Want to know what it's like to play European pro hockey?
Maybe you've heard a few cool stories or know players that have played pro hockey in Europe already.
In this post, we'll cover it all, from the level of play in specific countries to a few real stories and experiences from players.
Let's get started...
European pro hockey differs from hockey in North American hockey for a number of reasons. We'll go through a few of them with you in detail.
- variety of European hockey leagues
- start + end date of season
- games played per season in Europe
- culture + lifestyle
- player salaries + taxes
1) Variety of European Hockey Leagues
For one, there's way more hockey leagues in Europe than in North America at the pro level. In Europe, leagues are spread across over 30+ countries.
Similar to N America where you have the NHL -> AHL -> ECHL -> SPHL which is a semi pro hockey, within most countries in Europe, you also have multiple leagues inside each.
Here's an example...
In Finland, you have the top league which is Liiga. Under Liiga, you have Mestis. Under Mestis, you have Suomi-sarja. And it continues....
Liiga -> Mestis -> Suomi Sarja
The level/style of play can be quite different from one country (Germany) to the next (France).
Why is that?
There's a multitude of reasons, but it primarily has to do with the countries youth development programs, the level of coaching from youth up to the pros, funding, and lastly the talent level of imports that have played there.
With that being said, it's important for you to have guidance on where you may fit based on your attributes as a player.
A smaller player that may thrive in Sweden where it's faster and less physically demanding may not fair as well in the EIHL (British Elite League) or in DEL2 (Germany).
Keep this in mind.
If you're coming over to Europe from N America, you're likely accustomed to the start and end dates of a typical season. Sure, they've differed a little year to year based on pre-season schedules and then playoffs, but seasons are pretty alike across the board...
In Europe though, the hockey season begins and ends much earlier.
2) Earlier Season Start + End Dates
Depending on the country, European pro hockey league seasons start around 5-7 weeks prior to when N American leagues begin.
So if the AHL/NHL and NCAA leagues start in early October, European pro leagues begin sometime around the start of September (roughly speaking).
Depending on which European hockey league it is, the start of preseason will generally begin in late July to sometime in August. Preseason hockey matches in many parts of Europe are called "friendlies" aka a friendly match between two clubs.
A few of the top elite leagues in Europe (KHL, DEL, etc) will start training camp early in July, but many other pro leagues won't start until around late July and early September.
The club you sign with will inform you on when they expect you to arrive. We've seen many instances where a club will begin training with the local players and they're okay with an import arriving a couple weeks after as long as they are staying in strong shape.
It's not uncommon for clubs to ask import players to train or even play a preseason match soon after arriving via their flight. Be sure to talk with your club about this before you arrive so you (and the club) are both on the same page.
We've seen a few rare instances (primarily in Eastern Europe) where a player of ours arrived at 4 PM jet-lagged with no sleep and the club says, "are you good to play tonight?"
This is not super common, but always good to ask about this ahead of time. Due to this, don't drink a bakers dozen of complimentary drinks on your transatlantic flight over. Stick to a couple to help you fall asleep if that helps, but no more.
This is a work trip. You want to make the best 1st impression you can during your European pro hockey debut.
Not to worry though...
Most clubs will first bring you to where you're staying the first night after arriving (whether your apartment, hotel, etc) . This will give you the first day or so to rest and acclimate to the new time zone.
Helpful tip: if you don't skate on the ice the first full day you're in Europe, get a small workout and sweat in. This will help tire you out to better fall asleep at night early on.
Now that we've covered when European hockey leagues start the season, let's talk about the intensity and amount of games played during a typical season.
3) Number of Games Played Per Season (in European Pro Hockey Leagues)
In short, leagues in Europe play less hockey games per season.
The exact number of games played will differ from one league to the next, but across the board...the game load per season is usually around 50-70% that of the top N American leagues.
If the NHL plays an 82-game regular season, a typical league in Europe may only play 30-50 regular season matches.
That lower number (30) might seem low, but you have to account for the fact that European leagues also play in a number of national cup and tournament matches throughout the season in addition to the regular season.
Those added in cup and tournament matches can bring on an additional 10-25 games for the club (not including playoffs).
