Canadians In The NHL
The National Hockey League is the most well-known and recognized ice hockey league globally, so it makes sense that it would attract the best players from across the globe. Canadians have a long history of hockey play going back to the very beginning of the league. What are their numbers today, you may wonder?
Canadian hockey players make up a sizable 42.8 percent of the current National Hockey League roster with 295 active players in the league. This marks a significant reduction in their overall presence, as there were barely any other nationalities represented until the 1970s.
Of course, the NHL is wide open to anyone with the skills to make the cut in top-tier hockey, so what is the reason for the preponderance of Canadians on the ice? And what is causing their domination of the numbers to diminish as time goes on? The answers to these questions make for a great hockey origin story, and that’s what we are going to be getting into in this article.
The game of hockey is believed to have originated in Nova Scotia, one of the Canadian provinces, many years ago. As the birthplace of the sport, it isn’t surprising that canadiens would be the source of a large proportion of its players, especially in the early years of the modern version of the sport’s development. This is covered in more detail in our article looking into which is older, field hockey or ice hockey.
Even with this understanding, it is still fair to ask why it took so long for other nations to make their presence felt in the world of hockey and why the game still seems to be concentrated in a handful of regions across the globe.
The answer is simple geography and the climate conditions that come with it. The cold climates experienced in North America, with Canada included here, allow for the frozen winters that are a prerequisite for ice hockey. Well before artificial ice rinks and Zambonis came onto the scene, hockey would be played on the surfaces of frozen water bodies such as lakes, rivers, ponds, and such.
These conditions are a rarity in the large majority of inhabited regions of the earth. The roster of countries with representation in the NHL, which we’ll take a look at later on, reads like a list of countries with cold winter seasons with some regions experiencing year-round ice. Notwithstanding this is the fact that the NHL is open to entry by players from any area of the world.
Of course, this isn’t to say that talent can only be found in these countries; it’s just that they offer better opportunities for taking up hockey at early ages and in large enough numbers to build up a reserve of players that can compete at the very highest levels.
In hockey, as in all sports, early introduction often makes it easier to spot and cultivate the kind of raw talent that allows for greatness later on. You may also be interested in taking a read through our article covering the percentage of youth hockey players that make it to the NHL.
The NHL was officially instituted over a hundred years ago (1917) in Montreal, Canada, but had already gained some prominence in many countries across the globe, with Canada being the focal point, even though the game was still in its adolescent stages in the USA. The reason for the adjective ‘National’ in the league’s name stems from the fact that there were only four participating teams from Canada at its inception.
In the early years of the league, it was almost entirely composed of Canadian players, who made up a whopping 92% of the total player registry. This might not be saying much when we consider that this figure only represented 44 out of the total number of 48 players who made up the league, but it does show that they were dominant when it came to the ability to present quality players at the elite level of the sport.
Moving forward more than 30 years, the situation had hardly changed in terms of Canadian domination of NHL spots. In fact, it was even more apparent that Canada was the home of hockey because even though the league had expanded to include 153 players, a vast majority standing at 143 players (93.5%) were Canadian. The league now included five players from the United Kingdom, 3 Americans, and one Irish and Finnish player apiece.
This period in hockey history represents the era in which other countries began to make a sizable dent in Canada’s domination of the NHL. The game’s popularity and appeal had finally started to truly spread out to other nations. Even though the USA saw the most significant jump in numbers, the number of countries aside from these two major sporting powers also saw an appreciative increase.
At this point, Canadians made up a significantly reduced 77% of the NHL roster (566 out of a total of 735). In comparison, the USA held 15% of the positions (115 players). Finland and Sweden each had over ten representatives in the league. More newcomer countries to the league at this point included the likes of Austria, Italy, Slovakia, and Germany.
As things stand, Canada still maintains its supremacy in terms of sheer numbers in the National Hockey League with the lion’s share of 43%. This represents 295 of the 690 players that were listed on the rosters for the 2019-2020 playing season.
