Ah hockey, the frozen sport of Kings. For those in Southern or temperate climes, it must be difficult to understand the appeal of strapping on razor sharp blades of steel to one’s feet and chasing a rubber disk on a sheet of ice armed with carbon fiber Shillelaghs. For those of us who have grown up with the hockey Gods however, there is little on Earth to match it for sheer exultation. There is considerable debate as to where the sport’s origins sprang from, but there is no denying that hockey is among the most popular sports in the world, and that numerous nations can lay claim to worshipping it as a fervent icon. Which brings me to what follows as my selections for the top 10 hockey crazed nations. Be advised that as with any list, these are subjective opinions on the matter, and certainly not what anyone should consider as definitive by any means. Nevertheless, feel free to leave your opinions in the comments section below.
Hockey appears to be among the few passions the Swiss are not interested in covering in chocolate, as cool as that might be. The Spengler Cup began in Switzerland and is the oldest hockey tournament in Europe. Internationally, the Swiss were long held to be little more than warm up fodder for more traditionally powerful teams, but as the recent Sochi Olympics demonstrated, the country’s hockey programs have come a long way towards building their reputation as opponents to take seriously. In fact, the Women’s team upset powerhouse Sweden to claim the nation’s first ever Olympic Bronze medal in the tournament. This should serve notice that the future of Swiss hockey has serious potential to continue to improve and challenge for legitimacy, as well as providing a well deserved sense of pride for the Swiss people.
The Austrians have a long association with hockey that speaks to their love of the game, though they sadly have little to show for it in international competition. This shouldn’t influence anyone into believing that this snowbound country of over 8 million has any less desire to excel at it however, as their devoted fans will tell you. 2014 marked the first time in 12 years that the Austrians have qualified for an Olympic tournament, and although they don’t yet have a women’s team to represent them at that level, the popularity of the sport is rising among Austria’s young women and this will likely change in the years to come.
The history of this nation’s love of hockey began at the turn of the century when it was still known as Bohemia, and continued throughout its incarnation as Czechoslovakia and finally as Slovakia following the breakup of the former Soviet empire. Throughout the 1940s they were the most successful hockey nation in Europe. Their Tatra Cup is second only to the Spengler as the oldest hockey tournament on the continent. So much has been their success in the sport driven by their love of the game, that by 2012 the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) ranked Slovakia as number six on their list of the best national teams in the world. Their roster of NHL stars is impressive, including Marian Hossa, Josef Stumpel, Zdeno Chara, Peter Stasny, Robert Svehla and Michal Hanzus along with many more.
Next to beer, Germans love few things more than a good hockey game, which makes sense as most fans can’t even imagine watching the sport without a frosty brew in hand. Germany is another ice bound European country with a long tradition of devotion to the sport, which their numerous professional leagues can attest to. The nature of most European professional sporting leagues is such that teams must qualify on a yearly basis for top rankings, which has often seen the Germans lose out to other nations considered more dominant hockey powers. This has not dimmed their love of the game however, and while not generally considered a premier force in international competition, this by no means reflects on their historical place as a hockey-mad nation.
6. Czech Republic
Another of the former Soviet bloc countries, the Czech Republic takes its hockey very seriously. The Czechs can trace their hockey roots back to the beginning of the 20th century when they were known as Bohemia, having established their first professional league (The Czechoslovak First Ice Hockey League) in 1930. They have consistently proven to be a tough opponent in international play, winning their first World Championship in 1947. The fledgling nation’s hockey dreams peaked at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan when one of the best Czech teams ever assembled, led by NHL players including superstars Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek, defeated Canada in a shoot out for a berth in the Gold medal final against ultra rival Team Russia. In a thrilling, tightly contested match, the Czechs edged Russia 1-0 to claim the gold and cement their reputation as one of hockey’s elite squads.
This Scandinavian nation can also track its love of hockey through the ancient sport of Bandy, a variation of Field Hockey on ice developed in Great Britain that can trace its roots back to the Middle Ages. The Swedes have been a serious Olympic medal contender since the early 1920s after establishing their own national championship in 1922 as well as the Swedish Ice Hockey Association (SIHA) that same year. Hockey remains hugely popular in Sweden, which has produced dozens of NHL superstars including Borje Salming, Niklas Lindstrum, Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Daniel Alfredsson, Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Henrik Lundqvist, which would be an absolute dream team line up at any time. There is every reason to believe that Sweden will continue to develop their players into world class hockey stars as their mens team’s Silver medal results in this year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi has proven, and they are consistently ranked among the top 5 hockey powers in the world.
