The NHL is the best professional hockey league in the world. However, every single NHL player has spent time in other leagues on their road to the NHL, and even after their NHL careers are over.
The list of leagues, including minor and professional, is a long one. We compiled information on all the important leagues around the world and summarized them in a handy two-part guide. All the major hockey leagues in North America are covered in Part 1, and this guide goes over all the major leagues outside North America.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the hockey leagues in Europe, Asia, and beyond.
Kontinental Hockey League (KHL)
Arguably the second strongest professional league after the NHL, the KHL boasts 23 teams from across Eurasia. Because of the immense distance between teams, the league is divided into two conferences, each having two divisions. While the majority of the players are Russian, there is a wide variety of players from across Europe, North America, and even Asia. The KHL was home to a number of current NHL players during the 2012-13 lockout, and also was where a number of NHL superstars got their start, such as Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
Vysshaya Hokkeinaya Liga (VHL)
Also known as the Supreme Hockey League, the VHL is the second highest league in Russia. While it is often considered like the AHL of Russia, only a few teams are affiliated with a team in the KHL. That being said, it is considered to be a developmental league that typically attracts younger players on their way to the NHL or KHL. The league has 26 teams in four countries broken up into four divisions. The most recent winner of the Petrov Cup for the championship of the VHL was Saryarka Karaganda of Kazakhstan.
Molodyozhnaya Hokkeinaya Liga (MHL)
The MHL is the top Russian junior league. With 32 teams spread across Eurasia, this is typically where Russian prospects get their start prior to being drafted. Players who excel here often get bumped up to VHL and KHL teams. Unlike the VHL, all but one of the 32 teams in the MHL have an affiliated KHL and/or VHL team. Players in this league have to be 20 or younger to play.
Swedish Hockey League (SHL)
The SHL is the top professional league in Sweden. Consisting of 14 teams across the country, the SHL is one of the largest European leagues by attendance and is the second most popular sports league in Sweden after the country’s soccer league. Unlike many other leagues, the SHL has a relegation tournament at the end of the season where the bottom two teams in the SHL play in a tournament called the Kvalserien with the top four teams in the HockeyAllsvenskan, the second tier league. The top two teams in the tournament play in the SHL the following year, while the bottom four teams play in the HockeyAllsvenskan.
Many notable first round draft picks from Sweden have experience playing in the SHL, but it is rare to see them putting up big numbers before they are drafted. In the 2020 draft, Lucas Raymond, Alexander Holtz, Noel Gunler, and Helge Grans all played in the SHL this year.
The Allsvenskan is the second league in Sweden. Also having 14 teams, the season runs like a round robin with each team playing each other twice (once at home and once away) to determine the seeding for the finals. Both David Pastrnak and Elias Pettersson played in the Allsveskan.
Junior hockey: J-20 (Superelit)
The J20 Superelit is the highest junior hockey league in Sweden. With 21 teams divided into a north and south divisions, the teams are usually associated with a team in either the Allsveskan or SHL.
Unlike North America, teams only play against their division rivals in the first half of the season. The top five teams in each divisions are then invited to the J20 SuperElit Top10, where they play against the top teams in Sweden, then have the playoff round in which all ten teams compete.
The bottom five teams from each division play in the J20 SuperElit Fortsättningsserien, where they compete to stay in the Superelit. The top six teams remain in the top flight and play in the playoffs and the next two teams remain in the top flight but do not play in the playoffs. The bottom two teams play a playoff with the top two teams in the J-20 Elit, the second division of Swedish J-20 hockey, with the winning two teams staying in the top league.
There is a wide talent gap between teams at the J-20 level, so players who play in the Top 10 in the second half of the season typically see their production drop off as the competition increases. Players who play in the J20 SuperElit Fortsättningsserien for the second half of the season tend to see their production increase. Scouts typically account for this in their analysis of young Swedish prospects.
Junior hockey: J-18 (Elit)
The J-18 is structured similarly to the J-20. The teams start the year in the J-18 Elit, which is divided into four divisions – North, South, East, and West, with 48 total teams. Each division has 12 teams who play against each other to determine the top teams.
The top five teams in each of the four divisions are then invited to play the second half of the season in the J-18 Allsvenskan. They are divided into two divisions of ten. The remaining 28 teams continue playing in the J-18.
The top six teams in each of the two divisions of the Allsvenskan qualify for the Swedish J-18 Playoffs, as does the top team in each of the four divisions of the Elit League. That means of the remaining seven teams in each of the Elit divisions, the top team from there also qualifies for the playoffs, even though they did not qualify initially for the Allsvenskan. There are a total of 16 teams in the playoffs (the top six from each of the two Allsvenskan divisions plus the top team from each of the four divisions of the Elit League).
In the Championships, the top teams from the Elit League play an entry playoff against the 5/6 qualifying playoff teams from the Allsvenskan. The winners then play against the 3/4 teams. The top two teams have byes until this point, which is the quarterfinals. The winners are crowned the Swedish J-18 Champions.
The 2018/19 Champions were Frolunda HC, which was once the home of Daniel Alfredsson.
