The European report is now so full of Leafs prospects and players in Europe that it’s hard to explain the structure of European hockey within the text of a very short blurb on each player. It’s been two years since I wrote an overview of the leagues and the teams structure, so it might help us all to revisit this.
This is a huge topic, and we aren’t here to become experts on the full scope of hockey in dozens of countries, we just need to understand the leagues the Maple Leafs’ prospects are playing in, and to hopefully stop confusing Jokerit with Jukurit.
Europe is a big place with a lot of countries in it, and every region and league has its own rules and idiosyncrasies, but there are some similarities across countries. The KHL growing into a multi-national league has rewritten the map in a very literal way, and a lot of leagues now cross national borders when that used to be rare. But after the KHL, the two leagues of concern to us are bounded by their national borders in Sweden and Finland.
Every country has it’s own version of Hockey Canada that oversees the national teams, and they have varying levels of input into the leagues, the rules and the way the teams operate.
The International Ice Hockey Federation isn’t European, it’s world-wide, but the core of their activities end up in Europe or North America by virtue of where most of the hockey players are. Their big yearly event, the World Championships, is always in Europe. The IIHF imposes some rules on player movement and national team eligibility and they sit in the background, influencing how hockey is played in their member countries. Most leagues in Europe use a rulebook that is largely indistinguishable from the IIHF’s. And these days, the differences between it and the NHL rules are pretty small time.
The sporting club system in Europe exists outside the leagues and the sport of hockey itself. In many countries, the sporting clubs take on some of the roles of government or community sports programs that Canadians are used to. Some of them are vast, money-soaked operations with professional soccer teams that have big budgets. Some are small, more locally focused organizations that exist to give the people of the region access to recreational sports as much as anything else. Many are decades, even centuries old. A lot of older clubs in Russia are affiliated with industry and the military and are relics of the Soviet Union.
Some clubs have a men’s professional hockey team at the top of one of their branches — and it is the top, because it is men’s professional hockey that brings in revenue that makes the other hockey activities possible. Those clubs almost always have a full children’s and junior program for boys and sometimes girls, and many have high-level women’s teams.
That means all these teams frequently have the same name and confusion can reign. Some of these clubs have a second-level men’s professional team as well. But, mercifully, they usually get their own name.
U is for under. If you’ve read many draft-prospect profiles you’ve seen U team this, U team that. U20 is the designation for the WJC age group, and you might be saying, but the WJC isn’t for those under 20, and you’re right. It’s 20 and under.
To make this happily confusing, Sweden likes the letter J instead, so you get J18 and so on.
Junior leagues are not walled off from the professional leagues in Europe like they are in North America. The flexibility of most European systems where players can move from junior to any level of men’s team and back again as their development or team needs require is the major difference to North American hockey, where leagues are siloed and have profit motives at the junior level that override player development concerns.
You can’t fill a 7,000 seat arena in Sweden or Russia for a junior hockey game and make a tidy profit like you can in Canada. The motivations of the clubs aren’t influenced by money at that level.
The Nick Robertson problem — is he NHL or OHL, and you have to decide with finality for the whole season in the space of a very short period — doesn’t exist in European hockey.
If you’ve noticed the relegation and promotion system at the WJC, you’ll understand it when some leagues use a similar system. The lowest ranked team or two at the end of a season are sent to the second-level league and the top ones from there come up.
The KHL invented their own relegation system, which uses financial stability as one of the criteria, and I find that very interesting as a way to keep a league financially healthy. They seem to be less inclined to major money catastrophes since they started this. They don’t adjust the list of teams every offseason, only as need arises.
If you know all the rules on import limits (the number of foreign players allowed) in every league, I bow to you. Just figuring out the multiple different rules in the KHL depending on where a team is located is daunting. But all leagues, by default and by design, favour the players in the country they’re located. Some have a lot of imports — the KHL surely leads that list — and some have very, very few. The NHL and the AHL are unusual in their total lack of concern about nationality.
HC, HK, IF and other Initials
Most teams are named for the club, which is often named for the city it’s in, and then they have HC or something before or after the name, and it all means “hockey club” or something similar. I leave those letters off most team names when discussing them.