‘They Flying Finns’ as they have come to be known, have played one or more versions of the game since the turn of the century, originally enjoying the sport of Bandy. Having graduated to the more familiar brand of hockey in the late 1920s, the Finns have been among the most exciting teams in the world for decades since establishing the Finnish Ice Hockey Association in 1929, though they had little to show for it in international competition. By the 1970s however, the popularity of hockey was unrivaled in Finland and they continued to produce more and more star players. However it wasn’t until 1988 that the Finns earned their first Olympic medals, with their men’s team beating Team Russia for Silver and their women’s squad earning a well-deserved Bronze in the inaugural women’s competition. Hockey remains a fertile passion for the Finnish people who continue to demonstrate that their love of the game and their success at it will no doubt only grow with the passing of time.
Russia can also claim their hockey roots via Bandy, but have been playing the more recognized version of the sport since the early 1930s by which time the country was known as the Soviet Union. Originally merging the rules of the two games into a uniquely Russian combination, the sport proved extremely popular. The country quickly became so proficient at it that they won the first World Championship they entered in 1954 and their first ever Olympic Gold medal in 1956. After winning another World Championship in 1963, the Soviets put together an impressive record of 9 straight victories in the tournament. ‘The Big Red Machine’ as they were dubbed, were consistently talented teams that played a hard-nosed, physical gameand ranked among the best in the world. However, due to the Communist political system in Russia, they did not meet a professional Western opponent until the storied ‘Summit Series’ between them and Canada in 1972. Since the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1991, Russia has produced some of the most exciting players in the NHL, such as Pavel Bure, Alexander Mogilny, Sergei Fedorov, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Alexander Ovechkin. There’s no question the popularity of hockey in Russia certainly shows no sign of diminishing in the 21st century.
2. United States of America
The U.S. can lay claim to its first professional hockey team with the establishment of Michigan’s Portage Lakers in 1902, and have seen the game’s popularity steadily increase ever since. Beginning with Boston in 1924 and followed by New York, Detroit and Chicago joining the NHL as part of the ‘Original Six’ teams (including Toronto and Montreal), more Americans than ever before began to fall in love with the sport. During the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid N.Y. interest in the game among Americans reached a fever pitch as an unknown squad of College players met the highly touted Soviet Union in a semi-final match that saw every bookmaker on the planet bet the bank on the Russians. The U.S. was undaunted however, riding on the momentum that had taken these upstarts to the final leg of a potential Gold medal. ‘The Miracle on Ice’ as it was known saw the Americans upset Mother Russia and then go on to beat Finland for the Gold in a storybook drama that is still seen as the pinnacle of U.S. hockey achievement. Beginning with the NHL’s original expansion in 1967 followed by the inclusion of dozens of U.S. teams since then, there is every reason to believe that hockey will continue to see its profile raised within the land of the free and the home of the brave.
‘Hello hockey fans across Canada, the United States and Newfoundland…’ was the introduction to ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ by legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt that heralded first via radio and later television what was the Saturday night highlight for the entire country for over 50 years, beginning with his first play by play call in 1923. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the sport of hockey is literally part of every Canadian’s DNA; we simply live, breath and die for it. In a sparsely populated nation that is snowbound for a good six months of the year, the origins of hockey began as Shinny, a rough and tumble form of the game that was played as early as the 1880s and soon spread around the country, played by both men and women at a time when it was deemed ‘unladylike’ for girls to compete in athletics. Yet hockey helped to inspire our vastly disparate country to forget its numerous political and social differences and unite in one single pursuit; that of a small rubber disk on a frozen ice surface.
Nothing exemplifies our passion for the game like the near mythical Summit Series in 1972 that pitted the NHL’s finest Canadian players against the all-star Soviet team from Russia for the first time. There isn’t a single Canuck who witnessed it that can’t tell you exactly where they were for the final of the 8-game series when Hewitt famously called out ‘Here’s a shot, Henderson makes a wild stab at it and falls…here’s another shot, right in front…THEY SCORE! HENDERSON HAS SCORED FOR CANADA!’ It still gives me chills. After falling behind early in the series in Canada, Paul Henderson’s goal in Russia unified this nation like nothing else before or since and remains one of the proudest moments in Canada’s history, giving new meaning to what it was to be Canadian by embracing the sport of hockey like no other country on Earth.
And that my friends, is what it’s all aboot.