The World's Biggest Ice Hockey Leagues and Championships

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Ireland does not have a great tradition in ice hockey but in recent years this fast-paced and exciting sport has become more popular here. Ice hockey does in fact have a long tradition in North America and Europe. The first professional ice hockey competition has been thrilling fans since the turn of the 20th century. The first professional league that was set up was the Western Pennsylvania Hockey League. This was founded in 1902 and was an immediate success with fans. The success of the first league led to the establishment of the National Hockey Association now known as the National Hockey League.

The success of the leagues inspired others and soon many European countries were setting up their own leagues. Many of these are still going strong to this day. There are professional leagues in Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and the UK – the English Ice Hockey League (EIHL). One of the teams in this league is the Belfast Giants who regularly play against Scottish and English teams.

National Hockey League (NHL)

nhl ice hockey
The NHL is the world’s premier ice hockey league and it has 31 teams. This league has teams from both the US (24) and Canada (7). The NHL has most of the world’s top players, and it is one of the top professional sports leagues in North America. The NHL is very popular in Canada where ice hockey is the national sport, and some would say a national religion. Ice hockey is the number one sport in Canada and in the US, it is huge. People regularly bet on ice hockey in the US and Canada just as Irish people bet on soccer, rugby and the GAA. If you fancy betting on this sport why not find out more about betting strategies for ice hockey. Be aware though, that ice hockey is one of the toughest sports in the world and at times it can be reminiscent of rugby on ice.

History of the NHL

The NHL came into being after its predecessor the National Hockey Association ran into trouble. From 1942 until 1967 only six teams competed in the league, and these are often referred to as the ‘Original Six’. After 1967 the league exploded in popularity: six teams joined in that year alone and a further six were admitted by 1974. The league went from strength to strength and by 2017, 31 teams were playing in the NHL with another joining soon. Ice hockey is a fast-growing sport and gets more popular every year.

How the NHL is arranged

The NHL is arranged in a very particular way as there are two conferences which are based on geography. There is an Eastern and a Western Conference and teams typically compete in their local conference. After the regular season, there is a postseason. This is when things get really competitive and when each hockey team plays a staggering 82 games. Half of these are played in their home arena and the other half are played away. In the Eastern Conference, the hockey teams play their local rivals four times.

They then play another 24 matches against the other teams in the conference. The Western Conference is arranged somewhat differently, teams in this conference play either 26 or 29 interdivisional games. Each team plays six or seven times against their divisional rivals and then they play the rest of the teams in the conference. They also play one team from the Eastern Conference four times. Each team plays every team in the opposing conference twice and this means that they play 82 games.

Players in the NHL

The NHL is full of the best ice hockey players in the world, in this way it can be likened to the English Premier League, which has all the best footballers. In the NHL there are three major awards that are given to the best players in a season. One such award is the Jennings Trophy, which goes to the best goalkeeper known as a goaltender and this is typically awarded based on the number of goals they let in. Then there is the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy awarded to the leading goals scorer. The Art Ross Trophy is given to those who have the most assists and goals in the season. Players are very keen to win these trophies, and this means that they play the game really hard.

Those players and others who have made an outstanding contribution to the game are inducted into a Hall of Fame. This is the ultimate distinction in the game. Only the very best like Wayne Gretsky is inducted into the Hall of Fame and basically, you need to be a legend of the game to be admitted. He was possibly the greatest of all time, he is to hockey what Pele is to soccer. However, there are those who claim that the great Mario Lemieux was the best player ever.

The National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup

The National Hockey League's Stanley Cup
The Stanley Cup is the ultimate achievement in professional ice hockey. Those who win the NHL playoffs are awarded this big trophy. From 1915 until today in the Stanley Cup Finals era, the cup has been won 94 times, it has been won by only 20 teams, and 18 of them are still in existence.

The Montreal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup a staggering two dozen times and they have won it more than anyone else in North America. The most successful American team of all time is the Detroit Red Wings and they have won the mighty Cup eleven times.

History of the Stanley Cup

The Stanley Cup has a long history and it was first called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup when it was first presented to a team in 1892. This cup was won by the team that had won the most games including challenge matches until the outbreak of WWI. At first the tournament was contested by amateur teams but in 1906 two professional teams were allowed to compete for the cup. This was a great success and fans very much enjoyed the performances of the professionals.

During WWI, the two associations who managed the professional leagues agreed that their champions should play each other for the Cup in a one-off final. After WWII these leagues ran into trouble and it was a dark time for ice hockey and the Stanley Cup was taken over by the NHL. Ever since then pro hockey teams in the NHL have competed for the cup. You can see from the table below that there are teams that have a great track record in the cup, just as Man Utd and Celtic have great records in their own leagues. This table can give you the form of teams if you are thinking of placing a bet on who’s going to the Stanley Cup or get to the playoffs. You can read up on the various teams and know what to look out for when it comes to picking winners.