Some leagues go heavy on nicknames, and use them exclusively, and while the official name includes the city, the common way the team is referenced is by the nickname. Some teams have nicknames yet they are rarely used in official discussion of the team. You can ignore a Swedish team’s nickname and get along just fine. Most Finnish teams are referred to by that name only, leaving off the city. Acronyms are common in several leagues.
NHL rink size is 200 ft by 85 ft or 60.96 m by 25.9 m.
Big ice, Olympic ice and European ice are terms often used to refer to the old IIHF standard of 60 m by 30 m. There are many arenas in Europe that use that size still, however, the IIHF is moving away from it. They used a hybrid aka “Finnish” rink size this past winter for the WJC, and they will likely continue to do that when the event is in Europe.
Many KHL teams are moving either to NHL size or a hybrid size, and it seems like the days of the vast open ice that allows for differences in playing style are receding into the past. You will still occasionally find pundits who want NHL ice bigger, but they don’t seem to realize the trend on the other side of the world is going in the opposite direction.
Hybrid sizes are the same 60 m length as the old standard, but are in the neighbourhood of 28 m wide.
It is a myth that all North American rinks are NHL size. Many NCAA teams play on 60 m by 30 m ice surfaces.
There are few topics in hockey that confuse fans more than loans. NHL-only fans tend to see the NHL system as the only system, and the waivers system as a way to dispose of bad players. Ha ha, he’s on waivers. LOL. That’s the standard response.
In reality, loans exist in North American hockey — every player on an NHL contract who isn’t in the NHL is loaned somewhere. Waivers are part of the process of loaning players to the AHL. Loans between clubs happen, although they are rare, but even NHL-contracted players have been loaned to other NHL teams’ AHL affiliates. Kasimir Kaskisuo is the most recent Leafs example of that phenomenon.
In Europe, where young players may be contracted to clubs without precisely suitable teams to send the player to for development, loans to other clubs, leagues or even to leagues in other countries are not at all uncommon. Ice time and opportunity to play on top power play units are reasons why a prospect got moved more often than they’re a bust, LOL.
If you have familiarity with out-clauses in contracts, it’s probably for a player like Alexander Barabanov, who has a European out-clause. When seasons align, they are usually written so that if the player is cut from the NHL team to the AHL before a certain date — November 15 or December 15 generally, they can opt out of their NHL contract and return to Europe. It’s a choice, not an automatic thing.
This season we will have to learn about the out-clauses that work the other way, with players on short-term loans to European teams and contracts with NHL out-clauses that will allow the players to join the NHL team when it starts. This information is not always public. The usual direction of out clause will be largely irrelevant since the NHL season will likely not start until leagues’ trade deadlines have passed.
I don’t think there’s any argument at all* about the order of the leagues in Europe:
- Liiga and NL
- Czech and Del
- Everywhere else
Those rankings are not cleanly distinct groups. There are teams in Sweden that are better than a chunk of the bottom of the KHL teams. There are teams in Finland who could join the SHL seamlessly. There are Swiss teams that, on any given day, are able to beat the best teams in Sweden or Finland.
The seasons in all these leagues are timed to finish the playoffs by the end of April with an eye to the World Championships in May.
*People argue about this incessantly.
KHL - VHL - MHL
The KHL is synonymous with Russia, but it currently has teams in multiple countries and in all the regions of Russia, some with wildly differently cultures to city centre Moscow.
They are expansionist, and want to move both into Asia and further into Europe, but obviously the pandemic is causing them a lot of problems. One is that China closed the border, so the Chinese team Kunlun Red Star relocated to a Russian city for the season.
The KHL is very Russian in terms of its power structure and its approach to, well, to dealing with reality. Reality can be whatever the man in charge wants it to be in the KHL, and their approach to the pandemic is: We’ll play every game of this season on schedule or we’ll die trying. If teams disagree, they forfeit games. They won’t postpone a game unless all levels of the club have run out of players.
The KHL season has already set new records for the youngest players on the ice and the most number of players on team rosters (not even 20 games in) and all of that is due to players from the junior and second-level league getting the call to fill in for the mysteriously missing long list of usual rostered players.
To make full rosters, the KHL teams are drawing from the VHL, it’s second-level men’s pro league, and from the MHL, which is the (mostly) Russian junior league.
