The History of European Hockey Stars in the NHL

12 Aug 2020 |

The NHL is recognized around the world as the biggest ice hockey league. It is the ultimate aim for any player, where they can pit their skills against the best, attempt to attain the most reputed ice hockey accolades, and earn the biggest wage for their work.


Not Just in America

Even though the NHL is based in North America, it’s fair to say it is the land of opportunity for players across the globe. In fact, based on research conducted by Betway, 31.6% of players are from outside the United States and Canada.

However, the league hasn’t always been so multicultural. Below is a quick breakdown that spotlights the history of European hockey stars in the NHL.

The first steps

The National Hockey League came into existence in November 1917. To put it into perspective, World War I was still going on. Well, the first international NHL player arrived in January 1965. This was a little less than 20 years since World War II had ended.

The streak of no overseas players was snapped by Swedish left winger Ulf Sterner. Sterner didn’t exactly set the world alight in the NHL – he played only four games for the New York Rangers, contributing no goals or assists – but he laid the foundation for what was to come.

In the subsequent 15 years following Sterner’s brief stint in the NHL, European players had appeared in the draft, gained selection to the revered All-Star Game, and won the biggest club prize in hockey: the Stanley Cup.

The rise in numbers

Even though European players had made their mark, the numbers were still limited across the board. By the 1989/90 season, 25 years after Sterner’s appearance, there were only 49 international players overall on the NHL rosters. Percentage-wise, this was 12.25%.

Yet 1989 proved to be the tipping point in Europe’s favor. Mats Sundin, the Swedish center, was the first draft pick that year when selected by the Quebec Nordiques. Sundin earned the distinction of being the first overseas player to achieve this accomplishment.

This made executives at other NHL teams sit up and take notice. Suddenly they were fully exploring the abundance of talent located in Europe. Remember that percentage of 12.25% for the 1989/90 season? In just ten years, it had jumped to 29.35% for the 1999/00 season. Now 157 international players were making up the numbers for the NHL’s rosters.

The amount of foreign-born players has only continued to grow since. In 2019, there were 218 overseas stars picked for the league.

The future is bright

Signs suggest the growth in European talent gracing the NHL will continue. For a start, more people than ever are playing hockey across the globe. In 2009, there were 1.4m active players. That number has increased to 1.77m at present.

The globalization of the sport is evidenced by the fact that even players from the United Kingdom, Kazakhstan, and Bulgaria – countries with very little hockey pedigree – are cropping up in the NHL. As these and other European nations continue to develop, their relevancy will grow in ice hockey’s most important league.

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