Liiga is the top league in Finland. The league is comprised of of 15 teams who compete for the Kanada-Malja, which is Finnish for the Canada Bowl. Teams play 60 games per season, and the final six make the playoffs directly. Teams placing 7-10 play a playoff to determine the final two spots to round out an eight team playoff.
In the playoff, the bracket is folded so the top team plays the bottom team and so forth. This continues in each round until the winner is determined. The reigning champion of the Kanada-Malja is HPK, former home of Juuse Saros.
The league is primarily composed of Finnish players, with a number of Finnish draft picks of NHL teams currently on loan there through the ongoing pandemic. These include Juuso Valimaki of the Calgary Flames and Jesperi Kotkaniemi of the Montreal Canadiens. Canadian Barrett Hayton of the Arizona Coyotes is also on loan in the Liiga.
Called the Mestaruussarja in Finnish, meaning the Championship Series, the Mestis is the second highest division of hockey in the country. Established in 2000, it was initially the highest league that a team could be promoted to, as SM-Liiga was closed to promotions until the 2004-05 season. Since then, three teams have been promoted from Mestis to SM-Liiga. The Mestis has 14 teams.
The GET Ligaen is the top league in Norway. Consisting of ten teams, teams compete to win the Kongepokal, otherwise known as the Botta. The season runs like the NHL season from September to March, then the top eight teams play in a best of seven playoffs.
The bottom two teams play against the top two teams in 1. Divisjon in a round robin, with each team playing the other three twice – once at home and once away. The top two teams in the round robin then move to the GET Ligaen.
However, each team must agree to play in the top league the following season. Should a team not agree for financial or other reasons, the spot is passed to the next highest team. This happens regularly, with three teams unable or unwilling to take the spot in 2018-19 season.
Mats Zuccarello is one of the most famous NHL players to have gotten his start in Norway. He played for the Frisk Tigers, who are the defending champions, with the 2019-20 championships being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is the Norwegian second division, and operates similarly to the GET Ligaen. There are ten teams who challenge for the championships, with the bottom two teams having a relegation battle to the second division, called 2. Divisjon. The league is comprised of primarily Norwegian players, with no players from the United States and only one from Canada.
At the time of writing, Ringerike was the top of the league, sitting at 10-1.
The highest league in the Czech Republic, the Extraliga has 14 teams from across the country who compete for the T.G. Masaryk Cup. The top ten teams qualify for the playoffs, with the top six entering in the quarter-finals.
The bottom two teams play in a relegation battle with the top two teams from the First League. The four teams play a round robin with each team playing the other three twice, with the top two teams going to the Extraliga, and the bottom two going to the First League.
Numerous NHL stars have played in the Czech League, with Jaromir Jagr being being the most famous. He started his career with Kladno before moving to the NHL. He is currently the owner and a player with Kladno, and helped them move back to the Extraliga in 2018-19, but they were relegated at the end of last season.
The Chance Liga is the second highest league in the country, with 18 teams. Each team plays the other twice, and the top ten teams play in the playoffs. Unlike any other league, the top two teams are crowned co-winners, who then play against the bottom two teams of the Extraliga for a chance to play in that league.
Through the ongoing pandemic, Matej Pekar, a fourth round pick of the Buffalo Sabres, has been loanded to HC Benatky Nad Jizerou until the start of hockey in North America.
The Tipsport Liga, or Tipos extraliga, is the highest professional league in Slovakia, with 12 teams, 11 of which are Slovak, and one is Hungarian. The teams compete for the Trophy Vladimira Dzurillu through an eight team playoffs. The top six teams get in automatically, with teams seven through 10 going through a play-in to enter. The bottom team plays in a play-out against the top team in the Slovak 1. Division for the right to stay in the Liga.
Interestingly, a number of NHL teams have loaned their younger players to this league. These include Hayden Verbeek of the Montreal Canadiens and Nick Wolff of the Boston Bruins, each of whom have two goals at the time of writing.
Slovak 1. Division
There are 10+1 teams in the second highest division of Slovak Hockey. Ten clubs compete in this league, with the eleventh team being the Slovak under 18 team. The U-18 team only play a handful of games, and are not eligible for promotion or relegation.
Of note, former first round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins Henrik Samuelsson is one of just two American players in the league. A standout WHL star for the Edmonton Oil Kings, Samuelsson saw the ice in three NHL games while playing for the Arizona Coyotes.
The Swiss National League is the top men’s league in Switzerland. Averaging almost 7000 fans per match (pre-COVID-19), it is the most watched hockey league in Europe on average per match, ahead of even the KHL.
The league has 12 teams who play 50 games per season. The top eight make the playoffs, and the bottom four play a six game play-out in which they try to add to their current season totals. At the end of the play-out, the teams with the lowest season totals then play a best of seven series to determine the last placed team. They then play the champion of the Swiss League, the second division, for the final spot in the National League next season.
The most interesting thing about the National League is that there is an unwritten rule that there can only be four import players per roster. Not codified in any documents, as it would violate local labour laws, the league counts foreign players as those without a Swiss Player-License as opposed to their citizenship. For example, former NHLer Josh Jooris is a Canadian citizen but plays with a Swiss Player-License from his time playing in Switzerland as a youth.