Not all KHL teams have a VHL team within their own club, so many affiliate with a club where the top men’s team isn’t really good enough to be in the KHL — can’t sell enough tickets to get wealthy enough to compete, usually. Some don’t even have an affiliate, so not all teams are treated equally when they suddenly have missing players.
The KHL team Jokerit is in Finland, but began in the Liiga, the top Finnish league, as part of a club of longstanding. Their junior teams play in the Finnish junior leagues and they still don’t have a VHL team, although that’s supposedly coming. The same is true of Dinamo Riga in Latvia.
The VHL is sometimes described by sneering North American hockey fans as full of old men, too bad to make a KHL team, and that’s exactly what they used to say about the AHL too. As the AHL has worked to become more of a development league, so has the VHL and many clubs routinely play top young prospects there when junior hockey isn’t quite challenging enough for them or when their system produces prospects by the bucket load.
The KHL draws players from within the countries that make up the league as well as Finns moving to teams other than Jokerit. Swedes are playing there in growing numbers, but Canadians are the largest group of foreign players from a country without a team in the league.
SHL - Allsvenskan
In Sweden, the top league is the SHL, which has a traditional relegation and promotion relationship with the second-level league, Allsvenskan. The relationship between the two leagues is not a farm system structure like the VHL employs relative to the KHL, although loans of players from one league to the other are common. The direct affiliation system doesn’t exist — after all, any given Allsvenskan team can be in the SHL in the next year and vice versa.
The other major difference between the SHL and the KHL is simply one of scale. The SHL only has 14 teams in it, while the KHL has 23 this season. Another way the scale is different is that Sweden only has a population of approximately 10 million, meaning the revenue-generating audience is smaller, the rink-capacity is smaller, and the money to be made just isn’t in the same range as what KHL teams can find in ticket sales and advertising.
Below the professional level, Sweden has an elite junior league as well as leagues for all the classifications of junior hockey, but it is now common for NHL draft-eligible or just-drafted players in their teens to be playing in the SHL.
Jack Drury, a 20-year-old second-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes left Harvard to play for Växjö this year, and he is their 2C.
Most foreign players in the SHL are Finns, with Canadians, Americans, Norwegians and Danes filling out the list. Some very high level European NHL players have gone to the SHL when young like David Pastrnak and Kevin Fiala.
Other than the prospects, the SHL attracts North American players who aren’t going to crack the AHL-NHL barrier.
Liiga - Mestis
Finland’s hockey system is extremely similar to Sweden’s. With a little more than 5 million people in the country, the money scale is smaller, however. Aside from the anomaly of Jokerit, who joined the KHL in 2013, Finnish club teams are in the Liiga or the second-level league Mestis.
Finland used to have a relegation system, but they changed over to more of a farm system relationship where Liiga teams loan to and call up from Mestis teams as well as their own junior system, which has leagues at elite levels for the top juniors and then lower level leagues as well.
The Liiga currently has 15 teams with more foreigners than usual since they are allowing shorter-term loans from leagues that haven’t started playing. Most foreigners are Swedes, with Czechs, Slovaks, Canadians, Americans and the occasional Russian making up the rest of the list.
Jukurit is a team in the Liiga, whose club has been around since the 1970s. It’s got nothing to do with Jokerit.
The Liiga is where you will find North American players who topped out as an elite ECHL level player. Josh Kestner, formerly of the Newfoundland Growlers is playing for TPS and doing very well so far this year. Even more so than in Sweden, a teenaged NHL-drafted player will be high up on the depth chart of most Liiga teams. Vitali Abramov of the Ottawa Senators is making big waves in the Liiga.
Swiss NL - SL (Formerly NLA and NLB)
The Swiss league is largely structured like the SHL with a top level and second level and a promotion and relegation system. They have very strict import quotas per team, bigger arenas and more money to spend on players than the SHL or the Liiga, but they are suffering dramatically this season with little income from ticket sales.
A top AHL player can go to the Swiss league and be a star. Mark Arcobello is still there, still doing that, and Denis Malgin should tear it up over there on loan. Very few players who are drafted or signed out of the Swiss league ever make the NHL. Almost all good Swiss prospects go to Sweden to play when they are young.
The youngster, Joe Thornton, who just joined the Leafs will play a few games in the NL this year.