What Are the Best Hockey Leagues in the World?

Country flags between two hockey pucks

In the past decades, professional hockey has taken root globally—perhaps an example of the melding of global culture due to the reach of the internet and the merging of sports and social media in modern society. Not surprisingly, international professional hockey leagues are gaining ground and starting to challenge the prominence of North America’s National Hockey League (NHL). 

The World’s Top Five Hockey Leagues, Ranked

1. National Hockey League

The NHL is the gold standard for professional hockey—the grand, old league that elevated hockey from rural frozen ponds to screaming crowds and major professional stadiums like Madison Square Garden in New York, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and Chicago’s United Center (home of the Blackhawks). 

2. Kontinental Hockey League

Next in worldwide importance is the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League, with teams in Russia, China, and Europe. The Kontinental Hockey League evolved out of the Russian Superleague in 2008 and now boasts total game attendance among the highest in Europe. The KHL has expanded to 24 teams, with the top eight in each conference making the playoffs to fight it out for the Gagarin Cup, the league’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup.

3. Swedish Hockey League

Also ranking on the global hockey stage is the Swedish Hockey League. Founded in 1975 as the Elitserien, which was often called the Swedish Elite League or SEL in English, the Swedish Hockey League was renamed in 2013 for the branding identity advantages of being known as the SHL. The league’s competitiveness has arguably accounted for Sweden’s international hockey success over the past decade or so. In 2012, the country won the Junior Hockey Championship and before that the 2006 Winter Olympics. 

4. Liiga

Liiga (or in common parlance, the Finnish Elite League) is the professional league of Finland, founded in 1975. Nowadays, 15 teams compete in the league, largely in southern Finland, for the coveted Kanada-malja, as the championship trophy is called. The regular season begins in mid-September and runs to mid-March and the playoffs happen in April. Liiga is regarded by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) as the second strongest league in all of Europe. Viewership, support, and the level of play in Finland have dramatically increased over the last three-and-a-half decades. Attendance numbers at games are strong. The league’s motto is Se on totta—Finnish for, “It’s for real.”

5. Czech Extraliga

The Czech Extraliga is one of the world’s most competitive professional ice hockey leagues, currently ranked by the IIHF as the third strongest ice hockey league in Europe. The season occurs from September to April each year and 14 teams compete for the championship. 

How Much Do Pro Hockey Players Make?

The NHL is the top level for pro hockey in North America, and the majority of players regard it as the most competitive league in the world. Players from all over the globe try to make it to the NHL, for a chance to play for the famed Stanley Cup title and for the potentially large paychecks. The top NHL players, as of 2018 data from Forbes, earned an average annual salary of $11.7 million. The current top earner is the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid, with a salary cap hit of $12.5 million per year, followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Artemi Panarin at just over $11.6 million per year.

(While player salaries can vary from season to season during their contract, the cap hit is the amount that counts against the team’s salary cap—this figure is generally the per-year average over the course of the contract. For example, Sidney Crosby has a cap hit of $8.7 million for the contract he signed in 2013, but this deal was front-loaded: his initial salary was $12 million per year, but it will decrease to $3 million per year by the end of the contract.)

Exploring Pro Hockey Salary Ranges

Plenty of pro players are well compensated in top leagues throughout the world, especially in Russia, whose Kontinental League is so highly regarded it often draws former NHL players to its ranks because of the top competition and attractive pay. KHL teams have paid star players between $1 million and $5.5 million, as of 2016. That year, Alexander Radulov could have been the top earner in the KHL with a $7 million contract, but turned it down to play with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens.

The youth factor is high in the KHL, and many NHL teams recruit from the KHL as they also know many European players from hockey-centric countries such as Sweden and Finland play in the KHL. Average pay for entry-level players starts around $150,000. The highest paid KHL player was IIlya Kovalchuk, making $5.5 million USD per season and then Pavel Datsyuk making $4.5 million USD per year. The Swedish league, SHL, seeks high-end Euro players and pays $60,000 USD to upward of $275,000 USD. 

