Europe rises, Canada falls: European hockey programs are sneaking up on Canada

Updated: Aug 29

By: Alex Baumgartner


European hockey has continued to grow at a tremendous rate. More and more European players are being drafted into the NHL each year. Can this be a result of the high prices to play youth hockey in Canada?

Canada vs Finland at the 2019 IIHF World Juniors (IIHF)

Hockey has always been Canada’s sport. We have the most international ice hockey medals, the most players in the NHL and undoubtedly some of the best players to ever play the game. 


Canada has always been the most dominant hockey powerhouse since the game was first played. Still, other nations have seen success and have given Canada a run for their title as hockey leader of the world.


The last dynasty of international hockey that wasn’t wearing the red maple leaf across their chest was definitely the Red Army. The Soviet Union hockey team won nine straight Olympic Medals from 1956 until their dissolution in 1991. The following year the unified hockey team won the 1992 Gold Medal (made up of six countries from the former Soviet republics). It is also important to note that during these years, NHL athletes were not competing in the Olympics while all the top Soviets played in the USSR. 


For any Canadian reading this, you know that our nation eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. We are the only country to drop everything we are doing for two weeks just to watch a bunch of 18 and 19-year-olds play in the World Juniors.


Sidney Crosby at the 2014 Winter Olympics (Pittsburgh Penguins/NHL)

Canada has won the Gold Medal at the last World Juniors, the last World Cup of Hockey and the last two Olympics that allowed NHL players. Despite being the clear frontrunners for international hockey dominance, it seems other countries are rapidly increasing the talent they produce while Canada is watching them from the top. 


The Americans have produced some amazing players over the last few years like Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Seth Jones, Zach Werenski and Quinn Hughes. Despite the North American countries consistently pushing top players into the NHL, I think we all need to turn our attention to the other side of the Atlantic and focus on how the European nations have changed their hockey programs over the last 25 years.


Unlike Canada, hockey is not the top sport in Europe. Soccer is the most known sport in most European countries, then depending on where you are in Europe the second most known sport varies. 

Alex Ovechkin at the World Cup of Hockey (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Russia and Sweden have been the two giants for European hockey for the past 20 years. The Russian’s boast the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Pavel Bure, and Sergei Federov. Russia is home to the KHL; the second best professional hockey league behind the NHL. Plenty of the best players in the NHL today are from Russia.


Sweden is the other team from Europe which has shown up on the biggest of stages. The Swedes have medaled three times at the Olympics since 1998, two of which were Gold. At the World Juniors, Sweden hasn’t lost a round robin game since 2007. They have been a powerhouse for top-tier NHL defenseman like Nicklas Lidstrom, Erik Karlsson, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Rasmus Dahlin. Players like Henrik Lundqvist, Peter Forsberg, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, Markus Naslund and Mats Sundin have also worn the Three Crowns.


Elias Pettersson playing for Sweden (Sportsnet)

Over the last few years, the NHL has seen a tremendous amount of talented players come from Europe, but recently countries not named Russia or Sweden have taken the spotlight. Finland has asserted its dominance as one of the top hockey countries in the world. Closely behind them you can see the Swiss, Czechs and Germans following their lead. 


We all have seen what Sweden and Russia has done on the world stage, but are you ready for the next wave of European talent? The following countries have been on the rise in recent years and have started to produce some of the NHL’s most promising players.


Finland


Aleksander Barkov playing for Finland at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey (WCH2016.com)

In recent years it seems Finland has emerged as the biggest threat to the big four hockey countries (Canada, USA, Sweden, Russia). The Finns have medaled at the 1994, 1998, 2006, 2010 and 2014 Olympics. In the last six years, the World Junior team has won gold three times. Aleksander Barkov, Patrik Laine, Miro Heiskanen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Kaapo Kakko were all selected within the top-three picks in the NHL Draft. Many Finnish players across the league are dominating on their own teams like Barkov, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Mikko Rantanen, Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne. 


Most of the top Finnish players in the league had spent time in the top pro league in Finland, SM-Liiga. Rather than coming to North America to play juniors, most Finns stay at home to play against men while they are still draft eligible. Kakko, Barkov and Heiskanen are recent examples of young players tearing it up in the Liiga and making it to the NHL before they are 20. 


Staying in Finland and coming up through the junior teams and making the leap to the pros seems to be working and I see no signs of elite Finnish players wanting to come to North America when they can dominate at home before making the jump to the NHL.


Look forward to seeing Aatu Räty and Brad Lambert play in the future. They are both top ranked Finnish prospects in the 2021 and 2022 NHL Drafts.


Switzerland


Roman Josi at the World Hockey Championships (NHL.com)

The Swiss are most known for their dominance in winter sports like skiing and bobsledding. However, the small European country has become one of the top hockey nations in the world and might be slipping their way into the big 6 hockey nations very soon (Canada, USA, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic). 


