A lot has changed in the league since then, so we decided to update that post for the 2021 season, based on rosters at the start of the season. This year, since the NHL has adopted the taxi squad model to combat travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, the nationality breakdown includes opening night rosters, players on the season opening injured reserve, and taxi squads from each team.
Hockey is globally known as “Canada’s game”, and while that might still be true today, there are several countries that have closed the gap in the past decade or so. Now, hockey is mostly dominated by the Big Six: Canada, the USA, Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic. There have been 24 winter Olympic games that have had men’s ice hockey, and these five nations have won 65 out of 72 total medals or 90% of medals awarded.
The game is growing though, and it’s clear that countries like Switzerland, Germany, and Slovakia are steadily climbing up the international ice hockey charts. At the past U20 World Junior Championship, Germany made headlines with stars Tim Stuetzle, John-Jason Peterka, and Florian Elias forming one of the best lines in the whole tournament.
Each year at the NHL draft there are more and more players selected from non-traditional hockey markets, and the game really is growing in more countries around the world. Alexis Lafreniere was the first Canadian to go first overall in the NHL draft in five seasons. Two of those previous four picks were Europeans, something that just didn’t used to happen very often.
That being said, we’re still not at a stage where we can say that any country is on a level playing field with Canada. In the NHL, 42% of players are from Canada. The USA is a not-so-close second at 28%. These numbers are consistent with last year’s totals.
Teams included in the chart below, and all subsequent charts are as follows in order: Canada, United States, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovakia, Germany, Denmark, Latvia, France, Austria, Slovenia, Belarus, Netherlands, and Norway. The NHL features players of 17 different nationalities this season.
Even from the graph above, it’s easy to see that the Big Six, or the nations of Canada, United States, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic, and Russia are the most represented countries in the NHL. When looking at each team in the NHL, the vast majority of every team’s roster comes from a country in the Big Six.
The average team has 1.6 players from outside Big Six countries or just around 5% of their roster/taxi squad/IR. This is down from the same time last year when each team averaged three players from outside the Big Six. The Washington Capitals lead the league with six players from non-Big Six countries. Six teams have zero players from outside the Big Six, and 13 teams have multiple players from outside the Big Six.
Broken down even further, most of the Big Six players hail from North America. Canada and the United States make up the majority of players in the NHL (70%), but even within the Big Six, North Americans account for 74% of players. This is in line with last year’s ratio.
Once again, most teams are composed primarily by North American players, though the separation between North America and the rest of the world is not nearly as large as it was for the Big Six. On average, each team has nine players from outside North America, or 30% of their roster. This is down from last year when the average was 35% per team. The Capitals, once again, have the most non-North Americans on their roster with 16, closely followed by the Blue Jackets with 13. The Penguins have the lowest non-North American representation with just five players.
Looking at the rosters of each team in the NHL shows an interesting rainbow of nationalities spread throughout the league.
Out of North American players, the Edmonton Oilers lead the league with 20 Canadians and the Winnipeg Jets lead with 15 Americans. The Calgary Flames have the most Swedish players with six; the Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators, have the most Fins with five each; the Boston Bruins lead with five Czechs; and the Senators have the most Russians with five. The Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, and Washington Capitals are the league’s most diverse teams, featuring players from nine different countries. Conversely, the Anaheim Ducks have the fewest number of countries represented with just four.
This season, of the 17 countries represented, four have just a single player in the league. These countries are Slovenia (Anze Kopitar), Belarus (Yegor Sharangovich), Netherlands (Daniel Sprong), and Norway (Mats Zuccarello).
Hockey might still be dominated by the Big Six, but the winds of change are blowing. Several new nations are joining the fold and becoming fixtures in the hockey landscape. Their surge up the international charts, and the draft board, signals a new era of ice hockey, where victory for the Canadians is no longer guaranteed. Here’s hoping for NHL participation in a best-on-best tournament soon.