The SM-Liiga is another top European league in Finland, known for a style of game closely comparable to the NHL. The pay range is €35,000 to upward of €150,000, with the top players earning more than twice that amount: The leading earner in SM-Liiga was Corey Locke, earning equivalent to more than $438,000 USD a year.

The NLA in Switzerland is one of the top-paying leagues in Europe and offers its family atmosphere as a draw for relocating players. The pay range is $75,000 Swiss to more than $425,000 Swiss. Older players looking for competition but at a calmer pace than the NHL may go for the SHL. 

Extraliga is in one of the most welcoming countries in Europe—the Czech Republic—and is one of the top hockey leagues. This is thought to be a somewhat older league, and most teams carry a few imported players. The pay scale goes from $30,000 US to as high as $160,000 US.

Denmark has a quality league and offers a good start for players launching their Euro career. There, the pay scale is from $15,000 to $35,000 US. The Slovak league has become much more competitive in the last five years and teams pay imports as much as $80,000 US. Overall, most imported players will make $35,000 to $45,000 US. 

And let’s not overlook the German professional hockey league called the Deutsche Eishockey Liga or the DEL, where salaries reach about 10,000 Euros a month, very similar to the Swiss league. The annual DEL range can be $150,000 TO $300,000. 

The American Hockey League (AHL) is the leading minor league in North America and serves as the top training ground for affiliated teams’ NHL prospects. Players in the AHL are one step away from the big time. The rosters include young up-and-coming stars and NHL veterans who are trying to play their way back onto the top teams’ rosters. The average yearly salary for an AHL player in 2015 was about $90,000. The minimum salary, according to the players’ union contract, was $42,375 a year, as of the 2015 season.

Notable European Hockey Players in the NHL 

Jaromir Jagr goes down in the history books as perhaps the finest NHL player to come from Europe. He was a stellar NHL right winger, winning a Hart Trophy, two Stanley Cups, three Lester B. Pearson awards, and racking up more than 1,600 career points. Another prime example of European greatness is Saku Koivu, who has had an outstanding career despite battling Burkitt’s lymphoma and other injuries. Tied with Jean Béliveau for wearing the captain’s armband with the Montreal Canadiens the longest—10 years—he was the first European-born captain of the team and also a Bill Masterton Trophy winner. Koivu played for the Anaheim Ducks, prolonging his 1,012 career games. Plagued by injuries, he was nonetheless a top-level hockey player until his retirement in 2014 after 18 seasons. 

The same goes for Marian Hossa, playing with five different teams over the course of a 20-year NHL career. After losing in two Stanley Cup finals in back-to-back seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings, Hossa’s name is now engraved on the Cup three times, as he helped the Chicago Blackhawks to capture the trophy in 2010, 2013, and 2015. 

A roll call of European-born NHL greats has to include Mats Sundin, Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Yashin, Daniel Alfredsson, Pavel Bure, Jari Kurri, Peter Forsberg, Daniel and Henrilk Sedin, Teemu Selanne, Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Lidstrom to name a few. 

International Leagues: More Hockey Is a Good Thing

It’s true that professional hockey leagues other than the NHL are contributing to the development of players globally while offering more opportunities for worldwide play as players are on loan from NHL teams to these international leagues; or players venture overseas because they haven’t agreed to an NHL contract yet—such as Patrik Laine, a Finnish-born player who trained in Switzerland while negotiating a two-year, $6.75 million-per-year contact with the Winnipeg Jets.

European leagues have attracted top talent such as Austin Matthews, Jagomir Jagr, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov. During the last NHL lockout, big NHL names headed to Europe to continue to play and train at a high level. Some of these players include Tyler Seguin, Claude Giroux, Patrick Kane, Patrice Bergeron and John Tavares.

For hockey lovers, the takeaway of looking overseas at international leagues is more hockey excitement. Sure, the NHL provides engaging drama throughout its season, but look overseas and you’ll have plenty more to cheer about—and you’ll learn new hockey cheers and phrases in many languages!