In recent years it has appeared the hockey world is catching up to Canada. Sochi’s Olympic results are a testament to Canada’s continued focus on keeping the nation’s national sport sacred. The gold medal victories by the men’s and women’s teams are impressive feats considering the staunch competition on the men’s side and the fact that the women had to defeat the United States’ powerhouse on two separate occasions. The gold medal is more impressive on the men’s side due to the growing strength of the European nations in what was once known as Canada’s game.
The evidence of Europe’s growing strength can be found in the breakdown of nationalities of the players in the NHL. 50 years ago the league was comprised almost solely of Canadians. Fast forward to present day and Canada’s presence has decreased to just over 50% of the players. Aside from the growing amount of Americans that are playing the sport (around 25% of NHL players), the NHL is now a playground for Europe’s best hockey players. Sweden leads the way with approximately 10% of NHL players (stats from ‘quanthockey.com’). Is it any wonder why this nation faced Canada in the finals of the Olympics? The roster Sweden iced for the final game only had one skater that is not currently in the NHL.
Hockey in European nations such as Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, and Russia is incredibly popular. These countries host the most competitive leagues in the world outside of the NHL. Many Canadian players take jobs in these leagues after experiencing some success in the NHL or AHL. This helps develop the local players since they have the opportunity to compete with elite level talent.
Austria, Slovenia, and Latvia turned some heads in this year’s Olympic competition. This can be attributed to the growing strength of the Austrian hockey league. A league which in recent years has seen a well managed expansion by adding teams in Slovenia, Hungary, and Italy. It’s no surprise that Austrian hockey has benefited from the success of this league in addition to the Slovenian players who have been able to compete at higher level. Latvia’s success can be attributed to its involvement in the KHL, a league which can be viewed as Europe’s antithesis to the NHL.
The KHL has expanded outside of Russia and recruited many of the top teams throughout Europe, such as Zagreb, Bratislava and Prague, to join their league. Along with recruiting the best hockey cities in Europe to join the league, the KHL also attracts the best Russian players and entices many fringe NHL players with large contracts. The competition in this league is very stiff as it hosts some of Russia’s best talent. This year at the Russian Olympic team boasted 9 players from the KHL, an example of how the league’s strength is growing along with its ability to attract top end talent. Considering the strength of the league, is it a really big surprise that the Latvian team, many of whom play together for Dinamo Riga in the KHL, did so well against the Canadians?
With all these things in considered, it makes Canada’s gold medal victory in the 2014 Olympics that much more impressive. Other hockey nations across the globe are producing better players and are competing against stiffer competition. In spite of this, Canada still managed to display that they hold a definitive edge at the international level. Congratulations Canada on a well played tournament.