Swiss players across the NHL are playing big time roles for their clubs. Roman Josi is a candidate for the Norris Trophy this season, Timo Meier led the San Jose Sharks in scoring, Nico Hirschier at just 21-years-old is already a favourite to be the next captain of the New Jersey Devils. Switzerland’s roster isn’t flooded with star talent like Russia or the United States, yet they always prove to be a tough opponent in international tournaments no matter what the division. 


In the last seven years, the Swiss have won the Silver Medal at the IIHF World Hockey Championships and were set to host the 2020 tournament before it was cancelled due to Covid-19.


Switzerland is home to one of Europe’s top professional hockey leagues, the National League A (NLA). Many of Switzerland’s top players play a year or two of hockey in the National league before making the jump to North America. Despite having an elite tier league at home, many of Switzerland’s top junior eligible players leave the country to play in the CHL. Nico Hirschier was the  first-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft and he spent his junior career in the QMJHL with the Halifax Mooseheads. Hirschier split time between the Swiss Elite Junior League, the National League A and the National League B (second-tier pro league) in 2015 before going to Halifax. Many other Swiss players followed a similar pathway to the NHL. Timo Meier, Nino Niederreiter, Philipp Kurashev and Valentin Nussbaumer all decided to leave Europe and play in the CHL. 


Most top Swiss players play in two or three World Juniors. Switzerland doesn’t have as much player depth as other countries, so many top junior players make the World Junior team at 17. A prime example of this is New York Rangers draft pick Nico Gross, who played in four World Juniors. Canadian junior players may only play in one or two tournaments together, while Swiss junior players may suit up together four to five times between U18 and World Junior tournaments.


Switzerland, like Finland and many other European countries has academy teams, which allows young players to come up through the junior ranks and eventually make the jump to the pro leagues. European countries do this alot with soccer teams. You sign a player to an academy team; they develop through your academy and eventually get to the pros. NHL teams can’t do this because of the way the league is structured. 


Germany


Leon Draisaitl playing for Germany (IIHF)

Another nation that has been on the come up in the past decade is Germany. The large European nation is a dominant force in world soccer, but their hockey program may be catching up to some of the other top hockey countries in the continent. Germany is home to the 2019-2020 NHL top scorer, Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl is the most notable name in the history of German hockey at just 24-years-old. The Edmonton Oilers star is already third all-time in German NHL scoring despite only playing 422 games. Guys like Marco Sturn and Christiann Ehhroff were the to German players of the previous generation; the current German talent may have already leapt beyond their status.


Besides Draisaitl, German players like Tom Kühnhackl, Tobias Reider, Dominik Kahun and Thomas Greiss have made a name for themselves in the world’s top hockey league. The upcoming crop of German players makes the country an even bigger threat on the international circuit. Moritz Seider was taken by Detroit with the sixth-overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. Dominik Bokk was a first-round pick the year before and it’s very likely that Tim Stützle goes in the top-five in 2020. 


The World Junior team for Germany hasn’t been as sound as the likes of Finland or Switzerland; the team has had to fight off regulation in every tournament they’ve played in since 2003. Despite the lack of success at the World Junior level, the team has still seen a few first round picks in those years.


Like other European hockey countries, Germany’s top league, the DEL is a good option for the most talented German players. Both Moritz Seider and Tim Stützle split time between the DEL and the DNL (German elite junior league). Draisaitl spent a year in the DNL before going to the WHL. 


The highlight of Germany’s hockey history would have to be the 2018 Olympic Games. With no NHL players allowed in the tournament, Germany missed the likes of Draisaitl in their squad. However, that also meant that all the teams were without their top NHL players. The Germans ended up winning the Silver Medal after losing to the Olympic Athletes from Russia 4-3 in overtime. 


How do they do it?


Hockey is a very expensive sport to play in North America. Parents need to pay for ice time, league registration, gear, travel expenses, uniforms and more. Hockey has truly become a sport for the richest in North America. If we look at other sports around Canada and the US, the costs aren’t half as much as it is to play hockey. 


Gear can run you thousands of dollars, travel teams costs are even higher. AAA is the highest tier of travel hockey in North America. Fees alone can run up to $6,000 before hotels and flights, according youthhockeyguide.com. 


According to Sportsnet, hockey economic activity in Canada is worth over $11B annually. These numbers include tourism related to NHL clubs and corporate sponsors. When Finland hosted the 2013 World Hockey Championships, their country made around $9.2M from the tournament and the money was reinvested back into the country’s youth development program, according to  Patrik Bexell, Habseyesontheprize. The Finish Ice Hockey Association (FIHA) used the money to hire coaches to work with players between 10-14 years-old, saving the clubs an average of approximately $35,000 a year. Some of the clubs even provide goalies gear, free of charge, according to Bexell.


Hockey is the most popular game in Canada, it is part of our culture. Canadians live, breathe and die for the game. Despite all the emotion and love put into the game, many young Canadians will not get the chance to step foot on the ice due to the costs of the game. While countries across Europe find ways to provide players with cost-efficient ways to access the game, Canadians are still spending way too much money on youth hockey. If the price of hockey in Canada keeps rising, will Europe overtake Canada one day in developing the world's best hockey players?