What's it like playing ice hockey in Europe?
The answer to this question all depends on which region of ice hockey in Europe we are discussing...
By the time you're done reading this article, you'll be well informed on the various leagues in Europe that you can potentially play in as an import. We'll also cover the skill level that many of these clubs are seeking. For an even more extensive understanding, we recently put together The Definitive Guide on European Hockey.
Since pro ice hockey in Europe is played in a few dozen countries which can differ greatly from one another, this information will be best digested if we break it down country by country...
Feel free to scroll down this post to view the countries we cover in whichever order you'd like....think of it like a choose your own hockey adventure...
- United Kingdom
- Czech Republic
Let's get started...
From their elite level SHL clubs all the way down to their youth development programs where youth athletes initially learn the game, it's impressive to see how the Swedes teach the game.
In Sweden, the game is all about speed + skill.
If you're from N. America and haven't had a cup of coffee in "The Show" (NHL) or weren't a top player in the AHL or ECHL, there's not a good chance clubs in the SHL will show interest in you.
Moving down to Allsvenskan (2nd highest level), the same can be said. The bar has dropped slightly, but it's still pretty high (AHL, high-end ECHL, elite European experience).
Then you have HockeyEttan (also known as Sweden Division 1 hockey). The league is quite large with a wide range of teams spanning from the north to south of Sweden. Imports here range from steady NCAA players to USports and major junior players who've opted to continue playing ice hockey in Europe.
Sweden Division 2 lies one level below HockeyEttan. It's important to note that there are a number of strong clubs in Division 2 that compete each year to move up to HockeyEttan. Just because it's the 4th highest level does not mean the level is not good. Many HockeyEttan and Sweden Div2 clubs can compete quite well with higher league clubs in other EU nations.
In Germany, the game is quite skilled but it's played in a more physical style that would be most comparable to the North American game.
You're still competing on larger Olympic sheets of ice, but the physical aspect of the game is more apparent.
The top league in Germany is called the DEL (Deutsche Eishockey Liga).
DEL2 rests one league below the DEL.
Followed by Oberliga (Germany3).
Followed by Regionalliga (Germany4) and Germany5.
The DEL is a premier pro league in Europe. Imports here will range from top Div 1 NCAA graduates to former NHL/AHLer's on the latter half of their career playing ice hockey in Europe. You’ll also see many rising German stars who make the big club too.
Move down to the DEL2 and you'll still find a number of import players with NHL/AHL experience alongside strong European talent from across the European Union.
Oberliga is the third highest level of hockey in Germany. The league has become much stronger over the past 5-10 years through a combination of hockey development in Germany and an influx of good imports opting to bring their talents to the league. In turn, this elevates the game of their local linemates. Take a look at the imports of most Oberliga clubs and you can usually find a quality player from North America putting up top points for the respective club.
The sport of hockey in Finland is quite popular across the entire country.
The highest league is called Liiga (SM-Liiga).
One level down from Liiga, you have Mestis which is the 2nd highest league.
After Mestis, you have Suomi-Sarja Hockey which is the 3rd highest level of hockey in Finland.
Following this, you then have II-divisioona and III-divisioona.
Your level of play and experience as an import will determine where you may fit if you're being considered by a hockey club in Finland.
We are quite familiar with a variety of clubs across the country...especially in Mestis and Suomi-Sarja.
It's important to note that in Finland, once you move down to Mestis, Suomi-Sarja and below, the clubs financial budgets here drop quite a bit in comparison to the top league clubs. Some Mestis teams may have stronger budgets, but others are much tighter.
What this means for you as an import is that you won't have as much leverage in Finland as you may in other countries. The reason for this is the clubs have so much local talent that is willing to play there for a small amount of money (locals also save clubs money- no ITC card, flights, visa).
If you’re interested in learning more about hockey salaries in Europe, we break it down a bit further in How Much Do Hockey Players Make in Europe?
In Finland, it's common to see a ton of loans taking place between clubs throughout a season.
