There is no argument that can be made that the NHL is not the best hockey league in the world. With the advent of online streaming services, hockey fans from all over the world can now marvel at the level of skills being displayed on a nightly basis in real time.
The league’s ascension to its current position did not come without truculence. In its early days, it maintained a fierce rivalry with competing leagues such as the Pacific Coast Hockey Association and Western Canada Hockey League. In the 70’s, it survived a decade long battle with the World Hockey Association.
Today, it reigns over the entire hockey world as the preferred destination for the most talented players.
Here are the other leagues that round out this list of the top ten professional men’s hockey leagues worldwide.
The Kontinental Hockey League formed from the ashes of the Russian Super League in 2008. It currently has 28 teams based in seven different countries. 22 of which are in Russia. The teams compete for the Gagarin Cup, named after the Russian cosmonaut who was also the first human in space.
The league is fed from its own farm system. The Supreme Hockey League (VHL) serves as the KHL’s minor league and developmental system. The majority of the KHL have affiliated VHL teams.
In addition, several KHL teams also have their own junior team that play in the MHL. Players aged 17-21 compete for the Kharlamov Cup, the championship trophy rewarded to the league’s playoff winner.
Two of the biggest names in the KHL are Alexander Radulov and Ilya Kovalchuk.
Radulov, the current leading scorer of the KHL, was the 15th overall pick of the 2004 NHL draft. The Nashville Predators drafted the dynamic winger with hopes of boosting their offense for years to come. Radulov even spent two seasons in North America with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL after being drafted. Upon the conclusion of his junior career, he played 11 games for the Milwaukee Admirals, the Predators’ AHL affiliate, then moved on to Nashville for two seasons.
Radulov decided that instead of honoring the third year of his contract with the Predators, he would rather return home to Russia where he was offered more money. His decision sparked an international debate but he returned to the NHL in 2012 to honor the last year of his contract.
Ilya Kovalchuk was the first overall pick of the 2001 draft by the Atlanta Thrashers. He helped lead the franchise to its first playoff berth where they were swept in four games by the New York Rangers in 2007.
In 2010, he was traded to the New Jersey Devils after eight years with the Thrashers. Subsequently, he signed a 15 year contract with the Devils.
Three years after signing that contract, Kovalchuk announced his retirement from the NHL in a move that strategically helped the debt-laden franchise rid itself of a mega-contract as well as allowed Kovalchuk to return to Russia.
The Swedish Hockey League, formerly Elitserien or SEL, is the top professional hockey league in Sweden. When founded in 1975, the league consisted of 10 teams. The 1987 expansion added two more teams to its current count of 12 and there are possibilities of the league growing to 14 within the next two years.
The SHL allows junior aged players to play even if they are under 18 years old. The NHL entry draft typically sees several players drafted with professional experience.
In 2009, five of its clubs requested an audience with the KHL’s president to discuss interest in defecting from the SEL to join the KHL. The move was widely unpopular with fans and in 2011 the plans were scrapped.
Unlike the NHL, a regulation win earns the team three points while an overtime or shootout win results in two with the losing team earning one.
The Swedish playoff champion is rewarded the Le Mat Trophy.
The two bottom ranked SHL teams play a series called the Kvalserien with the top four teams from the HockeyAllsvenskan, Sweden’s tier-2 league, to decide relegation. The top two teams of the series would either remain in the SHL or be promoted from the HockeyAllsvenskan. The bottom four would play in the tier-2 league the next season.
This format was introduced in 2014.
Currently, four of the five top scorers in the SHL are from North America.
The American Hockey League is the NHL’s primary feeder league. The league features 30 teams with each having an NHL affiliate. Some are owned by their NHL affiliate while others operate independently. 27 franchises are located in the United States and three are in Canada.
The playoff championship award is named after Frank Calder, the NHL’s first president. The Hershey Bears currently hold the most titles with 11.
Prior to 2001, the AHL’s main competition as the second top minor league in North America was the International Hockey League. The IHL had to fold due to financial reasons and the AHL absorbed six of its teams which resulted in two teams having the same name: the Milwaukee Admirals and the Norfolk Admirals.
The 30 teams are split into two conferences and six divisions. The current westernmost teams are located in Texas but there are plans in motion to create a west coast based western division. The Arizona Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks would all prefer to have their AHL affiliates nearby to cut back on travel time for when a player is called up.
When the 2014-15 NHL season started, 637 of the players on opening rosters spent time in the AHL.
The Finnish Elite League, as it is known in English, is Finland’s top professional hockey league. It was known as the SM-liiga from 1975-2013.
The league was established by the top professional clubs as a chance to reform ice hockey in Finland. The professional leagues wanted to separate itself from the amateur clubs so it could increase its revenue stream.
The league currently has 14 teams. It recently lost the Jokerit franchise, Teemu Selanne’s former team, to the KHL.
6. Czech Extraliga
After the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Czech Extraliga formed from the split of the Czechoslovak First Ice Hockey League.
14 teams compete for six guaranteed post season spots. The seventh through tenth placed teams play a best of five series to see which two teams will join the previous six to compete for the league championship. The four bottom ranked teams play a series to decide which two teams will have to play the top two teams from the tier-2 Czech league to decide relegation.
The Deutsche Eishockey Liga is Germany’s top professional hockey league. It has the most North American players outside of North America and was a popular spot for NHL players during the previous two lockouts.
The league is independently run by its members and has strict financial requirements. There is no relegation due to play, only non-compliance with the league’s basic requirements.
The ECHL is the only other hockey league aside from the AHL to have affiliation with NHL teams. 29 of the 30 NHL clubs have ECHL affiliates. New Jersey is the only team without an ECHL affiliate.
The league has its roots from the now defunct Atlantic Coast Hockey League and All-American Hockey League. Since being founded in 1988, the league has absorbed teams from the West Coast Hockey League and the Central Hockey League after they ceased operations.
Despite its name, the league has multiple teams located on the west coast after its absorption of teams from the WCHL.
The ECHL currently comprises of 28 teams. 27 are located in the United States and one in Brampton, Ontario. The championship trophy for the ECHL is called the Kelly Cup.
Switzerland has a two-tier hockey league system with the National League A serving as its top tier.
There are 12 teams in the league with the most recent champions being ZSC Lions. HC Davos holds the most titles with 30.
At the end of the season, the NLA has a relegation round to decide promotion and demotion within the two-tier system.
Sweden’s tier-2 hockey league makes the cut as the tenth team on this list.
The HockeyAllsvenskan serves as the primary developmental league for the SHL and SHL often loans out its players to the tier-2 league to gain confidence and additional ice time.
After a 52-game regular season, the top four teams play in a series with the bottom two teams from the SHL to decide relegation. If a HockeyAllsvenskan team survives as the winner of the Kvalserien, they are promoted to the SHL the next season.
Additionally, the two last placed teams in the HockeyAllsvenskan have to play a relegation series with Sweden’s tier-3 league.