The World's Biggest Ice Hockey Leagues and Championships

Believe it or not, professional ice hockey has been around since the early 20th century. The Western Pennsylvania Hockey League, formed in 1902, was the very first league to parade professional hockey players on the ice. What came next really set the pucks in motion. In 1910, the National Hockey Association was established in Montreal before it was rebranded as the more familiar-sounding National Hockey League just seven years later.

Other pro hockey leagues later developed in Europe, and, as of now, there have been professional leagues established in most European countries. The top leagues in Europe include the Swedish Hockey League, the Kontinental Hockey League, the Finnish Liiga, and the Czech Extraliga. Here we’re going to focus on the world’s major ice hockey leagues, including the UK’s very own EIHL.

National Hockey League (NHL)

nhl ice hockey
The NHL is a North American ice hockey league consisting of 31 teams. The vast majority of the teams (24) are based in the U.S., with 7 based in Canada. The NHL is regarded as the world’s most talented ice hockey league and remains one of the U.S.’ and Canada’s major pro sports leagues. It’s far and away the No. 1 sport in Canada and ranks among the four major sports in the U.S., along with American football, basketball, and baseball. It’s also popular in the betting circles. If you’d like to place a wager yourself, find out more on how to win at betting on ice hockey. One more thing: if you watch ice hockey for the first time and think you’ve accidentally tuned into WWE, you can be forgiven. It can be brutal!

History of the NHL

The NHL was established in 1917 in Montreal after its predecessor, the National Hockey Association, was suspended. Between the years of 1942 and 1967, there were only six teams in the league, which were collectively termed the “Original Six”. A further six teams were introduced in 1967, and by 1974, there were 18 teams competing in the NHL before three more were added to the mix in 1979. The NHL boasted 30 teams in the year 2000, with a 31st team added in 2017, and a 32nd team approved for a 2021 debut. Now that’s what I call expansion!

How the NHL is structured

The NHL is divided into two conferences: The American League and the National League. These two conferences battle it out during the regular season from early October to April, with the postseason commencing immediately afterwards. It’s during the postseason when the intensity really starts to heat up. Each team is assigned 82 games, with 41 of these game played at home and the remaining 41 played on the road. Eastern teams play 28 games in their own division, which is based on geographic regions: four games against each of the seven other teams in the division. The other 24 games are comprised of three games each against the remaining eight teams in the conference. So now for the Western conference. This may be a lot to take in but we’re almost there… Western teams play either 26 or 29 interdivisional games- either four or five against the six or seven divisional opponents- and either 21 or 24 against the conference’s remaining teams- with one cross-division game in four games. Each team plays every team in the opposing conference twice- one game at home and one game on the road, bringing the total number of games for each team to 82.

Players in the NHL

The NHL is a star-driven league and acknowledges its players with a number of awards based on the season’s performance. These awards include the William M. Jennings Trophy, which goes to the goaltender on the team that has conceded the fewest goals, the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the player who has scored the most goals, and the Art Ross Trophy for the league scoring champion, which takes both goals and assists into account.

Players, along with coaches, team builders, and officials, who have enjoyed some of the most successful careers in the history of the sport are eligible to be awarded a place into the Hockey Hall of Fame. There’s no greater individual accolade in the sport than a place in the Hall. In 1999, a gentleman by the name of Wayne Gretzky was given this very honour. Heard of him? You should have. Gretzky is often regarded as the greatest ice hockey player ever to walk on the ice. Some would opt for Mario Lemieux but then only Gretzky is known as “The Great One”.

The National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup

ice hockey stanley cup
The Stanley Cup is the coveted trophy awarded to the winner of the NHL playoffs. Since the 1914-15 season, the Stanley Cup has been awarded 101 times, with 18 active teams and five defunct teams being named winners of the prestigious trophy. The Montreal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup more than any other team (24 times). The Detroit Red Wings are the most successful U.S. Stanley Cup winners, with 11 wins.

History of the Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup was originally known as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup after it was commissioned in 1892. Winners up until 1914 were determined by a combination of league play and challenge games. In 1906, it was decided that pro teams were eligible to compete for the cup. In 1915, however, both of the two existing pro ice hockey organisations, the National Hockey Association and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, came to an agreement that would see their respective champions face each other for the Cup. Then in 1947, after a number of league folds and mergers, the Stanley Cup became the darling of the NHL. You can see from the table below that certain teams have a knack for winning the elusive cup. That can certainly help you if you feel like placing a bet on who’s going to win the trophy in the upcoming playoffs.

