It may be called the National Hockey League, but it sure feels more like it could be an international one. Of course, the now-defunct International Hockey League was in operation for decades, but as a North American farm league for NHL teams. There’s nothing purely North American about the NHL, not any longer anyway, not based on a birth-country-by-country breakdown of all its players, based on the 2019-20 season’s opening night:
Canada – 295 (42.8%)
As one might expect, Canada still reigns supreme in terms of which country’s players are the most well-represented in the NHL. However, Canada’s lead is slowly but surely dwindling. Of the 690 players on season-opening rosters, 295 of them, or 42.8%, are from Canada.
That’s actually an uptick relative to around this time last season. Looking at players who had played at least a single game by Oct. 13, 41.8% hailed from the Great White North. However, three and a half years ago, it was roughly half, while in the 1980s it was over three quarters. Needless to say, it’s not just a Canadian game. It’s everyone’s now.
Notable Canadian Player: Take your pick, but let’s go with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid, who’s generally the consensus best player in the world.
United States – 177 (25.7%)
The U.S. can potentially break a record in the coming days. After seeing 153 Americans dress for their teams’ opening games in 2018-19, 177 made rosters out of training camp, which is no small feat. Hockey is as popular as it’s ever been in the States, which is not just emphasized by the number of NHL players, but the success of its international teams.
Granted, two Olympic silver medals for the men’s team since the turn of the century is hardly ground-breaking, but the women’s team is routinely a contender, winning the gold in South Korea in 2018. What’s maybe more of a testament of their strength is their five straight International Ice Hockey Federation world titles.
Notable American Player: Again, there’s an abundance of riches, but Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane is routinely in the mix for the scoring title.
Sweden – 79 (11.4%)
Technically, Gus Forslund was the first Swedish player in the NHL, back in the 1932-33 season. However, he moved to Canada with his family at a young age. It took four more decades for defenseman Thommie Bergman to seriously start blazing trails for his fellow countrymen, primarily as a Detroit Red Wing over an eight-year career.
Notable Swedish Player: Let’s go with San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has won the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the league’s best player at his position… twice.
Finland – 33 (4.8%)
Albert Pudas was technically the first Finnish-born NHLer. He was also technically an original Toronto Maple Leaf, with the St. Pats changing their name during his first and only season in 1926-27. He only played four games, without scoring a point, though. Pudas was also raised in Canada, meaning center Matti Hagman, who played four seasons instead, is credited as the first.
Notable Finnish Player: Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask not only has a Vezina Trophy to his name (2014), but a Stanley Cup ring, too. Granted, ex-teammate Tim Thomas was the No. 1 goalie for the Bruins’ run back in 2011. However, it was all Rask last season for all intents and purposes, even if they fell just short against the St. Louis Blues.
Russia – 31 (4.5%)
Russian players unjustifiably get a bad reputation for being enigmatic, but the skills of those that make it to the NHL cannot be denied. Russian players have helped to shape the modern era of the NHL, from the first Soviet NHL player in Sergei Pryakhin to defectors during the Cold War led by Alexander Mogilny, to the Red Wings’ famous Russian Five. The threat of departures to the Kontinental Hockey League looms large over the heads of general managers, but if the talent is there Russians will always be attractive options during the NHL Entry Draft.
Notable Russian Player: Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov still has a lot to prove, but the Hart Memorial Trophy he captured as league MVP with a 128-point season in 2018-19 is a good starting point.
Czech Republic – 26 (3.8%)
Ever since the Czechs won gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics, they’ve been seen as a major world power. Truth be told, since the official birth of the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, they’ve always been up there. From 1995 until 2001, they medalled every year in either the Olympics or the IIHF World Championship.
Notable Czech Player: While Bruins forward David Krejci is the current points leader among active Czech players, teammate David Pastrnak has developed into more of an impact player at just 23 years of age with three straight 30-goal seasons.
Switzerland – 11 (1.6%)
Switzerland holds steady relative to last year with 11 players. It was nearly one higher before Sven Baertschi got surprisingly waived by the Vancouver Canucks. The new guy on the block who “took” his place? Edmonton Oilers center Gaetan Haas. In any case, Switzerland may not be seen as a world hockey power, but it’s not for lack of quality players.
Notable Swiss Player: Despite playing in the shadow of ex-teammate and defensive partner Shea Weber for his first few seasons, Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi has come into his own as one of the league’s premier defensemen.
Slovakia – 9 (1.3%)
The most famous Slovakian NHL player was also its first in Canadian-raised Stan Mikita. The Black Hawks great passed away in 2018 as a Hockey Hall of Famer and arguably one of the greatest of all time, whatever the country.
Notable Slovakian Player: Forty-two-year-old Zdeno Chara is getting up there, but he still leads the Slovak NHL contingent, much like he does the Bruins.
Denmark – 7 (1.0%)
Hockey in Denmark has been on the rise for a few decades. Its latest wave of success coincided with Frans Nielsen’s debut in the NHL in 2007 with the New York Islanders. There have obviously been more Danish players to make their debuts since. The fact that Nielsen is still an active player and key component on the Red Wings is arguable proof of the strength of the developmental programs there and its (and his) staying power.
Notable Danish Player: Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen has been the epitome of consistency (year over year, anyway) since debuting in 2013-14. In fact, he’s arguably been the solution to the Leafs’ goaltending woes dating back to the departure of Eddie Belfour.
Germany – 7 (1.0%)
Historically speaking, some may think Germany doesn’t have a significant presence in the NHL. Germans actually have a Stanley Cup-winning goal to their credit though, with Colorado Avalanche defenseman Uwe Krupp ending a marathon three-overtime Game Four in 1996.
Notable German Player: Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl may be seen simply as the guy who rides shotgun with McDavid. Nothing could be further from the truth, seeing as he got drafted high (the highest of all Germans ever at No. 3 overall in 2014) on his own merits and just came off a 50-goal season. He may have fallen short in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, but there will clearly be other chances.
The Best of the Rest of the World
Austria – 3 (0.4%): With Thomas Vanek unrestricted, the mantle of most notable Austrian-born NHLer has been passed on to Colorado Avalanche forward Andre Burakovsky, who represents Sweden internationally. If you’re going for Austrian through and through, then maybe Arizona Coyotes forward Michael Grabner instead. Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl rounds out the trio.
Latvia – 3: Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons did make the All-Star Game that one season. Even if it drew attention to the faulty system, it still counts.
France – 2 (0.3%): His nickname could very well be “Tex,” but Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alexandre Texier is actually French and considered a rookie to watch this season.
Bulgaria – 1 (0.1%): New York Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev is a dual-citizen of Bulgaria and Russia, but he was born in the former country.
Estonia – 1: Islanders forward Leo Komarov is actually Estonian, even though many believe he’s Russian based on his last name. He also represents Finland internationally, just in case you weren’t confused enough.
Great Britain – 1: Blackhawks forward Brendan Perlini was born in England where his Canadian father had been playing professionally.
Kazakhstan – 1: Dallas Stars goalie Anton Khudobin is originally from Kazakhstan, but plays for Russia on the world stage.
Norway – 1: While Minnesota Wild forward Mats Zuccarello’s big contract was probably a reason why ex-general manager Paul Fenton got fired, he’s still one of the league’s premier little big men.
Slovenia – 1: Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar is also the first Slovenian to ever play in the NHL, setting a great example for aspiring hockey players in his country.
Ukraine – 1: Toronto Maple Leafs forward Dmytro Timashov just made his debut against the Ottawa Senators, earning an assist.