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 SHL, KHL, and Liiga showing that they are quite adept at developing talented hockey players that can succeed at any level.
Here’s a breakdown of the top 10 best hockey leagues around the world:
10.) Ontario Hockey League (OHL)
The Ontario Hockey League has a reputation, much like the QMJHL and WHL, for producing some amazing talent that has a significant impact at the NHL level. Players such as Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, and 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 the majority of 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 their hockey game.
The OHL consistently produces players that are all-around skilled players. While leagues such as the QMJHL have been known for producing offensive superstars, 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 has consistently produced a plethora of talent for NHL teams around North America.
Over the course of the last decade, NCAA hockey has become a top development path for players to take to the NHL. As said by collegehockeyinc in promotional material from 2017:
A record 314 former college players skated in the NHL in 2016-17, comprising 32% of the league. That number was just 20% at the turn of the century.
This unprecedented growth represents a change in how both players and teams are utilizing the NCAA as a pathway to reaching the NHL. For teams, they can draft a promising but somewhat uncertain player who is heading to the NCAA to receive up to four years of growth essentially free. For players, they can earn a degree and develop their game before reaching the AHL or NHL with a physical and maturity edge over their counterparts. When you look at it this way, it’s no surprise that so many players from all over the world are utilizing the NCAA as their route to professional hockey.
There are too many former NCAA players currently in the NHL to start naming them all, but here are a few just to give an idea of how impactful the league has been over the last few years. This includes the likes of Jonathan Toews, Jack Eichel, Nick Bjugstad, Johnny Gaudreau and Duncan Keith. With an already impressive and growing list of alumni, the future of hockey in the NCAA is bright, with both players and the NHL loving the results.
8.) American Hockey League (AHL)
The American Hockey League (AHL) makes the list because it is usually the last stop for a developing prospect before they arrive in the NHL. Oftentimes, NHL teams will decide if a prospect is ready for the big leagues after they have completed a certain amount of international play or competition within a North American league. This allows many AHL teams to play host to some of the most talented young players in the world who are just on the cusp of breaking into the NHL.
If not for an age restriction that prevents prospects who are under the age of 20 from playing in the league, the AHL could have seen even more quality players pass through their arenas. With this rule in place, the AHL will always be a bit hamstrung in terms of missing out on the best draft picks who just aren’t ready to take on NHL ice time as an 18 or 19-year-old, but could use a little more competition than what they were receiving in juniors.
It’s not just players who work their way through the AHL, either. Many NHL coaches make a stop along the way in the AHL to hone their craft, including the likes of Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Mike Yeo of the St. Louis Blues.
As of 2021-22, every NHL team has maintained an affiliation with an AHL team. As the NHL continues to grow, the AHL will expand along with them, providing quality mentoring and growth for up and coming NHL talent.
7.) Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL)
The DEL was founded in 1994-95 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 won 5 championships in 10 years. In recent years, the EHC Red Bull Munchen have found their way to the top of the league, winning three straight championships.
While the DEL is still developing its footprint in the hockey landscape, it’s hard not to like German hockey. As we saw in their unexpected run to the Silver Medal in the 2018 Olympics, Germany is growing a strong and passionate fanbase capable of competing with the best in the world.
6.) National League A (NLA)
Based in Switzerland, the National League A (NLA) 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 2016-17, due in no small part to hockey club SC Bern and its spacious (17,131 capacity) home, PostFinance-Arena, that averaged 16,399 spectators each game.
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.
With a highly competitive league and great attendance rates, the NLA suggests that much like us in North America, those Swiss love their hockey.
The Czech Extraliga is one of the most competitive pro 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 Thomas Hertl, Vladimir Sobotka and Pavel Zacha 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’s 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.
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.
Finland’s top professional ice hockey league, 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. In the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia for example, Finland finished with the bronze medal, knocking off the US squad in a 5-0 romp.
The Liiga has been thriving ever 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 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 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 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 Aleksander Barkov, Sami Vatanen and Rasmus Ristolainen are all products of the Liiga and the future of the league is as bright as ever as long as it keeps producing such amazing talent.
3.) SHL (Swedish Hockey League)
The Swedish Hockey League is composed of 14 teams that play a 52 game schedule. Much like the Czech Extraliga and Liiga, the Swedish Hockey 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.
The SHL also utilizes a relegation and promotion system as the bottom seeded teams in the SHL 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 at 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 like Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, and the retired Daniel & Henrik Sedin contributing at a high level to the NHL, it is no surprise why the Swedes have become a dominant name in the hockey world over the last decade.
2.) Kontinental Hockey League (KHL)
The Kontinental Hockey League is widely considered the No. 2 pro hockey league in the world, with the KHL is being regarded as the strongest ice hockey league in all of Europe. Since its founding in 2008, the KHL has introduced 27 teams, with the top 8 in each conference making the playoffs. The KHL playoff structure is quite similar to the NHL format, with the top two teams from each conference competing for the Gagarin Cup.
What makes the KHL so interesting is that it holds a variety of players from different backgrounds and countries. Even if the primary talent pool comes from Russia, they still pull players in from all over the world, including talent hotbeds like Canada and sometimes less expected parts of the world like Great Britain. This creates a truly diverse player base, that can only be rivaled by the likes of the NHL in terms of quality and depth.
This diversity is seen in the location of KHL teams as well. After their most recent expansion to China, there are now six franchises established outside of Russia, with the potential of a franchise in London as well. While this likely creates some mind-boggling travel plans, it is an impressive feat that should only help the league continue growing in both size and quality.
1.) National Hockey League (NHL)
Many pro 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 31 teams in the league, the NHL is definitely bigger in terms of both depth and overall quality 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.
With their recent successful expansion to Las Vegas and Seattle, the NHL is not only growing but finding new markets in North America who are hungry for hockey. With everything in mind, it is likely that the NHL will continue being the top hockey league in the world for years to come.
1.) Western Hockey League (WHL)
The Western Hockey League is one of three members of the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) that features 22 teams based in Canada and the western part of the United States. The WHL was established in the 1960’s and has become a dominant force in the development of young hockey players over the years. Since its founding, the WHL had thrived, winning the memorial cup 19 times, most recently by the Edmonton Oil Kings in 2014.
In terms of prospects, the WHL has produced many star players over the years. Some of the best players currently in the NHL, including Carey Price, Shea Weber, Jamie Benn, Jordan Eberle and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins all found meaningful development in the WHL. In recent years, the league has also been producing some of the top young defensemen in the NHL as well. This includes current top-line defenders like Matt Dumba, Morgan Rielly, and Seth Jones.
The Slovak Extraliga was founded in 1993 after Czechoslovakia split 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 an impact on the NHL are Pavol Demitra, Zigmund Palffy, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik and Zdeno Chara.
While the Slovakian league is only comprised of 10 teams, it has an interesting aspect that allows for 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.
Since it’s inception, the Slovak Extraliga has largely been dominated by two teams, HC Kosice and HC Slovan Bratislava, who have both won eight championships, tied for most in league history.
3.) Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL)
The QMJHL, the third member of the CHL, 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 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 producing players with immense offensive prowess. With recent alumni like Jonathan Drouin, Jonathan Huberdeau and Hart Trophy finalist Nathan MacKinnon tearing it up in the NHL, there’s no doubt “The Q” knows how to incubate some of the top offensive talents in the world.
Even though some detractors may reference the QMJHL’s lack of defensive play, the league has captured the Memorial Cup trophy six times since 2000 and remains one of the most exciting leagues for hockey in North America.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.