The biggest Ice Hockey competitions around the globe

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Pro ice hockey has been in existence for longer than you probably would have thought. Way back in 1902 the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League was formed, the first-ever competition featuring pro-fessional ice hockey players. Eight years later (1910) over in Montreal, the National Hockey Association was formed but seven years after that, in 1917, it became known by a name you’ll surely recognise- the National Hockey League.

It may have started over in North America but it didn’t take long for Europe to follow suit with most countries starting their own professional leagues. The Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, the Swedish Hockey League and the Czech Extraliga among the most competitive and prominent, with all of them still going to this day.

National Hockey League (NHL)

nhl ice hockey
Welcome to the richest, most competitive and highly-skilled ice hockey league in the world. One curious aspect of it is that the NHL features teams from not just one country, but two. Of the 31 teams taking part, 24 are USA based with the remaining seven being able to call Canada their home.

In Canada, ice hockey is the country’s most popular sport by a country mile so you won’t be surprised to hear that the NHL is the sports league watched by the most people, both live and on TV.

It doesn’t quite share that status over in the US but still makes the Top 4 of biggest sports over there with American Football, baseball and basketball completing the list. And it’s big betting business, too. So if you fancy getting involved, you could certainly do worse than reading our guide on how to crack ice hockey betting markets.

Word of warning. The National Hockey League isn’t for the feint-hearted. Big hits and occasional full-on fights are part of the game and to a greater or lesser extent, they’re allowed!

Ice Hockey in America: The NHL’s history

When the National Hockey Association folded, the NHL was formed in Montreal, more precisely in 1917.
Between 1942 and 1967, the so-called ‘Original Six’ were the only participants but the number of teams steadily grew. By 1967 it was 12, by 1974 it was 18 and come 1979, there were 21 battling it out.
In 2000 it was up to 30 and when the 2017 season started, a 31st joined the competition.
More and more teams in the competition are just making it harder and harder to win this American hockey league.

The format of the NHL

It’s split in two. There’s the American League and then there’s the National League.

The regular season runs from October to April and when that’s over, it’s post-season time.

Every side will have to play 82 games, half at home, and half away.

The Eastern teams play 28 games in their own division – based on geographic region – so four times against each of the seven other teams in the division. The remaining 24? They play each of the eight remaining teams in the conference three times.
Over in the Western Conference, it’s 26 or 29 inter-divisional games- in some cases four and in others five- against the six or seven divisional opponents and then it’s 21 or 24 versus the remaining sides in the conference. Every fourth game is a cross-division game.
So, the result is that every side plays every team in the opposing conference twice, once on home ‘ice’ and once on enemy soil. Clear as mud? Or should that be: clear as ice?

NHL Players

The NHL hosts more of the world’s leading ice hockey players than any other league. If you wanted to be romantic, you’d say the top players all want to play in the toughest league. If you wanted to be cynical, you’d say money talks.
And these top players aren’t just fighting it out for team awards, there are also individual awards.
The William M. Jennings Trophy goes to the league’s best goaltender or more precisely, the one who conceded the fewest goals.
The Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy is given to the player scoring the most goals while the player who collects the most goals and assists (combined) walks off with the Art Ross Trophy.

These trophies are one thing but entering the Hall of Fame, is quite another. Only players, coaches, team builders and officials who have truly left their mark on the sport get to enter that ‘Hall’. One per-son who did was Wayne Gretzky, back in 1999, arguably the biggest name the sport has ever known. The clue is in the name: ’The Great One’.
More recently, fellow Canadian Sydney Crosby has been one of the NHL’s biggest names and a place in the Hall of Fame for him is by no means out of the question, in the future.

NHL: Playing for the Stanley Cup

ice hockey stanley cup
That’s what they’re all playing for. The trophy given to the winner of the NHL playoffs. Handed out 101 times since the 1914-15 season, the Stanley Cup has had 23 different winners, of which five teams no longer exist.
Top of the tree are the Montreal Canadiens, who have won it 24 times. Looking at just US teams, it’s the Detroit Red Wings who have shined brightest, racking up 11 wins.

