Although originally founded in Scotland, ice hockey is a sport that has become synonymous with Canada and vice versa. Officially recognised as The Great White North’s national sport, it is no surprise that it has become such a major component of their culture and identity when you consider their weather conditions. The climate is perfect for ice hockey, with many of its numerous water bodies freezing over in the winter, creating ideal conditions for skating, hockey and other ice games.
Eventually, Canada birthed what would become the biggest Ice Hockey league in the world back in 1917, with the formation of the National Hockey League. After continued expansion in its 105-year history, the league now hosts 32 teams from the United States and Canada and boasts a viewership of around 2.5m per game.
Whilst the sport’s popularity was long exclusive with North America, in recent years its influence in Europe has shone through. Many countries in Western Europe have jumped on board and there are plenty of eyes on the sport. With online betting, European fans can even wager on ice hockey matches taking place in the top leagues.
Finland for example is now the only other country in the world that recognises Ice Hockey as their national sport. This is mainly down to the Scandinavian country’s climate, which is much like Canada’s. They formed their own league, the Finnish Elite League or Liiga, in 1975 and now welcome an average of just under 5000 spectators per game. As of 2020 there were over 65,000 registered ice hockey players in the country.
The popularity of the sport has even aided their performance on the world stage. The Finnish national team has won the World Championship three times, in 1995, 2011, and in 2019. The Finnish Elite League is now considered the biggest hockey league in Europe and the introduction of playoffs meant that they saw a huge rise in revenue and income.
This trend can be seen in a lot of European countries that experience icy winters, with Sweden, Russia and the Czech Republic also taking great interest in hockey and frequently performing well in the Ice Hockey World Championships.
There has even been somewhat of a boom in popularity for Ice Hockey in the UK. Although known for the drab weather, Brits don’t necessarily welcome the kind of conditions which allow a friendly game on the ice over Christmas. Iced over lakes and ponds usually give way to puddles and minor floods, but that hasn’t stopped the unlikely rise of the sport.
In 2018, ice hockey was the most popular indoor sport among spectators in the UK. That year the Sheffield Flyers, one of the most successful teams in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League, welcomed nearly 10,000 fans to the FlyDSA Arena for their season opener. Attendances have remained steady since then with an average of around 5000 fans turning up around rinks each week to watch their favourite teams. The UK government clearly saw the stock of the EIHL, awarding them £2.7m in funding in 2021.
There are a number of reasons for ice hockey’s sudden surge in the UK. For one, it is one of the few sports that is on free-to-air TV, with both NHL and Elite League games being shown on Free Sports during the season. Additionally, the UK has been making waves on the international scene after gaining promotion to the top division of the World Championships of ice hockey. Their efforts mean that they now share the ice with the best from Canada, the United States and Finland.
When looking into the future, Italy looks like another country of sports fans that will soon be engulfed by the spirit of the game. Like the UK, they also gained promotion to the top division the same year and can expect more eyes on the sport as a result. It also would not be surprising to see other Scandinavian countries take notice of their neighbours who have already enjoyed success in the game.
As influential as the NHL has been to the sport in Europe, Europe’s influence on the most prestigious hockey league in the world cannot be understated. In the 2019/2020 season, of the 976 players who participated in at least one game, nearly a third were European. This is a 31% increase from that same number in 2004. In fact, Europe is now the NHL’s second biggest import after Canada, with there now being more European players in the league than players from the USA.
With these numbers growing every year, it seems that the popularity of Ice Hockey in Europe is only going to rise even further. With more of Europe’s most populated countries entering the World Championships, there are sure to be even more eyes on the sport in years to come.