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
2019 St Louis Blues 4-3 Boston Bruins

How the Stanley Cup is organised

At the end of the regular NHL season, 16 teams are in contention for the Stanley Cup in the playoffs. They play each other over 3 rounds and those who win most games out of seven advances to the next round. The winner of this tournament is awarded the one and only Stanley Cup. There are eight teams from both conferences in the playoffs and they include the three best-placed teams and two teams with the next highest points. Teams who did best in the regular season have home advantage in the very first game and they get to play four of their seven games on their home ice rink. This means that they have more home games before their own fans, and this can be a real advantage like in any other sport. In the Stanley Cup final, which is big event in North America, the team that has scored the most points has a home advantage. This rule is to encourage teams to play in an attacking style which is good for the game and make it more exciting for the spectators.

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 20 6 1929, 1939, 1941, 1970, 1972, 2011, 2019
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 yearly Ice Hockey World Championships are organised by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) and this is by far the most important international competition in the sport. This Championship takes place simultaneously with the NHL playoffs, and this has caused a great deal of controversy in the past. Many world-class players cannot play for their country and sometimes their teams are knocked out of the competition even before they get a chance to play.

Sometimes the world championships are mistakenly called the Ice Hockey World Cup. Whatever you call it though, this event is very popular with fans and it is attracting high viewership figures in North America and Europe. For many professional ice hockey players, it is the pinnacle of their career especially for those who play in the European Leagues.

History of the Ice Hockey World Championships

The competition was first held in the 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium. Canada won the first ice hockey gold medal. The first stand-alone World Championships did not take place until 1930 when a dozen countries took part in a competition that was hosted by three European countries (France, Germany and Austria). Canada dominated the competition, winning it an amazing 12 times between 1930 and 1952 until Sweden broke their amazing run. Then the Soviet Union dominated the competition from 1963 until the end of Communism and the collapse of the USSR. From the 1990s the Championship became more open and has been won by seven nations. This is widely seen as being good for the World Championships and the sport.

How the Ice Hockey World Championships are structured

The main group or league comprises sixteen teams and they are split into two, based on their world ranking. This is calculated based on their performance in their previous Ice Hockey World Championships performances and their ranking in the previous Winter Olympics. These are used to rank the teams, with the most recent performances having more weight in the determination of the rankings. There are two groups of eight in the groups and every team plays each other only once in the initial round. The top four placed teams in the group earn the right to go into the knockout stages, where the teams play rivals from the other group. The team that finished top in their group plays the bottom-placed in the other group, the second place in one plays the third in another. The winners of these games then go ahead and play in the semi-finals.

Players in the Ice Hockey World Championships

It is only since 1977 that pro players have been allowed to play in the Ice Hockey World Championships. It is quite common for players to play for their adopted country. If a player wants to do this, he has to follow certain rules. If he has not played in the IIHF tournament before, he must play for his new international team for two years at the very least and needs to receive official permission.

If a player played in the IIHF before he can only change his nationality by playing for a minimum of four years in his new country’s domestic league. A player is only allowed to do this once and once only, so typically an ice hockey player can only turn out for two national teams in his career.

Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics

Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics
Ice hockey has been an Olympic sport since 1920. It was the first part of the Summer Olympics and it was held in an ice rink in Belgium. Four years later the organisers saw sense and decided that it should be part of the Winter Olympics. The format remained the same for 64 years, in a preliminary round the teams played each other and those with the most points advanced to the medal rounds. The medal rounds were organised into a mini-league and each team played each other once. During the Cold War, the games between America and the Soviet Union attracted huge TV audiences. The team that won the most games and had the most points won the gold medal and those who came second won the silver and the third-placed won the bronze. The competition’s format was changed in 1988 because of pressure from the NHL who were losing their top players right at the business end of the season. An opening round was introduced with no NHL players or any players from the top six teams which include the U.S. and Canada. In 2006, the competition was changed once more with each team once again required to play five opening games. Now again NHL pro-players can play in all the rounds of the Olympic tournament.

History of Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics

At the 1920 Olympics, the sport was relatively new to most countries. Its admission to the Olympics was not very popular because most nations were not familiar with the sport and did not have teams. Only five European countries initially agreed to take part. The sport was not scheduled to be part of the Games until the owners of Antwerp’s biggest ice rink pulled a stroke. They told the Olympic organisers that unless they allowed ice hockey into the games, they would not allow their rink to be used for figure skating. This was the start of ice hockey as an Olympic sport and it has become perhaps the most popular of all Winter Olympic sports.

The 1920 competition is seen as the inaugural Ice Hockey World Championships. Ice hockey’s inclusion in the Olympics is great for the sports’ popularity, with more international sports fans watching it on TV, and possibly even having a bit of money on a game.

How Ice Hockey in the Winter Olympics is structured

In 1976 at the Winter Games in Innsbruck (Austria) a dozen teams fought it out for the gold medal. Once the NHL allowed its stars to take part in the 1988 games in Calgary, Canada, the top six teams automatically were given a bye into the competition and this was great for the tournament. The numbers competing were 14 and apart from the top six, they all had to qualify. The teams were once again organised into two mini-leagues. In 2006 the number of teams in the competition was once more reduced to 12. The rankings in the 2008 IIHF World Ranking was used to determine qualification for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. The top teams automatically qualified. It can be very hard to qualify for the Winter Games and teams have to play a large number of games before they secure qualification.