Stanley Cup History

Formerly known as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup. Before 1914 the winners were determined by taking results from league games and challenge games and rewinding the clocks back further to 1906, that was the first year that pro teams had the right to battle it out to win it.

Another key year was 1915, when the National Hockey Association and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association decided that it would be exciting for the sport for each of their respective champions to play each other for the right to lift the Cup.

Just two years after the end of the Second World War, in 1947, when mergers and other teams going out of business were rife, the Stanley Cup was created.

A quick glance at the table below shows that some teams have a habit of being among the last two standing, with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks showing remarkable consistency.


The last 10 Stanley Cup champions:

Year Winning team Games Losing team
2009 Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 Detroit Red Wings
2010 Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 Philadelphia Flyers
2011 Boston Bruins 4-3 Vancouver Canucks
2012 Los Angeles Kings 4-2 New Jersey Devils
2013 Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 Boston Bruins
2014 Los Angeles Kings 4-1 New York Rangers
2015 Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 Tampa Bay Lightning
2016 Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 San Jose Sharks
2017 Pittsburgh Penguins 4-2 Nashville Predators
2018 Washington Capitals 4-1 Vegas Golden Knights

The structure of the Stanley Cup

Once the NHL season is over, it’s Stanley Cup time and 16 teams are in it to win it by playing the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It’s made up of three rounds, each played over a best-of-seven series with the winner progressing to the next round. Last team standing walks away with the huge Stanley Cup trophy. No, really, it’s huge.

The eight teams are made up of the three highest-ranked sides from each of the two divisions and the two teams in each conference with the next highest amount of points.

‘Home advantage’ is determined by who was ranked highest and means that team gets to play four (rather than three) games at home. When the final stage is reached, home-ice advantage is determined by looking at he team who performed best during the regular season.


Teams with the highest number of Stanley Cup wins:

Team Appearances Wins Years
Montreal Canadiens 34 24 1916, 1924, 1930, 1931, 1944, 1946, 1953, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1986, 1993
Toronto Maple Leafs 21 13 1918, 1922, 1932,  1942, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1951, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1967
Detroit Red Wings 24 11 1936, 1937, 1943, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008
Boston Bruins 19 6 1929, 1939, 1941, 1970, 1972, 2011
Chicago Blackhawks 13 6 1934, 1938, 1961, 2010, 2013, 2015
Edmonton Oilers 7 5 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990
Pittsburgh Penguins 6 5 1991, 1992, 2009, 2016, 2017
New York Rangers 11 4 1928, 1933, 1940, 1994
New York Islanders 5 4 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983
New Jersey Devils 5 3 1995, 2000, 2003

Ice Hockey World Championships

ice hockey world championships
We’ll come to the biggest prize in international ice hockey in due course but this is certainly the biggest annually-held international tournament. First things first; it’s not called the Ice Hockey World Cup, nor has it ever been.

Organised by the Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), it aims to find the best international side for that year, but let’s address the elephant in the room right away. It coincides with the NHL playoffs so very often some of the world’s biggest hockey stars don’t play at all or only feature after their side has exited the National Hockey League playoffs.

Ice Hockey World championships history

Its first edition was at the 1920 Summer Olympics but in terms of being a stand-alone event rather than as part of a bigger event, we’ll have to turn to 1930, when 12 teams took part to find the world champion. Canada absolutely dominated the first exchanges, scooping the title 12 times between 1930 and 1952 but that was about to change with the Soviet Union becoming the dominant force between 1963 and 1991, the year the country was split up.
In the 2000s it became a case of more varied winners, with Canada, Russia, Finland, the Czech Repub-lic, Sweden and the USA all winning at least once.

