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European Hockey for Dummies

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We're in the down season worldwide for hockey, but things are about to pick up for those that follow the sport in Euorpe this August.  Training camps for European teams will start, and the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament will be held as well.  In the meantime, it's been proposed to me by loyal reader jakeshapiro that I should take this time and provide you the basics on how each major European league is run, the teams involved, and the level of play we can expect.  It's a great idea, and to be honest, I'm not too familiar with some of the leagues at this point, either.  My knowledge often stems from the international competitions like the Spengler Cup, finding out where some of the players play, and increased exposure during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and the occasional broadcasting of European club games in North America (mainly out of Switzerland or Germany).  It's a world full of advertisments covering jerseys as well as all the ice surface, chanting in the stands, very small cities/resort villages and foreigners learning a new culture and language just to carve out a decent living. 

There are seven major European professional leagues, and they're located where an international hockey fan would probably guess.  The top circuit is, of course, the Kontinental Hockey League, mainly based in Russia but also with teams in Latvia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and now supposedly Slovakia with the late inclusion of HC Lev in Propad, after they were rejected to play in the Czech Republic.  The next highest level is found in (again not surprisingly) Sweden, as the Elitserien continues to produce some of the best players in the world, and is home to several famous clubs.  After that, it really depends on the year as to which league is best.  Finland's SM-Liiga is fairly strong, while Switzerland's National League A is very attractive to North American players with good salaries and free housing.  The Czech Extraliga has been on a downslide in recent years, but still boasts a competitive level of play, while Germany's Deutschland Eishockey League is quite popular in Germany, though is heavily reliant on foreign players.  Slovakia's Extraliga is much better than most other countries in Europe, but is pretty devoid of foreign players, and includes the national program's U20 team as a permanent fixture.

Join me after the jump for further breakdowns:

Top European Professional Hockey Leagues
League Country(ies) Teams Membership Championship Founded Oldest Club CHL Rank (2008)
Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) Ru_medium By_medium Kz_medium Lv_medium Sk_medium 24 Franchise Gagarin Cup 2008 Spartak Moscow, SKA St. Petersburg (1946) 1
Elitserien Se_medium 12 Tiered Le Mat Trophy 1975 Allmänna Idrottsklubben Ishockey (1921) 4
SM-Liiga Fi_medium 14 Tiered Kanada-malje 1975 HIFK (1928) 2
Czech Extraliga Cz_medium 14 Tiered National Championship 1993 HC Slavia Praha (1900) 3
National League A Ch_medium 12 Tiered National Championship 1916 Genève-Servette HC (1905) 6
Slovak Extraliga Sk_medium 13 Tiered National Championship 1993 HC Slovan Bratislava (1921) 5
Deutsche Eishockey Liga De_medium 15 Franchise National Championship 1994 Augsburger Panther (1878 as bandy team) 7


As you can see, there aren't many national championship trophies with interesting names, as most countries take on the "gold/silver" model.  In fact, the SM-Liiga takes it a step further and even has a bronze medal game for the losers of the playoff semifinals.  The relegation/promotion system is the most traditional form in European hockey, but it differs from football in that relegation is often determined by an end of the season playoff series.  The DEL is pretty static, but is willing to accept teams from the 2nd Division Bundesliga if teams can't maintain the league's requirements. 

European hockey started at the turn of the century, and it was mainly a central European phenomenon.  The Nordic countries weren't introduced to the sport until after the First World War, and Russia/USSR didn't take the sport seriously until after the Second World War.  The first European hockey nations were France, England, Belgium, Switzerland, and Bohemia (Czech Republic/Slovakia), who formed the IIHF in 1908.  Germany took up the sport around this time as well. 

I also don't agree completely with the IIHF's league rankings system that they used to determine the Champions Hockey League in 2008, which has been put on indefinite hiatus.  They didn't discriminate between the top 4 leagues , and the 5-7 rankings designated the secondary group, so our differences are relatively minor. 

Over the next week or so, I'll be introducing you to the clubs, format, players, and some history of each league.  For some of them, official training sessions have already begun for the 2010-11 season, so it'll be good to provide some background before things really take off.