by Dan Adkisson
Which countries have the fastest expanding hockey leagues?
When most people think of hockey, their mind tends to focus on the game in North America, as the USA and Canada are the main hotbeds of the sport, with the National Hockey League (NHL) leading the way.
The sport’s popularity has steadily grown over the past few decades, proven by some of the record viewing figures reached at the start of 2021. The regular season got underway in January with three games, which averaged 774,000 viewers on NBCSN, the network’s most-watched multi-game opening night.
Reigning Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were one of the teams involved on that night. However, entering this season, they are not the leading favorites to lift the trophy again in 2021-22 according to the latest NHL betting odds.
The Colorado Avalanche are expected by major bookmakers like 888Sport to triumph in the league this season at odds of roughly 9/2.
However, over the past decade or so professional hockey has begun to spread worldwide into countries outside of the U.S. and Canada, even as far as Asian regions like South Korea.
Europe has quickly become a major provider of top hockey talent and in the 2019-20 NHL season, roughly a third of the 976 players who competed in at least one league game were European.
This now makes Europe the second-largest contributor of NHL players behind Canada, surpassing the U.S. and highlighting how popular the sport has become in that continent.
Sweden is one of the European countries in which hockey has become most popular, with record numbers of players moving to the U.S. and plying their trade there. This is partly down to the rich history Sweden has with the NHL; Ulf Sterner was the first European player to ever feature in the league back in 1965 and Lars-Eerik Sjoberg became the first ever European captain of a NHL team in 1979.
The Swedish Hockey League is one of the most well-recognized professional hockey leagues in the world and works in a similar way to the NHL.
Finland is not far behind, also sending plenty of top-tier players to the NHL and establishing its own league – Liiga. The likes of Aleksander Barkov, Sami Vatanen and Rasmus Ristolainen, all recent successes in the NHL, came from Liiga.
If you’re looking for the world’s second most prominent hockey league behind the NFL, then look no further than the Kontinental Hockey League. This international competition, founded in 2008, is predominantly made up of Russian teams but features clubs from Belarus, China, Finland, Latvia and Kazakhstan.
The players involved in the league come from all over the world, including Great Britain and Canada, to play in a competition that has risen to impressive levels of prominence in the sporting world.
Hungary is another European country that has seen popularity in hockey increase, mainly due to their success on the international stage. They are now regulars in the Elite Division of the IIHF World Championships and while they may not have a league as successful as some of their neighbors, the talent coming out of the region cannot be denied.
The Czech Republic has been supplying the NHL with excellent players for decades, and the country now has its own league to boast, which is where a lot of homegrown talent starts out and thrives in.
Around since 1993, the Czech Extraliga has grown in recent years to become one of Europe’s leading hockey leagues.
Asia used to have two main leagues players could compete in; the Japan Ice Hockey League and the Korean Ice Hockey League. These declined in popularity and the Korean league eventually folded altogether.
Then, in 2003, Asia League Ice Hockey was launched to boost the sport across Asia – a goal the league has certainly achieved. Currently, the league features teams from Japan, Russia and South Korea and actually commands large audiences for its games.
Indeed, the sport has grown in popularity throughout all three of those countries and is now emerging as more of a mainstream sport. South Korea in particular has seen rapid success and growth in international competitions, in large part due to their hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
In fact, major international tournaments like the Olympics can have a significant impact on sports like ice hockey. In places like Great Britain, the performance of a sport’s Olympic team will determine how much funding it gets from the state over the next four years.
Thus, as certain countries’ ice hockey teams have performed well at the Olympics and other competitions, they have received more funding to build from the ground up. This leads to better facilities and more exposure for the sport, meaning more young people get involved, thereby creating more chances for breakout stars to emerge.
Exposure to the masses has, in itself, been a contributing factor to the spreading of ice hockey in other countries. In the past, there were only a few ways to watch sport and so major ones like football took prominence.
Now, there are countless channels and services that broadcast sport, meaning the NHL and other hockey competitions are available to much wider audiences. This, inevitably, boosts its popularity and encourages more people to play, thus providing a bedrock for countries to establish and enhance their own hockey leagues.
While the NHL remains the most popular hockey league in the world – and likely will for the foreseeable future – there are plenty of other leagues growing in popularity in other parts of the world, particularly Europe and Asia.
Countries like Sweden, Finland and South Korea have their own leagues packed with talent, attracting audience numbers that are steadily growing and proving the overall worldwide popularity of the sport.