Players in the Winter Olympics

There has always been some controversy over whether a pro can compete in the Olympics, which was initially a competition for amateurs. Before the 1984 Winter Games, there was controversy over how a professional Ice hockey player should be defined. The IOC ruled that any player employed by an NHL pro team but who had played 10 or fewer games could participate in the Olympics.

This angered many and the U.S. Olympic Committee asserted that any NHL player should be deemed professional and could not participate in the Olympics. The IOC then decided that any players contracted by an NHL team could play, but only on the condition that they had not played for their team in the league. This was a mess and finally, in 1988 the IOC allowed NHL hockey players to participate. But that wasn’t the end of the confusion. The NHL has not allowed any of its players to take part in three Winter Olympics in recent times. This was because the Olympics clashed with the NHL playoffs and the teams wanted to have their best players available.

Elite Ice Hockey League

Elite Ice Hockey League
The Elite Ice Hockey League is a UK Ice Hockey league that started in 2003 after the Ice Hockey Superleague fell apart. There are eleven teams in the league from all the four home countries (England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland). It is a unique competition and the only professional league where teams from all the home nations compete against each other. The league has only been won by five teams and in this way, it is like the English Premier League or La Liga and this is good for those who like a bet. That predictability, combined with some smart betting means that you have a good chance to win.

History of the EIHL

The EIHL began in 2003 when, in the first-ever game, the Sheffield Steelers met the London Racers at the Racers’ home rink. The Steelers went on to be crowned the first champions of the league. The league steadily grew in popularity and in 2017, it was decided that three new conferences should be formed. The league’s dozen teams would be divided into three conferences with four teams in each.

Each team would play all the other teams in their conference a total of eight times and would also play teams in other conferences.

How the EIHL is structured

There are three conferences in the EIHL, and they are all arranged in a league format. There are two points for a win and one for a shootout win. This happens if there is a draw at full-time. The team that loses in an overtime loss is also awarded a point.

Winning a game in ordinary times is essential for any team who wants to be crowned champions. Just a note on overtime, which is a very exciting feature of hockey games: in overtime, there are plays, involving three attackers and three defenders. These plays last for five minutes or until a goal has been scored. In the EIHL the team that has the highest number of points at the end of the season are the national champions.

Players in the EIHL

EIHL teams have many foreign players including the Belfast Giants. Many of these players come from North America, where they usually play in the junior leagues. The top NHL players are usually on massive contracts. The standard of play because of these foreign players is very high in the EIHL. The league does place limitations on how many of these players can play in a single game. Because there are so many Canadians and Americans in the League, the EIHL has a style of play very similar to the NHL: it is very physical and fast-paced, while in Europe they tend to concentrate more on skills and craft.

There are several British and even Irish players in the EIHL. Many of the British players have represented their country in international competitions.

The Elite Ice Hockey League’s Challenge Cup

The Elite Ice Hockey League's Challenge Cup
The EIHL also has a cup competition, the Challenge Cup and this is open to ice hockey teams in the UK. The other two competitions are the league championship and the playoff championship. The Challenge Cup is older than the EIHL and it was first developed by the predecessors of the current league.

The Cup has gone through several formats. It varies based on the number of teams competing and the scheduling of other competitions. The first six finals were one-off games played at rinks decided by the organisers beforehand. After the EIHL took over the competition the first 11 finals were played over two legs but the final has become once again a one-off game.

History of The Challenge Cup

The Ice Hockey Superleague reduced the number of games played in the league in 1997 by 14 to 28. It was hoped that the league could persuade other European teams to play in a new competition and this meant that the regular season would have to be shortened. When this did not work out, British teams were left with fewer games and there was a near-crisis in the game. This was a big problem. To address this issue the Challenge Cup was formed which was sponsored by a National newspaper, the Daily Express. The Superleague soon ran into money problems and it was succeeded by the EIHL who took over the running of the Challenge Cup, which is very popular among fans.
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 Belfast Giants 6-3 Cardiff Devils
2019 Belfast Giants 2-1 (OT) Guildford Flames

How the Challenge Cup is arranged

The Challenge Cup has had many formats down the years, as the EIHL sought to make it more appealing to fans. In the past, it has been a league format with four teams competing in a mini-league at the start of the season. In some seasons, several EIHL games have been regarded as Challenge Cup games. The semi-finals are played over two legs, with the champions being the team with the most points over both games.


Today ice hockey is a global sport with fans all over the world thanks to television and social media. The game is now part of popular culture and it has inspired many movies such as The Mighty Ducks. This movie was so popular that a real-life ice hockey franchise was named after the teams in the movie. Moreover, ice hockey jerseys are now very popular and much sought after even in countries that do not play the game. With growing audiences and players in both North America and in Europe, ice hockey is a sport to follow and to bet on.