During the last lockout almost 400 players went overseas to play hockey. This time around, there are over 120 players abroad. We figured its about time someone put together a guide of who is playing where, what are the differences among some of these leagues and which teams you should be following.
KHL – Russia
Largely considered the 2nd best league in the world, the KHL currently has around 35 NHL players signed to contracts. The league now consists of 26 teams and this winter will feature Pavel Datsyuk (CSKA Moscow), Alex Ovechkin (Dynamo Moscow), Ilya Kovalchuk (SKA St. Petersburg), Evgeni Malkin (Metallurg Magnitogorsk), Pekka Rinne (HC Dinamo Minsk) and many, many more.
The team I am most likely rooting for is Yaroslavl Lokomotiv, whose entire roster and key personnel died last year in a horrific plane crash. The fact that former New York Ranger, Artem Anisimov is playing for Lokomotiv (his hometown club) is a nice bonus.
Elitserien (SEL) – Sweden
If there is any league that I wish had games televised in the U.S. it would be the SEL. These guys have it all – world-class players, beautiful cities and pronounceable team names (e.g., Frölunda Indians, MODO, etc.). Plus you can’t hate the fact that Henrik Lundqvist, a god among mortals, started his career in the SEL and may return if the lockout lingers into winter.
There are 12 teams and each plays 55 game regular seasons. The SEL doesn’t have conferences or divisions, but it will have plenty of stars now that the self-imposed ban on signing NHL players has been lifted. So far only Matt Duchene and three others have formally signed with clubs, but that will change real soon.
If and when The King returns to his homeland, the team I most likely will be rooting for is Hank’s hometown team the Frölunda Indians, which also includes Duchene, Viktor Stalberg and Hank’s twin bro Joel Lundqvist.
National League A – Switzerland
Last week in my post, “Life in the minors,” I told the story of one of my friends who spent time down in the Coast and overseas. One of the nuggets that came out of that post is, even in a non-lockout year the Swiss league always consists of a lot of North American players. This is due to the fact that they do not place a small cap on the number of non-domestic players they can sign, which is what most European leagues implement. Plus with limited travel and gorgeous cities, I can think of a few worse places to spend a winter playing hockey.
The league consists of 12 teams, 50 regular season games and now boasts close to 20 NHL players. This winter the Swiss league will feature Jason Spezza (Jona Lakers), Logan Couture (HC Geneva), Tyler Seguin (EHC Biel), John Tavares (SC Bern), Brooks Laich (Kloten Flyers) and of course Joe Thornton & Rick Nash (HC Davos). That’s a pretty impressive group.
Obviously with Nash playing for Davos, that is the team to root for. However, one of the things that makes Swiss hockey more enjoyable to watch than other leagues is the crowd. The Swiss A has the highest avg attendance of any European hockey league. Fans bring horns, flags and celebrations that rival most European soccer crowds.
EXTRALIGA - Czech Republic
SM-LIIGA – Finland
Depending on who is doing the rankings, Finland’s SM-Liiga is often considered the 2nd best league in Europe, despite the average salaries supposedly being significantly lower than its European counterparts. This league is composed of 14 teams, plays 60 games and will feature 16 NHL players. This year’s notables include Jussi Jokinen (Oulu Karpat), Erik Karlsson (Jokerit) and Valtteri Filppula (Jokerit).
Looking over the list of players going to Finland, it seems to be composed of a lot of bottom 9 forwards/lower defensive pairing guys. With that said, none of the teams really hold any personal interest.
So that’s European hockey in a nutshell. There are other leagues that have signed several NHL players including Germany’s D.E.L (Briere, Giroux & Jamie Benn), Sweden’s 2nd league Hockey Allsvenskan (Hagelin, Landeskog and Kopitar), Austria’s EBEL, among others. At this point they’re few and far between. Anyway, hopefully this gives you a sense of where to get your hockey fix.