Professional ice hockey has existed since the early 1900s. From the first professional ice hockey league based out of Michigan in the United States, it quickly grew into Canada and to many other countries, as diverse as Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Kingdom or Austria.

By country[edit | edit source]

Canada[edit | edit source]

Professional leagues emerged from amateur leagues. In 1904, the U.S.-based International Professional Hockey League(IPHL) was formed, and had the first Canadian professional team, the Canadian Soo. The league hired many amateur players away from Canada, causing the amateur leagues to convert to all-out professionalism or allow professional players in order to compete for the top players. The first Canadian professional league was the Manitoba Professional Hockey League (MPHL), formed in 1905 from member teams of the amateur Manitoba Hockey Association. The Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association(ECAHA), formed from prior amateur hockey leagues, emerged in 1906. The ECAHA allowed teams to have professional players from the start. In 1907, the Ontario Professional Hockey League was formed. The competition for players increased salaries, a factor in the demise of the IPHL in 1907. In 1908, the ECAHA became fully professional, as the ECAHA's amateur teams separated from the league and competed for the new Allan Cup, a new challenge cup instituted for amateur teams. The ECAHA, now fully professional, renamed itself the ECHA. The MPHL folded in 1909, the OPHL in 1908, leaving the ECHA as the only 'elite' professional league in Canada.

In northern Ontario, silver mining had made small towns affluent, and mines in the area hired professional players for their ice hockey teams. By 1910, several teams in the area had hired enough professional players from the ECHA, that the teams, notably the Renfrew Creamery Kings, wanted to join the ECHA and compete for the Stanley Cup. Rebuffed by the ECHA, the mine owners formed the National Hockey Association (NHA) in 1910, splitting the ECHA's teams between the Canadian Hockey Association and the NHA. The CHA dissolved after less than a month, with some teams absorbed by the NHA. After one season of extravagant salaries, the NHA team owners imposed a salary cap, causing dissension amongst the players, and closed most of the teams in mining towns.

In 1911, Lester and Frank Patrick, who had played in the NHA, formed the rival Pacific Coast Hockey Association in British Columbia and took the opportunity to sign many of the NHA's players, notably Cyclone Taylor. In 1912, the NHA expanded west to Toronto, becoming a six-team league from Toronto to Quebec City. While the leagues competed for players, competition for the Stanley Cup brought them together for annual playoffs, starting in 1915. In November 1917, the NHA itself suspended operations and several NHA owners formed the National Hockey League(NHL) following a dispute between NHA team owners. The new league began play in December that year with four Canadian teams. The NHL continued the annual Stanley Cup playoffs with the PCHA.

In the west, the Western Canada Hockey League was formed in 1921 from existing teams in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The annual Stanley Cup playoffs now became a three-way championship, alternating in location between the west and the east. The PCHA would merge with the WCHL in 1924 to form the Western Hockey League before the league ceased operations in 1926. The NHL, having expanded to the U.S.A. and now with ten teams, bought out the players' contracts of the WHL and took control of the Stanley Cup, forming Canadian and American divisions.[1]

The NHL lost Canadian teams in the 1920s and 1930s, leading to a rise in senior-level amateur teams and leagues in cities such as Quebec City and Ottawa, former NHL cities. After World War 2, several of these teams became professional in the Quebec Hockey League, which included several stars such as Jean Beliveau and Willie O'Ree. In the 1950s, with the rise of NHL television broadcasts, such as those on Hockey Night in Canada, attendance suffered and the minor professional leagues folded or merged to survive. A new Western Hockey League was formed on the west coast with teams in several cities including Vancouver. The WHL's Vancouver Canucks organization would join the NHL in 1970. Since the demise of the QHL, the American Hockey League (AHL) has had Canadian teams, starting with the Quebec Aces.

In 1972, the World Hockey Association was formed with professional teams in Edmonton, Ottawa, Quebec City and Winnipeg. Ottawa relocated to Toronto after one season, but the other teams survived until the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979. Edmonton, Quebec City and Winnipeg joined the NHL. In 1984, the Atlanta franchise moved to Calgary. In the 1990s, the Quebec and Winnipeg franchises relocated to the U.S., while Ottawa rejoined the NHL in 1992.

On 16 February, 2005, the NHL became the first major professional team sport in North America to cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute. Play resumed again in the fall of 2005. During the dispute, controversy arose over the decision not to award the Stanley Cup; some considered this decision a violation of the terms of the Stanley Cup's handover to the NHL. Following a legal challenge, it was agreed that the Cup's trustees could award the Cup to a non-NHL team.[2]

The official museum for the NHL is the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada.