 

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

How the Stanley Cup is structured

At the end of each NHL season, 16 teams compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a tournament which comprises three rounds in a best-of-seven series in a bid to progress to the next round. The winner of this tournament is awarded the mighty Stanley Cup. Eight teams from each of the two conferences qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. These eight teams are comprised of the three best-performing teams in each division and the two teams in each conference with the next highest points tally. In each round, the team with the higher ranking is given home-ice advantage, which means that four of the seven games are played at that team’s venue. When it comes to the final, the team with the highest number of points scored during the regular season is awarded home-ice advantage.

 

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
The annual Ice Hockey World Championships are organised by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and is the most high-profile annual global tournament in the sport. However, as the Championships take place at the same time as the NHL playoffs, many of the world’s most famous players are unavailable for their country or are only available once their team has been eliminated from the NHL playoffs.

Sometimes the world championships are incorrectly referred to as the Ice Hockey World Cup. But whatever you name it: it is these days one of the most popular ice hockey events attracting spectators from all over the world.

History of the Ice Hockey World Championships

The competition was originally held at the 1920 Summer Olympics. However, the first World Championships that took place as an event all of its own didn’t occur until 10 years later, when 12 countries took part. Canada was the competition’s first dynasty after winning 12 titles between 1930 and 1952. That was before the Soviet Union took over that mantle in 1963 until the country’s 1991 split. Fortunately, the competition opened up in the 2000’s when the power of balance became somewhat evenly spread between Canada, the United States, Russian, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.

How the Ice Hockey World Championships are structured

There are 16 teams in the main group, which are divided into two, based on their present world ranking. The previous four Ice Hockey World Championships, along with the previous Winter Olympics, determine the rankings. The results of the most recent tournaments, however, have a stronger influence on the ranking i.e. the most recent World Championships were assigned 100 per cent value, the prior tournament 75 per cent, and so on. The two groups of eight teams see each team play seven games in a preliminary round. The best four performing teams from these groups are awarded a place in the knockout playoff stage. In the last eight, the top-ranked team from one group competes against the fourth-ranked team from the opposite group and the second-ranked team plays the third-ranked team in the opposite group. The four winners then progress to the semi-final stage.

Players in the Ice Hockey World Championships

Since 1977, both amateur and professional players have been eligible to participate in the Ice Hockey World Championships. However, in the case of a player who has no experience in an IIHF tournament and who decides to change citizenship, he has no choice but to represent his newly-adopted country in national tournaments for a minimum of two years in a row, as well as possess an International Transfer Card (ITC).

Should a player who has previously taken part in an IIHF competition request to represent a different national team, he must have at least four years experience of playing in his new country. A player is only allowed to do this on a single occasion.

Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics

ice hockey winter olympics
Ice hockey competitions have enjoyed a presence at the Olympics since 1920. Beginning that year as part of the Summer Olympics, it was predictably made a Winter Olympics sport in 1924. Between 1924 and 1988, the competition began with a round-robin before ending with a medal round. After that round, medals were presented based on the points won in that round. The competition’s format underwent alternations in 1988 to respect the NHL’s schedule. A preliminary round was introduced without players from the NHL or any players from the main six teams- the U.S., Canada, Finland, Sweden, Russia, and the Czech Republic. In 2006, the format underwent a further change with each team required to play five preliminary games with no restriction on NHL players.

History of Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics

When the first ice hockey competition was introduced to the Olympics in 1920, the sport was relatively new on a worldwide level. There were a number of events that led up to that introduction, however. Five European countries had agreed to take part and the Antwerp’s Palais de Glace stadium managers decided to play hardball when they told the Olympics that they wouldn’t be able to use their stadium for figure skating unless they agreed to include ice hockey in the competition.

The IIHF therefore regards the 1920 competition as the very first Ice Hockey World Championships. Ice hockey’s inclusion in the Olympics is great for the sports’ exposure, with more international sports fans watching it on TV, and possibly even having a bit of a flutter.

How Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics is structured

Since 1976, there have been 12 teams taking part. Once the NHL granted permission for its players to participate in the 1998 Winter Olympics, the Big Six teams were given automatic qualification and byes to the final round. In that same year, the number of teams increased from 12 to 14 in order to accommodate a preliminary round-robin competition comprised of eight teams. The same format was used in 2002 before reverting back to 12 teams in the following competition. The 2008 IIHF World Ranking was used to determine qualification for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The top-ranked teams automatically qualified, with those teams that ranked 19th-30th batting it out in a qualifying round. The top three ranking teams progressed to a further qualification round, along with teams that ranked 10th-18th. Finally, the top three ranking teams from this round progressed to the Olympics.

