ZURICH – An IIHF study shows that the Swedish Elitserien was the most balanced professional hockey league in 2010-2011, overtaking the German DEL and also the NHL.
Leagues differ. In some, you just know that a small number of teams will dominate emphatically while other clubs are just happy to hang around. But some leagues are more evenly matched and where no outcome can be easily predicted.
In an IIHF study on parity within national leagues, the Elitserien is followed by the top North American professional leagues (NHL, AHL, ECHL) and the German DEL, which used to be the most balanced league in Europe before.
The so-called correlation coefficient is used to rank the leagues. This statistical measurement shows the imbalance of a data distribution, such as points in standings. Zero means perfect balance with all teams having the equal numbers of points while 1 suggests maximum imbalance.
The 2005 numbers are taken from a similar study done at the University of Basel six years ago and that show in which direction each league went.
Parity study of hockey leagues
North America - AHL
North America - ECHL
North America - NHL
The overall fact that North American leagues look better balanced than European ones, doesn’t come as a surprise. Canada and the United States together have twice as many players than the rest of the world and have thus the biggest pool of potential players GMs can select from.
Having the biggest revenue allows NHL clubs to make full use of the player market, being the number-one choice of most world-class players.
North American leagues, starting from the top with the NHL, have also put much effort into creating parity. The first significant change was the creation of the junior draft system in the ‘60s, followed by an influx of European players especially in the ‘90s after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
The next significant step to cultivate parity was the introduction of the salary cap in 2005, a step that "controls" financially strong teams like the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers or the Toronto Maple Leafs while assisting teams from smaller markets and with less revenue. Salary restrictions were already known in minor leagues before, which helped those leagues to mirror the parity of the NHL.
The size of the player pool, the number and size of regional hockey markets in comparison to the number of teams admitted to the league, lax or no import restrictions and mechanisms like drafts and salary restrictions, can thus be described as key factors in making making a league more balanced.
European Union rules rule
This might explain why the German DEL has been so well-balanced over the last few years. With the so-called Bosman ruling in 1995 the European Court of Justice decided that import restrictions in sports, as is the case in real life, are in conflict with the European Community Treaty.
The German league was one of the first to open the borders with the creation of the DEL, although rather generous import quotas – with nine foreign players per team for the upcoming season – were re-introduced later.
The Swedish Elitserien was another league that opened its borders. With full implementation of the Bosman ruling, players from other European Union countries do not fall under the import quota anymore. Lots of players from other European countries such as neighbouring Finland, Denmark and Norway, as well as Czechs and Slovaks have made use of the Bosman ruling in the Swedish league.
Nevertheless, the Elitserien couldn’t compete in parity with the NHL or the Germans until 2007 when the league quite suddenly started to look much more balanced. There are no obvious reasons why the correlation coefficient jumped abruptly from values around 0.3 to NHL-like values around 0.15 as of 2007.
There hasn’t been a change in import rules or the league format in the last few years. The Swedish league format is actually the most stable one in Europe, dating back to the 1996-1997 season.
The increasing money from TV contracts in Sweden could be one reason. Each Elitserien club gets SEK 25 million (€2.8m) per year – a multiple the money paid in any other European country. Consequently, TV money makes up for a big part in the team budgets and thus has a balancing effect on the revenue, and consequently on the payroll and the performance of the teams.
(Relating to the size of the market and the population, the Swedish TV contract is the best hockey league contract in the world, outmatching even the NHL. Many Swedish teams can cover half of their player budget with the TV money.)
Another reason is the fact that Sweden has produced more world-class players recently than any other European country, which can be best shown by the number of Swedish players in the NHL (63 last season) and Swedish rookies getting signed by NHL teams year by year.
This development doesn’t come out of any particular regions, but rather from the whole country, including small-town teams that have stepped up recently.
Relegation/promotion triggers competition
A big difference between Sweden and Germany can also be observed at the bottom of the standings. While Germany has often had teams that perform poorly and some even went bankrupt in the last few years (like Duisburg, Kassel and even the team from the "financial capital" Frankfurt), Sweden normally does not have such problems.
One of the strenghts of the Swedish club system is its traditional promotion/relegation double-round-robin series that is played between the two last-ranked Elitserien teams and the four best squads from the second-tier league, Allsvenskan.
The system not only puts substantial pressure on the Elitserien cellar-dwellers, it also makes the second-tier league more attractive and it tightens the gap between the leagues.
Another interesting case is the Austrian EBEL, a league which earlier only had a few competitive teams, has jumped to third place in parity among European leagues. The Austrians made up for the lack of parity by the addition of foreign teams – two from Slovenia, one from Hungary, one from Croatia and for next season one from the Czech Republic – to make the league more attractive and competitive.
The bigger reason for more parity, however, might be the unique "point system" the league has introduced. It’s not about rules for calculating the standings, but it’s a system that Austrians also call “salary cap light”.
According to several criteria like experience of the player and whether he needs an International Transfer Card (mostly import players or national team players need ITCs), each player is valued accordingly by the league. And the total team value is limited.
This system may have caused lots of confusion for the fans and sometimes even for team managers, but it has a similar effect as an NHL-style salary cap which is hardly implementable in view of the labour laws in Western European countries.
An interesting fact is that the Russian KHL, arguable the strongest European league, comes only in sixth place in Europe when it comes to parity despite having introduced an entry draft and a salary cap.
KHL still very unbalanced
There are good reasons why these measures have had limited effect and haven't changed the fact that the Russian top league – whether it’s the KHL or the preceding Superliga – is a "rich-men, poor-men" society. There is still a vast discrepancy in quality between top teams like Ak Bars Kazan or Salavat Yulayev Ufa and Amur Khabarovsk or Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
A salary cap exists, but it can be described as "soft" at the most. Firstly, there’s a rule that some of the contracts of "special stars" do not count against the salary cap, which, of course, is to the advantage of rich teams. Secondly, teams can legally break the salary cap by simply paying a "luxury tax".
As the case is with the salary cap, the entry draft has little effect because clubs can't draft top youngsters developed by other KHL clubs, as each club can protect their own best talents.
So they are left with drafting prospects from Russian minor league clubs or from abroad. But the drafting of youngsters from other main hockey powers has so far mostly been an excersize on paper. Although the KHL's status has increased since its founding in 2008, it's still not a league where young promising players from Canada, USA, Sweden, Finland or Switzerland go.
Another relevant observation is that leagues with a limited number of strong hockey regions seem to struggle when comes to having enough competitive teams for their league. This includes leagues in top nations like the Czech Republic, Finland or Switzerland, but also almost any "smaller" hockey nation.
Apart from cyclical ups and downs of the various leagues in the ranking, there’s also an overall trend that is encouraging for the future: leagues become in general better and better balanced over time. Of the three North American leagues and the top nine ranked European leagues, all have gained in parity compared to the 2005 numbers.
That means that things go the right way because increased parity is a result of improved competition. And that’s what makes leagues more exciting and less predictable.