One of the biggest perks of playing pro hockey in Europe is that the lighter game schedule will allow for you to travel.
Take advantage of this....even if it's locally (you'll be glad you did later).
Most countries have several national pauses for IIHF tournament play which allow a few extra days off at various dates during the season. Same with the holidays around New Year's week.
We have players each year who travel at the holidays...
Depending on the number of days you have off, many will take the train to a city such as Paris, Prague, or Berlin (Europe is full of great cities). Some will fly to the Alps to ski for a quick weekend or to the Mediterranean coast in Italy to get away for a few days mid-season.
Other players take the downtime to relax, recover, and just enjoy the few days off in the city they play in to be ready for the second half of the season.
What are the weekly practice schedules like in European hockey leagues?
Again, this will vary dependent both on the league and your organization, but you'll likely have a slightly lighter training schedule in Europe than in N America. Your teams game schedule will impact this too.
It's not a perfect way to measure it...but generally the farther East you go in Europe, the more intense the training will usually be, especially for pre-season.
This doesn't mean clubs in Western Europe don't train hard (they certainly do), but clubs in places like Russia, Kazakhstan, Slovakia, Poland, and the Baltics are known for intense training sessions. This likely stems from the revered soviet style of hockey training. If you play in France with an import coach from here, you may notice this there to.
Extreme example: We had a player in Kazakhstan years back who informed us of their weekly training schedule mid-season. It was easily the most intense schedule we'd seen.
It involved 1-2x trainings every single day and gym on all non-game days (no days off either). Although it was tiring, the player informed us that he adapted and had never been in better shape in his life.
Don't freak out if you're reading the extreme example above and saying that sounds miserable. Most would agree with you.
The majority of clubs in Europe will train a healthy number of times per week in unison with their weekly match schedule.
You'll likely also be in this situation. Expect to train hard, but it's nothing you won't be able to handle based on growing up playing at good levels of hockey in N America.
That brings us to the culture of playing European pro hockey...
4) Culture- Hockey in Europe
One of the biggest perks of playing pro hockey in Europe is the lifestyle, culture, and experiences that you'll carry with you the rest of your life.
Not only does playing hockey overseas allow you to continue playing the game you love, but it also affords you the opportunity to experience a new part of the world.
Since you'll be teammates with a number of local players, you'll get a fast track into the local culture...ranging from the do's/don'ts to the best spots to eat in town.
Luckily, most young adults across the EU speak English as a second language. If you play in parts of Scandinavia, they even might speak better English than you.
Tip: once you find out which country you're playing in, try to learn a handful of commons words/phrases in the native tongue.
Examples: hello, bye, yes, no, how are you, thank you.
By you making an effort to speak the native language (however poorly it comes out of your mouth), the locals will usually smile, appreciate it, and be more welcoming.
Depending on where you play in Europe, the way the club pays you can vary.
This brings us to our last section on How Much Do Hockey Players Make in Europe?
Player Salaries + Taxes
We've seen it all....
We've seen a few teams give players envelopes with money (euro) each month while others handle pay for players more formally. In Norway and Denmark for example, the club will usually help you setup a local bank account to accept pay if you don't wire it back home internationally.
Your situation will all depend on what's included in your contract and the country you're playing in. A few additional big factors such as your citizenship and age may impact it as well. Reason why is that if you're under a certain age, student visa's are occasionally used. There are also differences in visa stays for Canadians and American imports...depends on the country
A big perk of playing in Europe is that a number of teams will pay players tax-free (cha-ching).
It's up to the individual European hockey club you're with to handle this aspect in accordance with their local laws. Some clubs will opt to pay players in cash and they'll pay taxes before paying you (their import player), which makes it easier for you while abroad. Other clubs will wire you salary monthly to your bank account.
In how much do hockey players make in Europe, we go over a general salary range in more details for a number of European hockey leagues.
All in all, having the ability to play European pro hockey across the pond will bring your life new perspectives and allow you to experience a totally different way of life.
Living abroad in Europe will also make you appreciate all the small things you love back home (food, bonfires, time with friends in the summer, etc).
If reading this has you excited about the opportunity to play hockey overseas in Europe, send us a message. We'll let you know if we are able to help you in your pursuit.