Players in the Winter Olympics

Prior to the Winter Olympics in 1984, there was some argument as to how a professional player should be defined. So a rule was established by the International Olympic Committee that said any player contracted to an NHL team but who had been on the ice for under 10 games was able to play in the Olympics. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Olympic Committee asserted that any NHL player should be deemed professional and was, therefore, ineligible. The IOC then decided that any players who had signed with an NHL team were only eligible if they hadn’t played at all for the NHL. In 1988, a new ruling was introduced by the IOC that stated all athletes were able to play in the Olympics. But that wasn’t the end of it. Not ones to give in easily, the NHL decided to forbid any of its players to take part in the Winter Olympics in 1988-1994, as well as in 2018, due to the Games take place during the NHL regular season.

Elite Ice Hockey League

elite ice hockey league
The Elite Ice Hockey League is a UK league that was established in 2003 after the Ice Hockey Superleague disbanded. It’s the UK’s pinnacle of the sport. The league comprises 11 teams, with England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland each represented. In fact, there’s no other UK league that features all four nations. There have only been five teams to win the league in 14 seasons, which makes it easier to predict, a great advantage for those who enjoy betting on the outcome. That predictability, combined with sports betting strategies, makes it an interesting market for punters.

History of the EIHL

The EIHL was established in 2003 when the Sheffield Steelers, who would go on to be named the first league champions, beat a new team by the name of London Racers. The Steelers scored a 2-1 victory at Alexander Palace.

On the 27th of April, 2017, an announcement was made that three new conferences would be introduced, each consisting of four teams. Each team would play each of the other teams in their conference for a total of eight times (four home games and four road games) which added up to 24 games, as well as play teams in other conferences (two home games and two road games), taking the tally to 32 games.

How the EIHL is structured

The EIHL comprises three conferences: the Gardiner Conference, the Patton Conference, and the Erhardt Conference.

Each team is assigned two points for a win and one for a shootout or overtime loss. In overtime, there are five minutes of three-on-three play, which ends as soon as a goal has been scored. The team that has amassed the highest number of points at the end of the season is named the champion.

Players in the EIHL

EIHL teams import many of their players. A large number of these players are imported from North America, where they typically played in the minor leagues like the AHL and ECHL. The league does place a restriction, however, on how many of these players can suit up for any one game, with 14 being the current limit. As so many players are from North America, the North American style of play is prevalent in the EIHL i.e. it’s far more physical than in Europe, where they demonstrate a more technical playing style.

While there is only a small amount of British players in the EIHL, there’s no shortage of these players representing their country for the Great Britain team. Each of the 22 players on the 2018 World Championships squad played on EIHL teams the season prior.

The Elite Ice Hockey League’s Challenge Cup

elite cup ice hockey

Each year, the EIHL hosts the Challenge Cup, a tournament for ice hockey teams in the UK. It is one of the three EIHL competitions that run each season. The other two are the league championship and the playoff championship. Before the EIHL was established in 2003, the Cup was hosted by the Ice Hockey Superleague.

The Cup has gone through a number of various formats, depending on how many teams take part and the format of other competitions in a given season. The first six finals were individual games played at venues decided upon in advance, and in the first 11 EIHL seasons, they were played over two legs. In the 2014-15 season, the final reverted back to a single game.

History of The Challenge Cup

In 1997, the Ice Hockey Superleague drastically reduced the number of scheduled league rounds from 42 to 28. The plan was to introduce a new competition that would include European teams, which would mean that the regular season would have to sacrifice part of its schedule. When this didn’t pan out, teams were left with a shortened schedule. Thanks to the Daily Express agreeing to be a sponsor, the Challenge Cup was born. However, in 2003, the Superleague was no more. The following season saw a quick response with the formation of the EIHL and a new host of the Cup.

 

Challenge Cup winners since the format changed to single-game finals:

Year Winner Score Loser
2015 Cardiff Devils 2-1 Sheffield Steelers
2016 Nottingham Panther 1-0 (OT) Cardiff Devils
2017 Cardiff Devils 3-2 Sheffield Steelers
2018 Cardiff Devils 6-3 Cardiff Devils

Conclusion

From its humble beginnings, ice hockey has evolved into a major global sport that has truly struck a chord with the masses, not just in sports but also in entertainment. In fact, it’s either inspired, or been referenced in, a number of Hollywood movies, such as Slap Shots and The Mighty Ducks. The latter made such an impression that it went on to become the name of a real-life NHL franchise (the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, now known as the Anaheim Ducks). With growing audiences and players in both North America and in the UK, ice hockey is definitely a sport to watch.