To answer this question, we need to look less at what Canada is or isn’t doing and take a look at what has been happening in other countries. Even though Canada has continued to produce outstanding talent in great numbers, other countries have picked up the pace. They are investing in hockey infrastructure and early talent development.
This is all besides the game’s natural appeal and organic growth among those countries with the climate and capacities to play the game.
Let’s take a look at how other countries fare today. Note that these are all numbers drawn from the 2019-2020 season stats.
The popularity of hockey as a sport continues to experience great strides, at least in the years running up to the 2020 Coronavirus disruptions. The 2018-19 Season saw the country field a total of 153 players coming out of the training camps, which represented a record at the time.
The 2019-20 rosters showed even further burgeoning of these numbers, with 177 Americans donning their jerseys for the sadly disrupted season.
The widespread appeal of hockey here is not only reflected in the numbers taking to the ice in the NHL but by the country’s successes in international competitions under the auspices of the International Hockey Federation.
The men’s team has only managed two silver medals in the Olympics since the turn of the century, but the women’s team has taken up the hopefully temporary slack by putting in strong performances on the international stage, crowned by their 2018 gold medal in the South Korea Olympics.
The first player from Sweden to make an appearance in the NHL was Gus Forslund, during the 1932-33 season, but he isn’t considered to be the legitimate pioneer of Swedish hockey in the NHL since he had moved as a young child to Canada with his family, where he grew up and learned the game.
That title is considered by many to belong to the defensive player Thommie Bergman who came along almost four decades later. He is regarded as the trailblazer who proved to other Swedes that the path to the NHL is a real and attainable one for them. His career with the Detroit Red Wings spanned the course of eight years.
Sweden is well-known for the quality of its defensemen, and the 2019-20 season saw the country field 79 players in the NHL.
Another Scandinavian nation to demonstrate its ability to produce quality hockey players is Finland. They have an equally disputed early history in the NHL, as their first Finnish-born representative in the league, Albert Pudas, was also raised in Canada, although he was born in Finland. Pudas, moreover, only played for one season (1926-27), in which he appeared for a total of four games and left without scoring once.
The title of trailblazer is thus considered to be more befitting of the center player Matti Hagman, who had a more sustained career, lasting four seasons. The country is currently regarded to be one of the best producers of goaltenders in the world. Finland is represented by 33 players for the 2019-20 season.
Russia’s appearance on this list might come as a surprise to some, not so much because they lack hockey talent, but due to the seemingly low representation they have in the league. This disparity can be explained away by the long history of the rivalry that has existed between the two world powers and the ramifications of the dissolution of the USSR.
Let’s start at the beginning. During the cold war years of the early 60s and 70s, the still extant Soviet Union won Olympic Gold medals and world championships. What truly cemented the strength of the Soviet Union Hockey program in the world’s eyes was the Summit Series held in 1972, a series of 8 matches held against team Canada. The Soviets almost caused a great upset by nearly beating the seemingly unbeatable Canadians.
As tensions between the USA and the Russian bloc began to cool down after the cold war years, the two rivals sought ways to normalize their relations and come closer to an understanding.
One of the avenues they chose to make use of in this endeavour was the game of ice hockey. This was done by the institution of international club competitions, with the first of them being held in 1976, where eight NHL teams played against teams from the Soviet Championship League. From that year up until 1991, various club exhibition games would be played in what came to be known as the Super Series.
No games were played between the two belligerent nations (USA and Russia) at the club level until 2008, the year the Kontinental Hockey League was formed. This is the preeminent hockey league in Europe and Asia, comprising teams from countries such as Finland, China, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and, of course, Russia, which holds the most slots with 18 clubs compared to the single clubs coming from the rest of the countries.
The KHL is the world’s second-largest hockey league in the world behind the NHL, which is why many would expect to find plenty of Russian players in the NHL. When looked at from the KHLs perspective, however, it makes better sense.
The number of players appearing in the KHL from Canada numbered at 61 for the 2018-19 season, with the USA contributing 20 nationals. This is from a total of 918 players in the league, meaning that Canada and the USA had a 6.6% and 2% representation, respectively.
