Have you ever wondered if there are hockey leagues that rival the NHL in terms of talent, viewership, and fan-base? Well, if you have, then this segment should be just for you.
It is widely known that players from around the world flock to the NHL for a chance to win Lord Stanley’s Cup and play on possibly the biggest hockey stages around North America. However, hockey is not a phenomenon that is exclusive solely to North America as many European leagues such as the SEL, KHL, and SM-liiga have shown that they are quite adept at developing talented hockey players that can succeed at any level.
Here’s my breakdown of the top 10 best hockey leagues around the world:
10.) American Hockey League (AHL) - The American Hockey League makes the list because it is usually the last stop a developing prospect has before they arrive with the big league club in the NHL. Usually, NHL teams will decide if a prospect is ready for the NHL after they have completed a certain amount of international play or competition within a North American league. While the American Hockey League is not a hot-spot for prospects to run to, the league does a very respectable job of prepping young talent for the NHL.
As of 2010-2011, every NHL team has had an affiliation with an AHL team and the league continues to provide quality mentoring for up and coming NHL talent.
9.) Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) – The QMJHL weighs in at No. 9 as the league has delivered significant talent to the NHL. NHL Hall of Famers such as Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, and Patrick Roy all played in “The Q” and had spectacular careers in the NHL. In the modern day, players such as Sidney Crosby represent more recent QMJHL alumni that have made a significant impact on the NHL.
Out of the three major junior hockey leagues, the QMJHL is known most for having players with immense offensive prowess. While the QMJHL might not be known for producing quality defensemen, the league is definitely one of the most exciting junior hockey leagues in Canada. Lately, players such as Mikhail Grigorenko, Nathan MacKinnon, and Jonathan Huberdeau (to name a few) have been showcasing their talent in “The Q” to show that they are worthy of an NHL roster spot.
Even though some detractors may reference the QMJHL’s lack of defensive play, the league has captured the Memorial Cup trophy 3 times since 2000 and remains one of the most exciting leagues for hockey in North America.
8.) National League A (NLA) - Based in Switzerland, the National League A is the top tier of the two tier Swiss hockey league, with the other being the National League B. The NLA had the best attendance figures for European hockey clubs in 2011 and part of that was definitely due to hockey club SC Bern and its spacious (17,131 capacity) home, PostFinance-Arena.
The NLA consists of 12 teams that play a total of 50 games in a season, with the top eight teams qualifying for the playoffs. The bottom four teams in the standings get thrust into a consolation bracket of sorts and the top team from the National League B is given a chance to vie for NLA inclusion. In the last decade, the league has seen a number of clubs win multiple championships, but HC Davos has clearly dominated the competition by winning 5 championships since 2001.
The league has experienced a number of different champions over the years and the attendance rates for the NLA suggest that much like us in North America, those Swiss love their hockey (and cheese).
7.) Ontario Hockey League (OHL) - The Ontario Hockey League has a reputation, much like the QMJHL, for producing some amazing talent that has a significant impact at the NHL level. Players such as Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, and one of my personal favorites, John Tavares, have all played in the OHL and made their mark in the NHL.
While the OHL has a 68 game schedule for 20 teams, the league does a pretty good job of scheduling games that run mostly from Thursday through the weekend. Since most players participating in the OHL are aged 15-20, there can definitely be some scheduling conflicts with one’s school schedule. However, don’t be fooled by the fact that some of these kids still have to attend school and make room to constantly improve on their hockey game.
In my opinion, the OHL consistently produces players that are all-around skilled players. Leagues such as “The Q” have been known for producing offensive super-stars, but the OHL seems to deliver players that are extremely well-rounded. Even though the three major junior hockey leagues differ in terms of their respective styles, each of the three leagues has not failed to produce a plethora of talent for NHL teams around North America.
6.) Slovak Extraliga (Tipsport Extraliga) - The Slovak Extraliga was founded in 1993 after Czechoslovakia split up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Even though the Slovakian league was part of the Czech Extraliga before 1993, the split has worked out well for both sides as the Czech Republic and Slovakia continue to produce quality NHL players. Some of the most notable Slovakian players to have a huge impact on the NHL are Pavol Demitra, Zigmund Palffy, Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, and Marian Gaborik. While the Slovakian league is fairly new, the play of the Slovakian National teams at the Winter Olympics and the World Junior Hockey Championship has been hard to ignore and it has been made apparent that Slovakian hockey is trending upward.
