The NHL is the most famous and popular hockey league in the world, however the players in the NHL do come from certain pockets of geography.
So where do NHL players come from? It is safe to say that players basically come from places that get cold in the winter. For a country to produce an NHL player there needs to be at least some snow, somewhere. There are players from warm climates, but predominantly players are from colder weather countries or the cold weather regions of a country.Embed from Getty Images
Let’s look at the specifics of where the players come from.
I have compiled data that lists the makeup of the NHL and the countries that are represented as a percentage of the total players in the NHL. Since there are a number of countries who are represented with only 1 or 2 players I have grouped them together in the ‘other’ category. At the end of the article you can see a full list of all the countries represented in the NHL.
Following the main table I have written about the changes in demographics from the last five decades.
The makeup of the NHL is truly evolving every decade. Up until the 1980s it was heavily, heavily weighted in favour of Canadians. However, since then different countries have increased the quality of their development systems. These development systems in so many ways have caught up to Canada to the point that there are many different countries not only represented in the NHL but producing NHL all-stars.
Let’s take a look at the makeup of the NHL each decade from the 1970s to the present and see how the makeup of where the players came from has changed and what the big movements in each decade were.
NHL in 1970s
The 1970s and earlier were essentially Canada’s game. There were few American players and only a smattering of internationals. Each team was a set of Canadian players – basically, only one player on the team would be a non-Canadian.
The 1970s started to see international players trickle into the NHL. Up until 1969 the international game was a non-contact game, so not many players were used to or wanted to play the NHL game. So after the change to bodychecking in the non-NHL game the number of international players started to ramp up.
The main international country to start sending players to the NHL was Sweden. Although there were Swedes before him, undoubtedly the largest impact Swede of the 70s was Borje Salming of the Toronto Maple Leaf. He was truly the first non-North American to play a significant role as a member of an NHL team.Embed from Getty Images
As well, internationally the 1970s witnessed the rise of USSR hockey team. Although none of these players would end up playing in the NHL – Tretiak, Kharlamov, Mikhailov – they put the world on notice that other countries were starting to play hockey and it wasn’t just going to be Canada’s game.
NHL in 1980s
Canada still dominated, but the increase in non-Canadian players was starting to come.
The 1980s welcomed the first real influx of Swedish players.
The first thing you need to know about Swedes is that they love Sweden. I mean, they really love Sweden!
A number of Swedes would come over to North America, but would only stay a few years because they wanted to make sure that they raised their young families in Sweden. Case in point was Hakan Loob from the Calgary Flames.
In 1989 Loob was at the height of his career winning the Stanley Cup and scoring over 50 goals, and still he went back to Sweden after that season.
This is not so much the case today, but back then internationals were still only dipping their toe in the water about playing in the NHL.
Perhaps the biggest thing that would happen in the 1980s to change the demographic landscape was the Miracle on Ice at the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980.
How did an Olympic hockey game have such a big impact on NHL country participation?
Well, as you know the Miracle on Ice was when the huge (enormously huge) underdog United States beat the dominate USSR team in the semifinals on the way to winning the gold medal. This had no impact on the immediate number of Americans playing in the NHL, but long-term it changed things forever.
The Miracle on Ice inspired so many kids in the U.S. to start playing hockey. This would lead to the first real influx of dominate American NHL players in the U.S. who would be playing in the NHL during the 1990s. Players like Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, Mike Richter, and Keith Tkachuk were all kids who watched the Miracle on Ice happen. Inspired by this event the first wave of dominant American NHL players entered the league.
NHL in 1990s
As the game continued to grow internationally and in the U.S., the world was catching up to the Canadian hockey program. Canada was still the highest ranked country, but they were no longer dominate like used to be.
Not only were a number of countries catching up in terms of actual numbers, but the skill gap between the players was decreasing.
The largest influx of international players in the 90s would come from the Russians. Communism in the Soviet Union was breaking down, and the NHL was a winner with all of their players.
The first Russian player in 1989 was Sergei Pryakhin. Pryakhin was a bottom six forward for the Calgary Flames and did not do much professionally other than signal what was to come next.
After Pryakhin, the real Russian starts started to come. Alexander Mogilny defected (as did a few others), but soon many were coming through the front door – Bure, Fetisov, Federov, Makarov, Larionov.Embed from Getty Images
In 1994, the NHL crowned the first Russian Hart Trophy winner in Sergei Federov and the first Russian names were etched onto the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers.
NHL in the 2000s
The 2000s would mark the rise and fall of the Russians. It is not that Russians stopped playing hockey, not at all, but fewer of them started to come to the NHL.
The reason for this was the Russians started their own hockey league to rival the NHL called the Kontinental Hockey League (“KHL”). Although the top Russian stars like Malkin, Ovechkin, and Bobrovsky would come to the NHL, many of the second tier players would stay behind in Russia.
The Russians tried to make it attractive to Russian players by making players salaries tax free in the KHL. In the early 2000s the KHL seemed like it could be a viable threat to the NHL, but money problems have seen the league take a step back.
The most exciting thing from an overall hockey standpoint is that the 2000s saw the increase from all of the ‘other’ countries. By all of the other countries, I mean not Canada, U.S., Russia, Finland, Sweden or the Czech Republic.
There started to be quality players from many other European countries being drafted into and then playing significant roles in the NHL. Players like Thomas Vanek from Austria and Anze Kopitar from Slovenia were/are high-end NHLers.
The 2000s was the time when the NHL started to truly become a diverse international league.
NHL 2010s to present
One of the biggest things to increase present day American participation happened in the 1980s – Wayne Gretzky’s trade to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
Gretzky’s trade to the Kings instantly put hockey on the map in Los Angeles and became one of the hottest tickets in town. Not only did it increase the popularity in Los Angeles, but it opened the NHL to expand into a number of warmer U.S. citites or as they are also called non-traditional hockey markets.
Since the Gretzky trade the cities that now have NHL include: San Jose, Anaheim, Las Vegas, Phoenix/Arizona, Dallas, Nashville, Carolina, Tampa Bay, and Miami/Florida.
The most amazing thing about this is that those areas have now started to produce NHL caliber players. There are players from California, Tennessee and Texas now being drafted into the NHL – this would not have happened without that Gretzky trade and the subsequent expansion.
The best examples of this is Auston Matthews. Matthews is the second highest paid player in the entire league. And, guess where he was born? Scottsdale, Arizona. Matthews grew up a fan of the Phoenix Coyotes and was a big Daniel Briere fan.
In addition to the Gretzky trade, the U.S. development hockey program has continued to strengthen and produce high quality players.
The number of boys playing hockey in the U.S. is almost equal to the number playing in Canada, and will probably pass it one day. The number of girls playing in the U.S. is greater than Canada, and the U.S. women’s team is consistently ranked the top in the world.
In addition to the U.S. program catching up to Canada’s, the rest of the world has caught up as well. Other countries do not have the sheer numbers of people playing hockey as Canada, but they are producing as high of caliber of players.
Whether it is Swedish defensemen or Finish goaltenders, other countries have learned how to produce as high quality players as the Canadians.
The next wave of players look to becoming from all of the non-Finland, Sweden, and Czech European countries. Countries such as Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, and Germany continue to produce higher quality players.
Here is a current list of all the countries represented in the NHL
|Country||Number of Players||Percentage of Players|