Now, it is wise to note here that North America (the NHL) is a joining of only two countries. In comparison, what makes up the KHL is an association of 23 countries, while the percentages we’re looking at only consider individual nations.
The upshot of all this figuring is that were we to consider things with the now-defunct Soviet Union in mind, the number of players from the USSR in the NHL would perhaps equal the number of players from North America employing their trade in the KHL.
Even though Russian players have a definitive history of being enigmas to NHL hockey fans, the skill of those that make the journey to these shores has never been held in any doubt. Russian players have played an undeniably significant role in the development of the NHL into what it is today, cold war or no.
The Czech Republic has been an acknowledged powerhouse in the world of hockey since they won the Winter Olympics of 1998. Even before that, however, they had been a force to reckon with.
They have maintained a solid track record of international hockey performance, managing the significant stint of placing in the medal tables in every year of competition between the years spanning 1995 to 2001, either in the Olympics or International Ice Hockey Federation outings.
They were represented by 26 players for the 2019-20 NHL season.
Switzerland’s relatively tiny nation is also a force to reckon with if we consider the number of players it has managed to have featured in the NHL. The 2019-20 season saw them field an impressive 11 players, even though the number would have been higher had not one of their players been waived by the team that was expected to take him on (Sven Baertschi, Vancouver Canucks).
At the end of the day, we can all agree that Canada holds the prime position as the world’s hockey epicenter, especially when we consider how many players originating from the nation play in hockey leagues around the globe. The NHL exemplifies this best. The greatest NHL hockey players of recent generations have been overwhelmingly Canadian, and we want to highlight some of the standout names right here.
Also, be sure to take a read through our article looking into the age that most NHL players start playing hockey.
This Montreal Canadien player came to be revered as one of the best goalies the league had seen yet, as he helped his team accomplish the rare feat of winning five consecutive Stanley Cups, ranging from 1956 to 1960. He was voted the league’s most valuable player in 1962 in addition to winning the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded to the league’s best goalie, a total of 7 times throughout his career.
His most substantial claim to fame might not, however, be his stellar goalie exploits. He is the man we can credit with literally changing the face of hockey. Back in 1959, he took a slap shot to the face that saw him need 21 stitches, but as the only goalie on the team, he had to return to the ice and see the game out.
He insisted that he wouldn’t do so unless he was allowed to wear a face mask to cover up the damaged area, and the rest is history. Goalie face masks are a requirement now. We have Jacques to thank for that.
In the opinion of many hockey enthusiasts, Terry is the best goalie the NHL has ever had the pleasure of seeing. Over the span of a 21-year career, Sawchuck saw his team lift 4 Stanley Cups. Three of these were with the Red Wings and one with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Four Vezina trophies for the league’s best goalie were awarded him.
As much as Sawchuk left an imprint on the game of hockey, the game didn’t leave him untouched. Over the course of his career, the rambunctious Sawchuck is recorded to have received an astonishing 400 stitches to his face before finally deciding to wear a face mask during his games. The Time magazine image from 1966, where a makeup artist reconstructed all 400 of his facial injuries, is just a few Google clicks away. Be warned, though; it’s not pretty.
Sawchuk sadly passed away in 1970 due to internal injuries after a drunken altercation with one of his teammates at the age of 40. He had been struggling with alcoholism and depression. He was ranked 9th out of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in 1998 by the Hockey News – the highest rank achieved by a goalie to date.
Towering over the majority of his compatriots at 6-feet-4-inches, you wouldn’t expect Mario Lemieux to be the Twinkle-toed type. Still, he was surprisingly fast and agile on the ice. Over the course of his 17-year NHL career with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Lemieux contributed to the team’s brace of Stanley Cup victories (1991 and 1992) with a career total of 690 goals.