Ice Hockey is one of Canada's two official sports. It is officially the "winter" sport, whereas lacrosse is officially the "summer" sport. [3]

Czechoslovakia[edit | edit source]

In Czechoslovakia, the Czechoslovak Extraliga was the elite ice hockey league in Czechoslovakia from 1930 until 1993, when the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

In the Czech Republic, the Czech Extraliga is rooted in the Czechoslovak Extraliga. The Czech Extraliga was spun off in 1993 following the administrative break-up of Czechoslovakia. The Czech Extraliga is the highest-level ice hockey league in the Czech Republic. The name of the league is leased a general sponsor and changes frequently. In the 2003-04, 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons it was known as the Tipsport Extraliga; for 2001-01 and 2001-02 it was called the Český Telecom Extraliga, and in 1999-00 the Staropramen Extraliga. During the 2006-07 season it was known as the O2 Extraliga.

In Slovakia, the Slovak Extraliga is the highest-level ice hockey league in Slovakia. The name of the league is leased to sponsor and changes frequently. From 1993/94 to 1997/98 season it was called Extraliga, then the name changed to West Extraliga until the end of 2000/01 season. In 2001/02 its name was Boss Extraliga. Since 2002/03 season to 2004/05 the name changed to ST Extraliga and in 2005/06 to T-Com Extraliga. From January 16th, 2007 the name changed to Slovnaft Extraliga when a general sponsor agreement with Slovnaft was signed. The agreement is valid until the end of 2007/08 season. The Slovak Extraliga is also rooted in the Czechoslovak Extraliga. The 1993/94 was the first season of Slovak Extraliga as Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993.

Finland[edit | edit source]

In Finland, SM-liiga is the top professional ice hockey league in Finland. It was constituted in 1975 to replace SM-sarja, which was fundamentally an amateur league. SM-liiga has an agreement of cooperation with Finnish ice hockey federation Suomen Jääkiekkoliitto. SM is a common abbreviation for Suomen mestaruus, "Finnish championship". At the moment, there are 14 teams. SM-liiga was closed in 2000 so that no team can be relegated to or promoted from the lower leagues without approval of the board of SM-liiga. The board have committed themselves to promote the first winner of Mestis (the second highest competition) that meets certain standards.

Germany[edit | edit source]

In Germany, the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (German Hockey League, shortname DEL) is a German high-calibre ice hockey league, and has the highest number of American and Canadian players overseas. It was formed as a replacement for the Bundesliga. It dates back to 1958.

Soviet Union and successors[edit | edit source]

The highest league in the Soviet Union was the Soviet Championship League, founded in 1946. This evolved into an elite league with a talent level comparable to the NHL. However, it was always considered an "amateur" league, rather than professional. This was because all elite athletes in the Soviet Union were conscripted into the Red Army, Red Air Force or other national institutions. Technically they were paid for their military service, and not for their play as athletes. This allowed them compete at the Olympic games without violating the International Olympic Committee's amateur-only rules.

Throughout the history of the Soviet league, Red Army-affiliated CSKA Moscow dominated, winning 32 of the 46 championship seasons.

The Soviet League's talent level was severely diminished following the fall of communism when most elite players moved to the NHL in search of higher pay. The league also changed it name to the CIS Championship in 1991-1992, and then to the International Hockey League from 1992 to 1996. After the communist era ended, the league became explicitly professional.

By 1996, most of former Soviet republics had created their own national leagues: including the Estonian Ice Hockey Association, Kazakhstani Championship, Latvian Hockey League, Lithuanian Hockey League, and Ukrainian Major League. The remnant Russian Federation-based teams created the Russian Super League.

The Russian Pro Hockey League's "Super League" was the highest level of play in Russia from 1996 to 2008. During the 2000s the calibre of play and the league economics recovered as the Russian economy did. Before the 2008-09 season the RSL was reformed into the Kontinental Hockey League which includes teams from several other former Soviet republics (Belarus, Kazkhastan, and Latvia) and plans to expand further.

Sweden[edit | edit source]

In Sweden, Elitserien is the highest-level professional ice hockey league. It is generally regarded as one of the top leagues of Europe,[4] and one of the Swedish major professional sports league. Elitserien, or the Swedish Elite League, which it is often unofficially called in English,is composed of 12 teams. The first season under the name Elitserien was played in 1975-76. The Swedish ice hockey championships has been played in various forms since 1922.

