Hockey is predominantly popular in the colder, northern climates of the world. However, the fastest game on earth knows no bounds. It’s not just played by the kids in Toronto, Minneapolis, or Stockholm anymore–hockey players are coming from all over.
Some of this growth has been fostered by the NHL itself where we are now seeing an influx of new hockey hotbeds sprouting up in California, Arizona, and Florida – all southern markets that as little as a generation ago were hockey wastelands with no grassroots interest. And some of this growth is just occurring naturally; once you see the game played, you’re in love.
Over 22 different countries have been represented in the NHL, from Austria (Andre Burakovsky) to Italy (Luca Sbisa) and there are currently Ice Hockey Federations in 73 different countries. 73 countries, and yet, the vast majority of everything we know about hockey is represented by a handful of these countries, the hockey powerhouses if you will.
And yet, as witnessed at the World Junior Championship, the big dogs are being pushed back a bit and the underdog nations are starting to take root in the hockey world (Canada doesn’t have to be worried…yet). Switzerland, Denmark, Belarus, Germany, they are all starting to become conventional hockey nations–countries that come to mind when you think hockey. But it wasn’t always this way. It took generations for the game to be grandfathered in and to reach a certain level of national acceptance and interest.
This week, the Hockey’s Future Top 5 takes a look the most unconventional (we looked way beyond the obvious), blossoming hockey nations on the planet.
5. United Kingdom
Hockey is believed to be based off of a United Kingdom stick-and-ball game from the 1700’s, so it makes sense that the sport has slowly started to re-emerge in the land where it all began. Hockey is still a minor sport in the country, but in the last five years the game has truly gained traction, with a lot of that growth having to do with infrastructure. The country now sports 84 indoor arenas and over 11,000 registered players (a 96% growth in those five years). While England is a long way away from ever being a formidable hockey nation, it does have the economic power, infrastructure, and blossoming cultural passion to really jump-start the initiative. And just seeing the pride of Guildford, England, Brendan Perlini, as a top prospect for the Arizona Coyotes is bound to inspire.
There are only 19 indoor rinks in the entire country, and less than 5,000 registered players, but the ‘glorious nation’ of Kazakhstan is slowly becoming a hockey nation worth watching. Despite poor playing conditions and alleged corruption (former NHL player Mike Danton wrote an interesting article about his playing days in Kazakhstan), the small country has been on a very obvious upswing in terms of the brand of hockey and players it has produced in recent years. The country played very well at the 2014 World Junior Championship (Under-20 Division B), and at times dominated the competition, and were incredibly close to moving up to the A league.
What is setting apart Kazakhstan from some of the other unconventional hockey markets of the world is its ability to produce above-average talent. Now, there’s probably still not a future NHL player in the mix, but youngster Semyon Koshelev looks like a decent hockey player, and with KHL players like Roman Starkchenko, Vitali Kolesnik, and Paval Poluektov, there is the beginnings of a decent foundation of players coming from Borat’s home country.
During the 2014 NHL Draft, Nathan Walker became the first Australian player to be selected by an NHL team. It was one of the greatest achievements by an Australian sportsman, and in doing so, Walker broke down a wall. He became a trailblazer, and an inspiration for other young Aussies to follow. Admittedly, Australia is a long way from ever being a relevant hockey nation – heck, it has the same number of ice rinks as Kazakhstan (the Melbourne Ice House is a class establishment, though) – and it’s the lowest-ranked country in the IIHF World Rankings among the countries in this top-5 list. But, with so many ex-pats taking to the AIHL (Australian Ice Hockey League) and the league becoming increasingly more popular with fans and sponsors (it’s regularly broadcast on Australian Fox TV) the sport is on the verge of blowing up in the land down under, all within a generation. Remember that this is the key with growth – it’s all about grandfathering the game into the culture, and letting a new generation rise up and excel.
With a population of over 22 million and some of the world’s best athletic programs (Australia quickly became a basketball powerhouse), more and more Aussie’s should be NHL-bound. Don’t be surprised if Australia starts to greatly improve their hockey program during the next decade.
2. South Korea
South Korea? Yes. South Korea. And there’s one big reason why – the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. As a host nation, the South Koreans will by default ice men’s and women’s hockey teams for the first time in it’s nation’s history. And the South Koreans, despite some protest by the IIHF, are doing their best not to look bad. While the team will be largely comprised of ex-patriots (like Michael Swift, a 100-point player, and captain of the 2007-08 Niagara IceDogs) trying to fill out a non-laughable team, the real importance and real power of these games will be the lasting effect of the sport on the Asian country. Make no mistake, the IIHF’s 23rd-ranked South Korean team (which actually sits ahead of Poland) is going to be destroyed in their round robin games, but just that exposure on that side of the world is going to be very good for the sport. And if it’s anything like Nagano, we could see a huge Eastern surge in both popularity and registered players.
Pop quiz – is Japan in the top 10 in overall hockey players per country? The answer is a surprising yes. There are more registered players in Japan than there are in Slovakia, Denmark, or even Belarus. According to the IIHF, 19,260 Japanese players play in the 230 rinks around the country. Granted, the population is massive (over 123 million) and the level of play isn’t as high but there is a surprising love for the game slowly bubbling in the depths of the country.
In just the last five years according to the same IIHF survey, hockey in Asian countries has had a gigantic popularity boom. Hong Kong, for example, increased its registered hockey players 796% (up to 1631 players). Compare that to Canada’s 44% boom, and you start to realize that hockey is growing around the world.
From a quality perspective, the Japanese are still far behind most of the bigger nations in hockey. However, when you look at the World Rankings (21st among men, and 8th among women), this is a country that has slowly been climbing the charts – and it won’t be long before they can start actually competing with some of the smaller hockey nations like Germany.
Perhaps what is more interesting is the recognition individual Japanese players and prospects have been getting recently. Ryo Hashimoto, a 22-year-old from Sapporo, Japan was recently invited to the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ development camp. Yushiroh Hirano, a 19-year-old forward, has actually been playing amazingly well in the Swedish junior leagues, amassing 19 points in 22 games. And perhaps the most famous Japanese prospect of all, the young phenom, Aito Iguchi – who is already getting Crosby-like hype (perhaps a little unwarranted) because of his YouTube highlight reels is capturing the imagination of scouts, and he’s not even a teenager (he’s 12!).
Italy, Singapore, Hungary, Holland, Croatia
Will hockey ever be a true global sport? Which countries do you think can compete with the hockey powerhouses of the world 10, 20, 30 years from now? Are we missing anyone in our top 5? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Follow Craig Fischer on Twitter via @fgiarc