The number of Europeans in the NHL this past season – and the ratio of Europeans to overall participation – was at its lowest in more than a decade, signaling a continuing decline of European players in the league. As well, the number of European rookies in the NHL in 2011-12 was its lowest in nearly a quarter of a century.
In all, some 983 players appeared in at least one NHL game this past season. Of that total, 221 were European, a total of 22.5 per cent. Both figures haven’t been so low since 1998-99 when 196 Europeans were in the league, or 21.7 per cent.
Canada holds steady with 535 players, or 53.5 per cent of the NHL talent pool and the United States had 236 players (24.0 per cent).
The main reason for the European decline is that fewer and fewer rookies from the old continent enter the league. There were 124 players to skate for the first time in the NHL in 2011-12, but only 21 (16.9 per cent) were European. One has to go back to 1989-90, when 18 Europeans (15.3 per cent) made their debuts.
Virtually every major country has seen a steep drop in NHL participation with one notable exception. Sweden has risen to the fore and now provides the NHL with more players than any other European nation – by a long shot.
Consider that of the 221 Europeans, 68 were Swedish, or nearly 31 per cent. If you count Jakob Silfverberg, who joined the Ottawa Senators for the playoffs, it’s 69 Swedes. (The count usually reflects the regular season.)
That number is an all-time high for the country, as was last year’s 63 at that time. The number of Swedes to the NHL has risen steadily and consistently over the last two decades. There were only 16 in 1991-92, but that number increased to 34 just five years later and 53 five years after that.
The Swedish numbers for rookies are also remarkable. Of the 21 European rookies in 2011-12, 12 (more than 50 per cent) were Swedes.
The Czechs used to be the top European provider, but their numbers have declined by almost 50 per cent during the last decade. The nation led all Europeans in the NHL throughout the 2000s, culminating in 2002-03 when there were 80. That number had dwindled to just 43 this past season.
Alarmingly, of the 124 rookies in the NHL last season, only two came from the Czech Republic.
Slovakia had 32 NHLers as recently as 2005-06, but that number is down to 12 this past season. Of the 124 NHL rookies, exactly one came from Slovakia. And that was forward Milan Kytnar, who played one game with Edmonton and who has since then left the NHL.
Interestingly, some of the middle-ranked European countries have been making small but impressive inroads into the NHL. Switzerland had eight players (a record for the country) in the league last year while Denmark had six.
Finland, the other top power, had 29 players, a decrease for the fourth straight year. There was not a single Finnish rookie to appear in the NHL this past season, indicating that another decline for next year is almost inevitable. One reason is that many Finns have gone to play in the Russian KHL.
The most significant drop is with Russia. In 1999-2000, that country had 71 players in the NHL and many North Americans feared they were taking over the league. That concern has vanished. In 2011-12, there were just 31 Russians and three rookies as many world-class players have opted to stay at home and play in the KHL.
Sweden is one of the nations least likely to have players come to Canada to play junior hockey, but, ironically, the player that has stood out this past year is rookie Gabriel Landeskog of Colorado, who is a Calder Trophy finalist and who played junior in Kitchener.
Beyond that – and in sharp contrast to the Czechs and Slovaks – Sweden’s young players prefer to develop at home to reach their full potential, and only then do they come to the NHL.
2011-2012 NHL Players by nation
2011-2012 NHL rookies by nation