Switzerland[edit | edit source]

In Switzerland, the Nationalliga A (German), or Ligue Nationale A (French) is the top tier of the Nationalliga or Ligue Nationale, the main professional ice hockey league in Switzerland. It is the oldest league remaining today, dating to 1916.

United Kingdom[edit | edit source]

Between the wars, British ice hockey grew rapidly with new ice rinks and an influx of Canadian players. A European competition was instituted, and in the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch, Germany, Great Britain won the gold medal, imposing the first ever Olympic defeat on the Canadians. However, because of the disruption of World War II and a lack of suitable venues afterwards the sport faded rapidly.

United States[edit | edit source]

The first professional hockey league in the world was the International Professional Hockey League. It was founded in 1904 by a dentist in Houghton, Michigan, Jack Gibson. While this league had folded by 1907, it was the starting of professional hockey. The United States would continue to see professional hockey with teams from the PCHL based in Seattle and Portland. When the Boston Bruins joined the NHL in 1924, the United States was finally represented in the league. It would continue to grow in the NHL until the present day where 24 of the 30 teams are based in the US. There are several other pro leagues in the US as well, notably the AHL, ECHL, CHL, and IHL.

International[edit | edit source]

There is no single global championship for professional ice hockey. The most elite North American teams compete for the Stanley Cup as their championship. Created in 1892, the Stanley Cup was originally an amateur trophy. Starting in 1907, professionals were allowed to compete for it. Teams from several leagues played for the Stanley Cup before 1926, since which time it has been controlled solely by the National Hockey League (NHL). The most elite European clubs have competed in the Europa Cup from 1965 to 1997, the European Hockey League from 1996 to 2000, the IIHF European Champions Cup 2005 to 2008 and the Champions Hockey League in 2008. There has not been a European ice hockey championship played since the Champions Hockey League played its only season. The most successful North American team is the Montreal Canadiens who have won 24 Stanley Cups, the most successful European club is HC CSKA Moscow which has won 20 European Cups.

Teams from North American and Europe do not regularly compete against each other in "friendlies" as do soccer clubs. The opportunities for fans and media to compare levels of play between the continents were especially limited during the Cold War since many of Europe’s best clubs were behind the Iron Curtain. After the success of the Summit Series which featured the Canadian and Soviet national teams, there was a demand for more international hockey at the club level. It has also proved that Soviet hockey was at a comparable level to the NHL. This led to the Super Series which from 1975 to 1991 featured an annual tour of North America by a Soviet hockey club. The first Super Series featured CSKA Moscow against the Montreal Canadiens on New Year’s Eve 1975, in what was described in the press as a de facto world championship. The game ended as a 3-3 draw but was hailed as one the greatest games ever played. The following week CSKA played and lost to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers in a game infamous for it roughness. Subsequent Super Series produced more close results, but generally favoured the Soviet sides. However, following the fall of communism, many elite players from the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries went to the NHL for higher pay. The NHL became de facto the world’s most elite league as the quality of play in European leagues suffered.

Between 2000 and 2003 several NHL teams travelled outside North America to play exhibition games against some Swedish and one Finnish ice hockey teams. This series was known as the NHL Challenge.

In 2008 the former Russian Super League was refounded as the Kontinental Hockey League, expanded into Belarus, Latvia, and Kazakhstan, and encouraged its clubs to aggressively seek talented players (sometimes at the expense of the NHL), prompting the media to speculate about eventual KHL challenge to the NHL dominance of international hockey.

Also in 2008 the new Champions Hockey League was created to provide an elite tournament for the best teams in Europe. The winner of the Champions Hockey League will face an NHL challenger each year in the Victoria Cup providing a regular contest between NHL and European teams since the end of the Super Series in 1991. The Champions League was suspended for the 2009-10 season due to withdrawal of sponsors such as Gazprom.

In 2009, KHL and Gazprom executive Alexander Medvedev proposed merging the KHL into a new pan-European league called United Hockey Europe.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. McFarlane, Brian (1997). Brian McFarlane's History of Hockey. Champaign, IL: Sports Publishing Inc, 15–16. ISBN 1-57167-145-5. 
  2. Court:Non-NHL teams could vie for Cup. TSN.
  3. Journal of the Canadian Parliament for May 12, 1994. House of Commons of Canada; 35th Parliament, First Session.
  4. Elitserien världens bästa hockeyliga (PDF) (Swedish). Pro Hockey (2005-04-27). Archived from the original on 2006-12-17. Retrieved on 2007-01-25.

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