Liiga clubs that have affiliations with Mestis clubs and will loan players up/down clubs.
The same takes place between Mestis <-> Suomi Sarja hockey league.
When you think about sports in the UK, ice hockey doesn't generally come to mind for most. Don’t let that fool you though...
The EIHL (Elite Ice Hockey League) has been a great league with many ex-NHL imports spending time here for many years.
Paul Bissonette was the “self proclaimed” Sidney Crosby of Cardiff (not a big deal) and Theo Fluery (Stanley Cup Champion- Calgary Flames) spoke highly of his time playing for Belfast. Along with averaging over 2 pts per game there, Theo also amassed 270 regular season penalty minutes.
Imports from the AHL, ECHL and top level players from NCAA/USports can find roles here based on experience.
Below the EIHL, you have the NIHL (National Ice Hockey League) which is overseen by the English Ice Hockey Association.
The NIHL (formerly called the EPIHL years back) regularly has a few import players per club on most rosters. These imports have hailed from all parts of the EU from Latvia to Czech Republic.
With the United Kingdom recently exiting the EU, that changes dynamics a bit regarding some EU players from playing in the UK, but it's still littered with some quality import players depending on the year.
In Norway, the premier ice hockey league is called Get Ligaen (aka Eliteserien). The league name changes based on sponsorship, but GET-Ligaen is the name that's known across the board.
Below this, you have what is called 1-divisjon (Norway2).
A number of strong import players from N. America and Europe have boded well with clubs across Norway over the years.
Hockey isn't as dominant in Norway as it is in Sweden or Finland on the national stage, but the Norwegians have been progressively producing some great players over the years. With the most well known of them being Mats Zuccarello.
Fun fact: the longest game ever in hockey history took place in GET-Ligaen in 2017. Storhamar v Sparta played a match that went 8 overtimes past regulation. The overtime lasted 1:57:14 until Joakim Jensen scored for Storhamar to clinch the record 2-1 victory late into the night.
photo credit: dw.com[/caption]
As you would expect, the quality of life off of the ice is Norway high.
You can say the same for the price of a basket of goods (food, drink, etc). Don't let this dissuade you though...Norway has strict employment rules which means there is a minimum threshold clubs must pay you in order to play there as an import.
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It only makes sense that we cover Denmark here since it is the last remaining Scandinavian hockey country on our list.
The highest league in Denmark is Metal Ligaen.
Following Metal Ligaen is 1. Division (also known as Denmark2).
Much like the other Scandinavian countries, Danish hockey is similar in that it's both a fast-paced and less physical style of hockey.
A number of quality imports have played in Denmark over the years.
One interesting note is that clubs in Denmark can roster a certain number of players throughout the season on both Metal Ligaen as well as 1. Division rosters to some extent. Therefore, you may have a player from the 3rd line in Metal Ligaen regularly playing on the top line in 1. Division.
We've had a number of our players play in Denmark and they much enjoyed their time playing pro hockey in Europe with the Danes.
The premier ice hockey league in Czech is called Extraliga. The league was originally formed back in the early 1990's when Czechoslovakia split.
Right underneath Czech Extraliga, you have what is currently called Chance Liga. Some may also be familiar with the league being called 1liga or Czech2.
When Czech Extraliga seeks import players, they are expecting a high caliber player who possesses either AHL or higher experience for N American players. If you spent time in the ECHL, you'd better put up impressive numbers and potentially a year or two of sound play abroad. Czech 2 (Chance Liga) is not known for having many N American import players on rosters since there are so many great local players, but there are a handful.
Many player loans take place here between the Extraliga and both Czech2 + Czech3.
photo credit: nbc sports[/caption]
Fun fact: Jaromir Jagr not only is the most well known Czech player in history, but he's also continued playing in both Czech Extraliga and Chance Liga as owner/player for Kladno in recent years.
The top level of ice hockey in Slovakia is Slovak Extraliga (currently called Tipos Extraliga).
