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. Still, there’s nothing purely North American about the NHL, not any longer anyway, not based on a birth-country-by-country breakdown of its 794 players, listed on team rosters at the start of this 2020-21 season:
Canada – 342 (43.1%)
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 794 players on season-opening rosters, 342 of them, or 43.1%, are from Canada.
That’s actually an uptick relative to around this time last season. Looking at the 2019-20 season’s opening-night rosters, 42.8% of players hailed from the Great White North. However, four 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 – 214 (27.0%)
After seeing 177 Americans dress for their teams’ opening games in 2019-20, 214 made rosters out of this past training camp, which is no small feat, even if expanded roster sizes and the creation of taxi squads has undeniably helped out. In any case, 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 – 82 (10.3%)
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 – 44 (5.5%)
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 in 2018-19 for all intents and purposes, even if they fell just short against the St. Louis Blues in the Stanley Cup Final.
Russia – 38 (4.8%)
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 actually isn’t included in the above-cited 38 figure, due to injury. With him in the lineup, the Lightning would be tied for the league-lead with four Russians on the roster, though. The other team? The Washington Capitals, with Alexander Ovechkin making for a suitable substitute here.
Czech Republic – 28 (3.5%)
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 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship.
Notable Czech Player: Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek is now the active points leader among Czech players (Jaromir Jagr, as if there was any doubt).
Switzerland – 10 (1.3%)
Switzerland actually dropped one relative to last season, when they had 11. Regardless, the nation is still gaining ground in some respects, with the Chicago Blackhawks, the resident NHL hotbed of Swiss talent with a league-leading two players, regularly dressing rookie forwards Philipp Kurashev, whose father is Russian ex-hockey player Konstantin Kurashev, and Pius Suter.
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, winning the James Norris Memorial Trophy in 2020.
Slovakia – 7 (0.9%)
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-three-year-old Zdeno Chara is getting up there, but he still leads the Slovak NHL contingent, even he’s been relegated to more of a depth role on the Washington Capitals these days.
Denmark – 6 (0.8%)
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 – 6 (0.8%)
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, now tied with Ottawa Senators rookie Tim Stutzle) on his own merits. Furthermore, he also just won the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP.
The Best of the Rest of the World
Austria – 3 (0.4%): With Thomas Vanek retired, 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 Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl.
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. Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins has probably been passed the torch at this point, considering his success last season.
France – 3: His nickname could very well be “Tex,” but Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alexandre Texier is actually French and has been strong in this season’s early-going.
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.
Italy– 1: Born in Italy, defenseman Luca Sbisa represents Switzerland, where he was raised, internationally. The Predators signed the veteran defenseman this past free-agency period for added blue-line depth.
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.
Netherlands – 1: While just 23, Daniel Sprong has bounced around quite a bit in his short career, and now calls the Washington Capitals home.
Belarus – 1: New Jersey Devils rookie Yegor Sharangovich effectively adds Belarus to this list single-handedly. No pressure or anything.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.