The Slovakian league is only comprised of 10 teams, but the league has an interesting aspect to it as it allows the Slovakian U20 Junior team to play in some regular season games. While the Slovakian Junior Team (HK Orange 20) cannot compete in the playoffs and certain contests, the other teams in the league compete for one of eight playoff spots. Much like the NLA and DEL, the Slovak Extraliga has had one team (HC Slovan Bratislava) win 5 championships in the last 10 years, but has also had other teams (HC Kosice) that have won multiple championships over the last decade.
5.) Czech Extraliga (Tipsport Extraliga) - The Czech Extraliga is one of the most competitive ice hockey leagues in Europe and is currently ranked by the IIHF as the third strongest ice hockey league in Europe. The league was also founded in 1993 after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the Czech’s have much to show for in terms of talent contributed to the NHL.
Players from the Czech Republic make their way to the NHL every year and many of those players have had a shot at playing in the Czech Extraliga. There are currently 50-plus Czech’s in the National Hockey League and with players such as Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Fleischmann contributing to NHL rosters, it is obvious that the Czech Republic and the Czech Extraliga has a knack for developing talented all-around hockey players.
The Czech Extraliga has 4 more teams than the Slovak Extraliga, but the league formatting also adds interesting elements to its viewers. Only the top 6 teams make the playoffs, but the teams that finish 7th – 10th compete against each other for a chance to advance to the quarterfinals against one of the top 6 teams. As for teams that finish 11th – 14th, those teams are forced to compete against each other, with the loser of the group facing the top team from the Czech Republic’s First League. Since the Czech Extraliga utilizes a relegation/promotion system, the bottom team in the Extraliga will be subject to relegation to the First League if they are unable to beat the top seeded team from the latter league.
Just like the Slovakians, the Czechs have put forth strong showings at the last Winter Olympics as well as the 2012 WJHC. It is no surprise that the Czechs have been delivering outstanding play on a national level and it shouldn’t be a shock to fans that behind American and Canadian players, Czechs are the third most populated group in the NHL.
4.) SM-liiga - Finland’s top professional ice-hockey league, SM-liiga, is regarded by the IIHF as the second strongest league in all of Europe. Hockey’s popularity in Finland has skyrocketed and so has the country’s success at the international level. Most recently, the U20 Finnish Team made it all the way to the semi-final round against Team Sweden in the World Junior Hockey Championship, but ultimately lost in a thrilling game.
The SM-liiga has been thriving since it took over hockey responsibilities in Finland from the SM-sarja in 1975. Viewership, support, and the level of hockey play in Finland has dramatically increased over the last three and a half decades and the SM-liiga also keeps churning out NHL-caliber talent. The Finnish league is comprised of 14 teams that compete for one of ten playoff spots in a span of 60 regular season games, with the top six teams automatically entering the quarter-final stage. The Czech Extraliga and SM-liiga utilize the same playoff format as the 7th-10th seeds compete with each other for a chance to meet one of the 6 quarter-final contestants.
The SM-liiga also contributes a considerable amount of talent to the NHL and some of Finland’s most highly touted prospects such as Mikael Granlund and Teemu Pulkkinen, are set to make their mark in the NHL one of these days. Talented NHLers such as Mikko Koivu, Teemu Selanne, and Saku Koivu were all products of the SM-liiga and the future of the league is as bright as ever as long as it keeps producing such amazing talent.
3.) Elitserien (Swedish Elite League “SEL”) - The Swedish Elite League is composed of 12 teams that play a 55 game schedule. Much like the Czech Extraliga and SM-liiga, the Swedish Elite League has a system that rewards a team 3 points for a regulation win, 2 points for an overtime win, and 1 point for an overtime loss. The top eight of 12 teams make it to the playoffs, but the format of the first playoff round is a bit interesting since the top three-seeded teams get to pick their opponent out of the bottom-seeded teams for the first round.