Slovak 2. liga is the 2nd highest level of hockey in Slovakia.
Much like the style of play on ice in the Czech Republic, it’s much the same in the Slovakian hockey leagues.
The caliber of play in Slovak Extraliga is quite good. A decade ago, the league was ranked by the IIHF as the 6th strongest league in the world. In recent years, a few leagues such as the AHL, DEL, and AHL have jumped it, but it's still a hotbed for great level hockey.
You will find a number of imports in Slovak Extraliga with AHL to NHL experience prior to their arrival on ice in Slovakia.
Slovakia2 is a feeder league to Extraliga, but the level of the top clubs here is still of decent quality.
The top hockey league in Poland is the Polish Hockey League.
Following the PHL, you have 1Liga, which is also referred to as Poland2.
The level of ice hockey in Poland has improved greatly over the past decade. This is partly due to development of the sport as a nation & partly due to the talent of import players that choose to play in the PHL.
A number of strong imports have played in the Polish Hockey League over the years, ranging from skilled NCAA and USports graduates to experienced pros from across Europe (Czechs, Slovaks, Finns).
Although the Poles haven't put up great numbers in Champions Hockey League play over the past few seasons, both GKS Tychy and Comarch Cracovia have proven on a number of occasions that they can compete quite closely with some of the premier clubs in the DEL & EBEL (Munchen, Vienna Capitals, etc).
The hockey fans across Poland are quite passionate too, drawing thousands per match.
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The highest level hockey league here is called Erste Liga (formerly MOL Liga).
Although Hungary is lesser known for hockey, the quality of hockey is still quite good in regards to the talent imports bring to the league.
A handful of clubs in the league are based in Hungary while a few others are located in Romania.
Clubs expect you to have a decent hockey resume if they're going to show interest in you here. Either good points in university or the minors. If an import is from Europe, you'll be expected to be a top contributor on the club.
The highest level hockey league in Austria is ICEHL (formerly called EBEL).
Following ICEHL, the next level are the several Austrian clubs that play in the Alps Hockey League.
If you're going to be an import player in Austria, you better bring high-end production with a strong hockey CV. Former NHLer's all the way to top level minor leaguers from N. America are the level of import that's expected from Austrian clubs.
The combined main league in the south of Europe is called Alps Hockey League. The league is composed of clubs from three countries- Italy, Slovenia, and Austria.
Following this in Italy, you also have Italy Hockey League Serie A which features hockey clubs across Italy from north to south. This is followed by Italian Hockey League (referred to as Italy2).
In Slovenia, you have the main Slovenia Hockey League followed by the International Hockey League (IntHL).
Import cap rules are strict here (especially in Italy) so teams don't take chances on imports without a proven track record.
A big draw to playing in this region is the environment away from the arena with the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea.
For many import players looking to play ice hockey in Europe, location is an important factor to consider...
The premier ice hockey league in Switzerland is called the National League (known to many as NLA).
Following the National League, the second tier is called Swiss League (known to most as NLB).
After the NHL, it's known that the NLA is one of the top hockey leagues in the world alongside the KHL and SHL.
Over the past few seasons, NLA clubs have won against NHL clubs in preseason friendlies (ex: Lausanne vs Flyers).
Fun fact: SC Bern which is one of the most well known clubs in the country regularly tops the list of highest European fan attendance per game (16,000+).
To be a N American import in the National League, you either need NHL or top percentile AHL experience to be considered.
One of the most notable young imports to play in the Swiss National League was a young 18 year old Auston Matthews (ZSC Lions) before he played in the NHL.
The top ice hockey league in France is called Ligue Magnus.
Following Ligue Magnus, you have what is called France Division 1 (commonly referred to as France2).
After France2, you have France Division 2 (commonly referred to as France3).
Lastly, you have France Division 3 hockey (France4).
Ligue Magnus may not be as well known as the other premier leagues for ice hockey in Europe are, but don’t let that lead you to believe that the level of hockey is not high here.