A number of notable NHL draft picks are currently on loan in the National League, including Marco Rossi from the Minnesota Wild and Erik Brannstrom of the Ottawa Senators. They join notable veterans Joe Thornton and Vladimir Sobotka in swapping from the NHL to the NL.
The Swiss League is the second division of Swiss hockey. Boasting 12 teams who compete for the championship and the opportunity to be promoted to the National League, teams compete from across the country but are not typically from the major cities of Switzerland. Interestingly, only one team in this league was founded in this century, with eight of the 12 founded between 1929 and 1946.
The Calgary Flames have loaned Glenn Gawdin to EHC Visp until the season begins. He joins former Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Troy Josephs as the only two Canadians on the team.
Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL)
The DEL is the highest hockey league in Germany with 14 teams. Unlike most leagues around the world, the DEL is independently owned and operated by its member clubs as opposed to by the Germany Ice Hockey Federation. The league currently has the second highest attendance among all leagues in Europe, after the Swiss League.
Since 2005, the DEL and DEL2 have had no relegation or promotion agreement, but it was agreed that the 2020-21 season would be the first with a relegation system for teams from the DEL.
While a historically troubled league, with bankruptcy and poor attendance plaguing German hockey for decades, it has recently become one of the more powerful European leagues. With players like Leon Draisaitl, Thomas Greiss, and recently drafted Tim Stutzle.
The Los Angeles Kings currently have five players on loan to Eis Baren Berlin including Akil Thomas and Alex Turcotte.
Deutsche Eishockey Liga II (DEL2)
The second divison of German hockey, the DEL2 was founded in 2013 and is the most attended second division hockey league in Europe. Made up of 14 teams, the teams have not had the ability to be promoted to the DEL, but this season is the first that there will be promotions. However, the league does have relegation, with the lowest team having the ability to be relegated to the Oberliga.
The current reigning champions (due to the cancellation of last year’s playoffs) are the Ravensburg Towerstars.
Sponsored by Dansk Metal, the Danish top league consists of nine teams, spread across the country. Each team plays 48 games, with eight of the teams making the playoffs. Rungsted Seier Capital was crowned champion in 2019, but finished fourth in the regular season.
Players of note who started their careers in the Metal Ligaen include Fredrik Andersson and Jannik Hansen. Former Florida Panthers Assistant Coach Ben Cooper is now the coach of the Herning Blue Fox. He was featured on 31 Thoughts the Podcast.
Made up of 13 teams, the Danish second division is mostly made up of secondary teams of the first division teams. Primarily made up of Danish players, the all time leading scorer is Steffen Schultz, who put up 434 points in 351 games.
Other European leagues
The Alps Hockey League
An international league, the AlpsHL is made up of 16 teams from across Italy, Austria, and Slovenia. Only in operation since 2016, the league is young and looking to expand while maintaining a focus on developing young players from the region. Teams are only allowed to sign up to four imported players, so as to encourage local player to develop.
The league championship has been been won by Italian clubs since its inception, but current the reigning champions are HK Olimpija from Slovenia.
Canadian Dylan Stanley is the all-time leader in points with 264 in 162 games. However his team has yet to win the championship.
Selected non-european Leagues
Based out of Japan, the eight team Asia League has teams from Japan, Korea, and Russia. The The winning team in the playoffs wins the aptly named Championship Trophy. The sole Russian side, PSK Sakhalin, based in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a city of 180,000 people on Sakhalin Island just north of Japan.
Although it came into existence in 2003, the league has been in flux since inception with the number of teams, number of games, organization of playoffs and other factors changing from year to year. Teams play each other approximately six times per year, and will usually play multiple games in each country before coming home.
There have been a handful of NHL players who have played in the league over the years including Claude Lemieux, who played two games for the China Sharks. The most interesting story is that of Michael Swift, who was signed by the New Jersey Devils and was around a point-per-game player in the AHL, before opting to move to the Asia League. He was gifted South Korean citizenship for having “outstanding ability”, and played for the Korean national hockey team when the Olympics were hosted in Seoul.
Emirates Ice Hockey League
Founded in 2009, the league is made up of seven teams across the Emirates. Unlike most leagues that aim to develop local talent, the EIHL works to strengthen relations with other European sides, and hopes to have a team in the KHL one day.
The Abu Dhabi Storm are the reigning champions in the league, and Russian-Emirati Artur Zainutdinov is the all time leading scorer in the league. He averages between four and five points per game for the Al Ain Theebes.
Australian Ice Hockey League
Made up of eight teams, the AIHL is a semi-professional league where players are not formally paid, but receive benefits including travel and meals instead. Unlike leagues in the northern hemisphere, the league plays from April until September.
The top four teams in the league make it to the playoffs, which are held at a single venue over one weekend. Each game is a one off, with 1v4 and 2v3 happening the Saturday before the finals weekend on Sunday. The reigning champions are the Sydney Bears, who came into the finals weekend in 4th, and willed their way to win the Goodall Cup.
Greg Oddy is the all time leading scorer in the league, putting up 615 points in 383 games with Adelaide.