The structure of the Ice Hockey World Championships

Two groups of eight are determined by their world rankings at the time the Groups are decided.
The rankings in turn are determined by how the teams performed in the past four Ice Hockey World Championships and the previous Winter Olympics with recent performances counting far more than those from three or four years ago, meaning ‘recent form’ trumps performances from a few years back.

Each team plays seven matches during the preliminary round with the Top 4 progressing to the knock-out playoff stage. First plays fourth from opposing groups and second plays third. The four winners from this quarter-final stage progress to the semis and then of course there’s the big final.

Ice Hockey World Championships eligibility

Both amateurs and pros can take part and this has been the case since 1977. An interesting rule is that if you’ve never played in the Ice Hockey World Championships before and decide to change nationali-ty, you’ll have to play in national tournaments for your new country for at least two years before being able to take part in the World Championships, as well as possess an International Transfer Card (ITC).

It gets more complicated if you have played for another country in the World Championships before deciding to swap nationalities. In that case you’d have to play for four years in that country’s domestic events before being able to play here. And you can only swap once.

Ice Hockey as part of the Winter Olympics

ice hockey winter olympics
Ice hockey was initially part of the Summer Olympics back in 1920, before common sense prevailed and it became part of the Winter Olympics, which happened in 1924.
Between 1924 and 1988 the format was a round-robin, followed by a medal round. Following those games, medals were given out based on performances in the second phase.
Due to schedule clashes with the all-important NHL, the competition’s format was changed in 1988. Not only were NHL-based players not included in the preliminary round but neither were players from the Big Six- Canada, Finland, USA, Russia, Sweden and Czech Republic.
In 2006 it changed again. Each team had to play five preliminary games with no restriction on NHL players.

Winter Olympics History

When ice hockey was part of the Summer Olympics in 1920, it wasn’t that well-known.  A key event in getting it under way at the Olympics were the events surrounding Antwerp’s Palais de Glace where stadium managers went on a sort of blackmail mission. Either ice hockey was part of the Olympics or there would be no ice-skating events held at their venue.

They got what they wanted and so the 1920 event was considered by the IIHF as the very first Ice Hockey World Championships. Being part of the Olympics really put ice hockey into the spotlight with its coverage on TV meaning everyone could follow the action.

Its popularity just kept on growing and not only does its presence at the Olympics make for a great sporting spectacle but also a great betting opportunity.

The structure of Ice Hockey at the Winter Olympics

From 1976 onwards, 12 teams were in the running for those Olympic medals. In 1998 the NHL allowed its players to take part in the Winter Olympics of that year and once that happened, the Big Six teams were awarded automatic qualification and byes to the final round.
That year was also significant in that it saw the number of teams increase from 12 to 14, allowing for a preliminary round-robin competition made up of eight teams.

It stayed that way in 2002 before gong back to 12 teams for the competition at the next Olympics.
Results from the 2008 IIHF competition were used to determine who qualified for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The teams ranked the highest qualified automatically, with anyone ranked 19-30 left to fight it out for qualification in a special round.
The top three from those advanced to a further qualification round, alongside those ranked 10-18 in the standings. Those emerging as the Top Three from that lot got to be in the Olympics.

Winter Olympics – The Players

So who’s eligible to play in the ice hockey Olympics? Before the 1984 Winter Olympics, there were arguments as to who was or wasn’t a pro ice hockey player.
The International Olympic Committee decided that an NHL player who had played less than 10 games was allowed to play at the Olympics. But the US Olympic Committee hit back and said that if you played in the NHL you were by definition a pro, and therefore ineligible. The IOC hit back again. This time they said that it was ok for a player to be contracted to an NHL team in terms of playing in the Olympics as long as they hadn’t actually featured in the NHL at all.
In 1988 a new rule was put in place: all athletes were able to take part in the Olympics whether they were pros or amateurs. But of course, that wasn’t the end of it.