Elitserien also utilizes a relegation and promotion system as the bottom seeded teams in the SEL are pitted against the top teams in Sweden’s second tier league, HockeyAllsvenskan. The relegation series which is dubbed Kvalserien determines who will be relegated to the second tier league and who will be promoted to the Elite League.
Sweden has experienced massive hockey success as of late on an international level, winning gold at the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship and the 2006 Winter Olympics. Aside from Saab, Volvo, ABBA, and Ikea, the Swedes have been making quite an impact on the NHL world as well. With names such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Daniel & Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen contributing at a high level in the NHL, it is no surprise why the Swedes have dominated the hockey world over the last 5 years.
2.) Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) - The Kontinental Hockey League is widely considered the No. 2 to the NHL. The KHL is also regarded as the strongest ice-hockey league in all of Europe and Russian players constitute the majority of players in the league. Since its founding in 2008, the KHL has introduced 24 teams (6 per division), with 8 of the top seeded teams in each division making the playoffs. The KHL playoff structure is quite similar to the NHL format and the top two teams from each division compete for the Gagarin Cup at the end of the playoffs.
What makes the KHL so interesting is that it holds a variety of players from different backgrounds and countries. There are currently a total of 701 KHL players from 14 different countries and with 24 teams in the league, the competition has to be top-notch. Even though the KHL has a wide variety of talent playing in its ranks and could offer lucrative contracts to hockey players, the European league cannot match the popularity and marketing strength of our ONE and only, the NHL!
1.) National Hockey League (NHL) - What is left to be said about a league that was founded in 1917 and built up an empire that is yet to be rivaled? Well, I think a whole bunch could be said about it.
Many hockey players overseas and in North America view the NHL as the last and most important stop in their careers. Lucrative contracts, media exposure, and a chance to win hockey’s ultimate prize, Lord Stanley’s Cup, are among the factors that drive certain players to make it to the NHL stage. With 30 teams in the league, the NHL is definitely bigger in terms of depth than the KHL and has arguably the best talent from around the world vying for one trophy.
While some might argue that the NHL grants the most exposure to hockey players in North America, the Stanley Cup and its history is well known throughout the world. Some of the most talented players to make an impact in the NHL have been developed overseas, but the NHL still stands unrivaled in the pantheon of hockey leagues.
1.) Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL) – The DEL was founded in 1994-1995 and was comprised of teams from the Ice Hockey Bundesliga’s first and second division. In the beginning, the league experienced controversies as many teams were highly in debt and some clubs were forced to fold. Furthermore, rulings by the European Court of Justice enabled players to move quite frequently between teams and attendance numbers took a fall coming into the new millennium.
However, the league rebounded as it experienced an influx of NHL players during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout. The league also re-instituted the use of the relegation system as more emphasis would be placed on play in the second division of the Ice Hockey’s Bundesliga. Since the 2001-2002 season, championship play has largely been controlled by Eisbaren Berlin as they have won 5 championships in 10 years.
While the DEL may not have the offensive firepower that leagues such as the QMJHL do, it’s hard not to like German hockey, especially with team names such as the Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg.
2.) Western Hockey League (WHL) - The Western Hockey League is the last of the three major junior hockey leagues and has a large number of teams based in Canada and some in the western part of the United States. The WHL was established in 1969 by Carson G. Smith as he wanted to compete with the top tier hockey leagues in Quebec and Ontario. The League has thrived since Smith set out on his mission and the WHL has claimed the Memorial Cup 18 times since its inception in 1969. The WHL has produced some stellar players over the years (Ryan-Nugent Hopkins) and the league keeps producing some solid defensive prospects. Matt Dumba, Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Murray, and Morgan Rielly are some highly touted WHL prospects that will be highly sought at this year’s NHL Entry Draft.
3.) NCAA - The NCAA keeps producing talented players that continue to make an impact at the NHL level. Players such as Dany Heatley, Thomas Vanek, James Van Riemsdyk, Jonathan Toews, and Colin Wilson are just some of the notable hockey players that have made their way to the NHL from the NCAA. Ever since the turn of the century, the NCAA has steadily increased the amount of players that are selected in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. NCAA ice-hockey is on the up and up and the league is starting to produce more and more quality players that are experiencing lengthy careers in the NHL.