He managed this despite the unfortunate fact that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, which forced him to miss a couple of seasons as he sought treatment. Nicknamed ‘The Magnificent One’ by his adoring fans, Lemieux retired in 1997 but returned to help the team out of financial constraints by becoming a partial owner. If you’re curious to know how long a typical NHL career is, make sure to check out or article looking at the age most NHL players retire.
In the year 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins managed to capture another Stanley Cup victory, making Lemieux the only player in NHL history to have achieved the feat both as a player and as a team owner. Magnificent indeed.
This is another spectacular player that has to be on this list. Bobby Orr is considered to be the best defenseman in NHL history. This isn’t without good reason. Orr is the only defenseman in NHL history to clinch the league scoring title, earning the Art Ross Trophy twice. He holds the record still to this day of the defenseman to score the most points in a single season.
In the course of his 12-season career (10 with the Boston Bruins and 2 with the Chicago Black Hawks), Bobby Orr took the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defenseman, a record eight years in a row. For three straight years, he was also awarded the Hart Trophy, which goes to the league’s most valuable player of the season.
In 1978, Bobby was forced to retire from professional hockey at the relatively young age of 30, owing to repeated injuries to his left knee. Even so, he was officially inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the year after his retirement, becoming the youngest player to attain this honour at the age of 31. Go, Bobby!
You can’t leave the man who literally patented the name ‘Mr. Hockey’ out of a list like this. Gordie Howe is one of hockey’s most significant contributors on multiple levels. He scored 1,071 goals and 1,518 assists for a total of 2,589 points during his long-spanning career. One of the most prolific goal scorers to ever take to the ice, Gordie led the Red Wings to 4 Stanley Cup championships and was decided the league’s most valuable player six times.
Gordie was not overly delicate on the ice either; he was known to be a scrappy player that wouldn’t shy away from fisticuffs (controlled hockey fights) or have enforcers fight them out on his behalf. ‘Mr. Elbows’, as some of the players who tried getting in his way liked to call him, was the originator of the ‘Gordie Howe Hat Trick’, which comprised getting a goal, an assist and a fight, all in one game.
He was the first recipient of the NHL Lifetime Achievement Award in the year 2008. Oh, and his dear wife? That will be ‘Mrs. Hockey’ to you, and that’s a registered trademark as well, just so you know.
You knew it was coming. The Great One has to be at the top of any NHL listing you care to speak of. Gretzky has a place in hockey history that you will rarely find examples of in other sporting disciplines.
With his dazzling stick-handling and light touches, the low-crouching lightning-bolt that is Wayne Gretzky shattered any and all records that had been established before him, most of which still stand to this day. In total, 40 league records currently stand under his name.
His nickname ‘The Great One’ comes about as a result of his massive contribution to hockey history and his electrifying effect on the game’s popularity and mass appeal. Gretzky is the highest standing points scorer in league history. He is the only one to have scored over 200 points in the course of a single season, a feat he accomplished a grand total of 4 times, just to make sure we noticed the first three times.
Many think it fair to say that the massive spike in popularity that hockey enjoyed after Gretzky made a move to the Los Angeles Kings back in 1988 is what boosted the game’s profile in the United States and paved the way for its eventual expansion.
According to the official NHL Top 100 Players of All Time, Gretzky can be considered to be the ‘greatest player ever’, and they don’t seem to be too far off the mark on this. He was, of course, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame back in 1999.
The NHL has a proud history of inclusion and an open attitude to players globally. Still, Canadians are undoubtedly dominant in terms of pure numbers.
Many partial and impartial commentators hold the opinion that the sheer number of people in the country who play hockey from young ages is what makes it a statistical certainty that they will have the highest number of players good enough to merit a spot in the top hockey league in the world.
Whatever truth there is to this, the fact remains that Canadian hockey is packed with talent, and the NHL should reflect this.
- Wikipedia: Kontinental Hockey League (Russia)
- TSN: Canadians don’t make up an NHL majority this season
- QuantHockey: Canadian hockey players 2019-20 stats
- Wikipedia: National Hockey League
- Hockey Writers: Top Ten Canadian Players in the NHL Today