Between 1988-1994 the NHL decided none of their players would feature at the Olympics due to the Games being held during ‘their’ regular season. And they did the same again in 2018.


elite ice hockey league

Short for the Kontinental Hockey League, it has been going since 2008 and is one of the very few pro leagues in the world contested over a whole season to be made up of teams from more than one continent.

Whereas most of the participants are European, we’ll come to them in a minute, there are also teams from China (clearly, Asia) and others from Kazakhstan which most would argue is Asia while others would say, is Europe. This isn’t the time or place to go into that!

Whereas most would assume that a football competition would have the highest total attendance of any pro sports league in Europe, they’d be wrong. It’s actually the KHL who boasts that record, with 5.32 million spectators during the regular season. It’s generally regarded as the second biggest, richest and most high-quality ice hockey league in the world, after the NHL.

History of the KHL

At the end of the 2007-8 Russian Superleague season, the KHL was formed by taking the 20 teams who had contested the Russian Superleague the previous season and a special place given to the winners of the Russian Second Division. Joining them were one team from each of Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan and those 24 teams were divided into four divisions, based on performances from previous seasons.

2011 was an extremely important year for the KHL because it was the one where it stopped being just about teams from Russia and the former Soviet Union with a Slovakian side- Lev Poprad- joining the party.

As it happens, they only lasted one season and curiously were replaced by another Lev, this time Lev Praha, from the Czech Republic.

Further additions were Slovan Bratislava (also Slovakia) and Donbass, from the Ukraine, who joined in time for the 2012-13 season.

Further key additions to the league were the iconic Finnish outfit Jokerit and HC Sochi (2014) and perhaps most significantly of all, for geographical reasons if nothing else, the newly-created HC Kunlun Red Star side from Beijing, in China.

Despite all these changes, the number of teams has increased by just one from the original 24, to the current 25.

You can read more about betting strategies if you want to have a season-long bet on the winner, so you can sort the ice hockey wheat from the chaff.

Structure of the KHL

Much like with US-based pro sports leagues, it’s divided into Eastern and Western Conferences.
Because of the odd number of teams, it’s a 14-15 split with the Eastern one having 15 teams and the Western one boasting 14. Each of the two Conferences is then split into two divisions.
Looking at the 2018/19 season, every team played 28 games at home and 28 on the road. That of course adds up to 56 games but the total number is actually 60, making up the regular season.
That’s because each side plays an additional four games (two home, two away) against ‘rivals’ from their own conference.
Eight of the 15/16 from each Conference qualify to the playoffs. Here they’ll play quarter-finals and semi-finals against sides from their own Conference. And of course, the grand final follows where the champs from each Conference face off against each other.
Each series is contested as a best-of-seven and the ultimate prize for grabs is the Gagarin Cup, named of course after the great Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Players in the KHL

Russian teams in the KHL are not allowed to field more than five non-Russian players. Non-Russian teams in turn must have at least five local players in their side. When it comes to goaltenders (general-ly regarded as the most important and influential position on the pitch) at Russian teams, they can only be on the ice for a finite amount of time, if they’re foreign.
Each season, about 950 players turn out at one stage or another for a KHL team. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the players are Russian, making up about 65% of those playing in any given season, although of course that varies a bit from one year to the next.

All the major ice hockey nations- Russia, Sweden, Canada, Finland, USA, Czech Republic – are repre-sented in the KHL. But there are plenty of countries with less of an ice hockey tradition with players there as well. Such as Italy, France, Norway and Germany.


It may lack the legacy of other sports, such as football, cricket and athletics, which have been around for a few hundred years but ice hockey has come a long way since it started just over a century ago in an organised format.
At the Winter Olympics it’s certainly one of the blue-ribband events, while the NHL and KHL (to name but two) are big business in terms of money, TV coverage and most important of all, fans.
Ice hockey is unlikely to ever rival sports like football and golf in terms of global appeal but it’s growing all the time and given what a gripping and exciting sport it is, that’s hardly surprising.