You will find N. American minor leaguers, NCAA/USports graduates, and Eastern Europeans scattered across the top 3 leagues as imports in France depending on their experience.
Many French clubs enjoy bringing over French Canadian players as imports due to their native language (French). You’ll also find a number of imports from Eastern Europe in the lower divisions since the opportunities off the ice may exceed those in their home country.
The fans are passionate in France (as they are in many parts of Europe). It’s not uncommon for fans to stand for entire matches similar to how they would for a football match.
As it is with most European pro hockey leagues, clubs in France shift around a bit each year based on promotion/relegation and team budget requirements. Therefore, you may see a club in Ligue Magnus one year and 1-2 years later, they’re down in France2 or France3 (or vice-versa).
The highest level of hockey in the Netherlands and Belgium is called BeNeLiga. Also referred to as BeNeLeague, the league is composed of the top clubs in Holland and Belgium.
Following Beneleague, you have both Netherlands2 and Belgium2 as the lower leagues in each country.
BeNeLiga has a strict cap of two import players per club so the level of player clubs expect is higher.
Clubs here expect their import players to contribute heavily based on their position since there can only be two rostered imports per team.
If you look at past imports in the league over the past several seasons, you’ll see that most have sound hockey resumes. Many hail from NCAA, USports, ECHL, and a few from the SPHL.
A number of the top clubs in the league (Heerenveen, Den Haag, Liege) regularly draw thousands of fans per match in their arenas.
The top ice hockey league in Latvia is called the Latvia Hockey Higher League (or the Optibet Hokeja Liga).
Following the top league, you have Latvia2 which is primarily a development league for younger players.
Optibet Hockey League is a smaller league with the majority of clubs based in close proximity to Riga (the nation's capital city). To the far West, you have HK Leipaja. To the far East closer to Russia, you have HK Dinaburga.
Latvian clubs here don’t recruit as many imports due to the mixture of quality local players and modest budgets, but the level of play is quality. You can find a few players on most Latvian league rosters who have games played previously in the top leagues such as KHL, Liiga, Allsvenskan.
The main hockey league in Spain is called Liga Nacional de Hockey Hielo (also known as the Spanish League).
There are currently only a handful of clubs in the league. Although Spain is not thought of as a hockey hotbed, it offers the few imports that do play in the league a great experience off the ice in a beautifully warm climate such as Spain.
The main ice hockey league in Estonia goes by Meistriliiga.
The majority of import players in the top Estonian hockey league hail from Russia, Kazakhstan, or the Baltics.
The highest level of ice hockey in Ukraine is called the Ukranian Hockey League.
Much like Latvia, you will find a couple players on many rosters with some previous KHL experience.
Clubs in Ukraine don’t often bring over import players from North America. The majority of imports in Ukraine came from Russia.
Lithuania Hockey League is the premier league in the country.
All the clubs within the league are located around Vilnius (nation’s capital) and Kaunas.
Fun Fact: Darius Kasparaitis is the most well known Lithuanian to make it to the NHL, having been a physical force on the ice throughout the 1990’s into the 2000’s. He continued playing on occasion after his NHL days for Hockey Punks in the Lithuania Hockey League.
Now that we've exhaustedly covered the various leagues for ice hockey in Europe, it’s important as a player to remember that clubs in the EU rely heavily on your game stats when they’re making decisions about import players.
If you don’t have the strongest stats (maybe due to an injury, a weak team), you need an in and an opportunity to be given a chance to prove you can play pro ice hockey in Europe. Then once you have some initial games played overseas, even if it’s in a mid-to-lower league, you’ll then be able to work your way up based on your play on ice.
If you already possess a strong hockey resume either in N America or Europe, you’ll have a bit more optionality regarding leagues depending on where you’d like to play next.
Having helped players sign with clubs across the majority of the hockey countries above in Europe, we know what clubs expect when looking for an import.
If you’d like to continue your journey playing pro ice hockey in Europe, send us a message.