The NHL, and hockey leagues around the world, have been working to grow the game of hockey internationally, particularly in non-traditional hockey markets. This year, the NHL Global Series saw the Los Angeles Kings and Arizona Coyotes play two preseason games in Melbourne, Australia—the NHL’s first trip to the southern hemisphere. Both games were sellouts and were received with incredible support from local hockey fans.
It’s not the first time the NHL Global Series has taken place; the NHL has hosted games all over the world including new hockey markets like China, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Hockey is growing worldwide, and it’s great to see.
In 2023–24, the nationality breakdown saw quite a few changes. Some countries were added to the list, others dropped off, but ultimately the diversity in the game is growing and that’s a good thing. This year’s breakdown is based on season-opening rosters from all 32 NHL teams, per the NHL website.
Hockey around the world
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 Czechia. There have been 24 Winter Olympic games that have had men’s ice hockey, and these five nations have won 67 out of 75 total medals or ~90% of medals awarded.
With the emergence of international superstars like Tim Stützle, Timo Meier, Mats Zuccarello, and many others, the game of hockey is clearly growing overseas. It’s only a matter of time before we start to see countries like Switzerland, Germany, and Denmark rise up the international ice hockey charts and continually challenge for medals at international tournaments.
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. When Owen Power was selected first overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2021 draft, it was the first time in six years that Canadians were taken first overall in back-to-back drafts. Two years ago, Juraj Slafkovsky became the first Slovakian to be selected first overall in the NHL draft. Over the past 12 years, first overall picks have come from six different countries, something that just hasn’t been very common in the NHL’s history.
NHL nationality breakdown
That being said, we’re still not at a point where we can say that any country is on a level playing field with Canada. In the NHL, 42% of players are from Canada, a slight increase of 1% from last year. The USA is a not-so-close second at 29%, even with the percentage from last year.
Teams included in the chart below, and all subsequent charts breaking down nationality are as follows in order: Canada, United States of America, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czechia, Switzerland, Germany, Slovakia, Latvia, Denmark, France, Belarus, Netherlands, Slovenia, Austria, Norway, Jamaica, and Bulgaria. There is one player who was born in Bulgaria but doesn’t represent them internationally, and conversely, there is one player born in Canada but represents Jamaica internationally. The NHL features players of 18 different nationalities, and 18 birth countries 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, Czechia, and Russia are still the most represented countries in the NHL. The drop off from Czechia, the Big Six country with the fewest players in the NHL, to the next country is not as significant as it has been in the past.
The average team has 0.3 players players from outside Big Six countries or just around 1.3% of a standard 23-man roster. This is significantly lower than the start of last season where the average was 1.3 players and 5%. The Minnesota Wild lead the league with two players from non-Big Six countries, Marco Rossi from Austria and Mats Zuccarello from Norway. Nine other teams are behind them with one player from outside the Big Six. At the beginning of last season, the New Jersey Devils has six 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 75% of players. This is up 1% from last year.
Once again, most teams are composed primarily of 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 7.2 players from outside North America, or 29% of their roster. The San Jose Sharks have the most non-North Americans on their roster with 12, closely followed by the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings, and New Jersey Devils with 10.
The Montreal Canadiens have the lowest non-North American representation with just three players. Five teams follow closely behind with just five players not from North America.
Looking at the rosters of each team in the NHL shows an interesting rainbow of nationalities spread throughout the league.
By birth country, a few more countries are added to the chart.
Team nationality leaders
The teams that have the most players hailing from each country are as follows:
|United States of America||12||NYR|
|Finland||4||CAR, DAL, FLA|
|Germany||1||BUF, CHI, DET, EDM, NJD, OTT, SEA, SJS, STL|
|Slovakia||1||CGY, COL, MTL, TBL, VGK, WSH|
|Latvia||1||BUF, CBJ, FLA, PIT, VAN|
|Denmark||1||CAR, PIT, SEA|
|France||1||ANA, CBJ, SEA|
For North American players, the Montreal Canadiens once again lead the league, this year with 18 Canadians, and the New York Rangers lead with 12 Americans. The Kings have the most Swedish players with six; the Hurricanes, Dallas Stars, and Panthers have the most Finns with four; the Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals have the most Russians with four; and the Sharks have the most Czechs with four.
Last year, two teams led the league with the most diversity—the players from the most number of countries. This year, an incredible 14 teams have players from seven different countries. This type of nationality variety is new for the NHL. Conversely, the Boston Bruins and Canadiens are the least diverse with just four countries represented on their rosters.
This season, of the 18 countries represented, six have just a single player in the league. These countries are Belarus (Yegor Sharangovich), Austria (Marco Rossi), Slovenia (Anze Kopitar), Netherlands (Daniel Sprong), Jamaica (Anson Thornton), and Norway (Mats Zuccarello).
Thornton is the most interesting case this season. He was born in Oshawa, Ontario, but represented Jamaica in the Latam Cup in 2019–20. The Latam Cup is one we’ve discussed in nationality breakdowns before; last year’s tournament in September featured teams from Argentina, Greece, Lebanon, Mexico, Armenia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Egypt, Israel, Venezuela, and The Caribbean. It truly is one of the most fascinating international ice hockey events in the world.
In terms of birth country, Bulgaria (Alexandar Georgiev) joins the list.
The global sport of hockey
This breakdown is solely based on the opening night rosters for all NHL teams, which does omit certain players who will definitively play NHL games this season. Players like Arthur Kaliyev, born in Uzbekistan, are not on this list since they were not on their team’s opening night rosters. As the season goes on, I may update this breakdown to include all players who skated in a game after the trade deadline.
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. The World Cup of Hockey is slated to take place in 2025, and it will be a tightly contested tournament. Hockey is supposed to be for everyone, and slowly but surely we’re seeing that translate worldwide.