in the game and a lot of kids that can potentially get to the NHL with the right development programs. And, that is what we are seeing in those areas – more kids playing hockey, and better development taking place.
What are other countries doing to catch-up to Canada?
It is the simple fact that the other countries have vastly improved the number of players who play and the quality of the development programs.
USA hockey has done a great job in their development system. The young superstars that are coming from the USA are next to none. Case in point: Auston Matthews who grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The European leagues have also become development factoriess. Finland is known for the amazing goaltenders they produce, and Sweden for their defensemen. And, now, Germany is starting to pump out high-end talent with the likes of Leon Draisaitl and Tim Stutzle.
All of these countries in Europe and the U.S. have significantly increased the number of development leagues for younger players, and developed a high-end level of coaching at each.
What is the talent level of the Canadians in the NHL?
But, let’s not sell Canada too short. They still produce amazing hockey talent.
Canada is still the only country that has produced generational superstars.
The who’s who of hockey royalty are all Canadians – Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid. I would concede and add the Russian Alexander Ovechkin on that list as the second greatest goal scorer of all-time (behind Gretzky), but the point still stands that Canada produces the most elite talent.Embed from Getty Images
What will the percentage of Canadian players be in the future?
I believe the trend will continue, and you will continue to see a decline in the number of Canadian NHL players in the NHL.
Again, it is not because Canada is producing a lesser quality of player. I think the amount of high-end players that is being produced is as high as ever. It is simply that other countries are producing such high quality players.
The U.S. continues to pump out the players, and I imagine this will continue to grow. As well, I think Europe has a lot of room to grow in the amount of quality players it produces. I imagine that all the Central European countries will start to increase the number of players in the NHL led by Germany.
All in all this is great for hockey – and sure will make the Olympics and International competitions so much fun to watch!!!!