The 13 Best Hockey Leagues in the World

an ice hockey game with fans waving flags and celebrating while the players line up for a face off

Since the invention of ice hockey in the late 1800s, it has spread like wildfire across the Atlantic Ocean and into Europe. It has evolved beyond being just a sport and has become a universal language that unites people across geographical and cultural differences; it’s easy to see why hockey is the best sport in the world. This journey takes us through North America’s thundering arenas and Europe’s bustling rinks. Together, they form a global hockey community with the puck at its heart and ice as its soul. This article will look at the best hockey leagues in the world.

Hockey is the most diverse team sport in North America when it comes to which countries its players come from. Just look at international competitions such as the Olympics; sure, Canada is by far the best hockey nation, but five or six countries are legitimate contenders for the gold medal. The numbers don’t lie; over the last 20-30 years, the number of European players in the NHL (especially from Sweden) has dramatically increased; no longer is more than half the league Canadian.

The Best Hockey Leagues in the World

Every league significantly shapes the hockey landscape, from well-established professional leagues to developmental counterparts. Whether it’s the glamour of the NHL, the thriving nurturing environment of the CHL, the harmonious blend of academics and athletics in the NCAA, or the unique allure of European leagues, each league holds a vital role in the broader narrative of hockey.

As we embark on this exploration of the finest hockey leagues worldwide, bear in mind that each league, team, and player constitutes a piece of a grander puzzle. Together, they exemplify the intricate facets of global hockey—a sport rooted in skill and strategy, passion and determination, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.

National Hockey League – NHL

Dustin Brown of the LA Kings hockey team raising the Stanley Cup over his head

Let’s just get this one out of the way; by far and away, the best hockey league in the world is the National Hockey League, the NHL; there isn’t a close second. Raising the Stanley Cup is a childhood dream of young hockey players all over the Globe. From its rich history to all the young up-and-coming hockey stars, the NHL is the pinnacle of the ice hockey world.

The NHL showcases a remarkable blend of talent, skill, and toughness. From the dazzling stick handling, the intensity of playoff hockey, bone-crushing body checks, and legendary fighters, the NHL has it all!

Best Developmental Hockey Leagues

Developmental hockey leagues serve as vital incubators for young talent, nurturing their skills, honing their experiences, and fostering the mental resilience required to thrive in the demanding world of the National Hockey League. These leagues provide invaluable training grounds where the stars of tomorrow are groomed.

Throughout Europe, it is customary for elite young players, even younger than 18, to compete in professional leagues before transitioning to the NHL. Stars like Nicklas Lidstrom, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, and countless others graced the European pro scene in their youth; it’s literally men against boys. Conversely, in North America, the traditional path to the NHL often weaves through junior hockey leagues like the CHL or college hockey, where aspiring players forge their way forward.

What is the CHL? Canadian Hockey League

an ice hockeu player shooting the puck wearing a white jersey

In Canada, the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) is the world’s highest echelon of junior hockey. The CHL is an umbrella for three separate junior hockey leagues; the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the Western Hockey League (WHL), and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). 

The CHL is a launchpad for young players eager to cut their teeth in the hockey world. The league is a showcase of potential, where raw talent is molded into refined skill, and where players learn to balance the physical and mental aspects of the game. It’s where NHL dreams take flight, where today’s juniors become tomorrow’s professionals.

Some teams play in small towns, but the diehard fans still pack the barns (a slang word for stadium). The CHL plays an instrumental role in promoting hockey at the grassroots level, contributing to the sport’s growth and popularity.

Ontario Hockey League – OHL

If you judge the best developmental hockey league by top NHL draft picks, then the Ontario Hockey League is hands down the winner. With a history dating back to 1933, the OHL has been home to numerous players who became legends in the NHL. Such as the Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane, Bobby Orr, Steve Yzerman,  and some guy named Wayne Gretzky.

The “O,” as it’s known, features 20 teams, mainly in Ontario and three in the US. The league’s commitment to player development, both on and off the ice, is a testament to its integral role in shaping the future of hockey. From providing a competitive platform for young athletes to fostering personal growth through education programs, the OHL embodies the sport’s broader purpose, shaping not just good players, but good people.

The OHL’s commitment to community, excellence, and personal development makes it a standout in junior hockey. Community outreach and engagement is another cornerstone of the OHL. Its teams are deeply intertwined with their local communities, participating in various charitable initiatives, outreach programs, and fan engagement activities. This close-knit connection with fans fosters a strong sense of community and ensures the OHL remains a cherished part of the hockey landscape in the western regions of North America.

Western Hockey League – WHL

The Western Hockey League (WHL), another key constituent of the CHL, boasts a vibrant mix of 22 teams from Western Canada and the Northwestern United States. The Western (as it’s often referred to) is dedicated to providing its players with a top-notch education while also nurturing their athletic growth. This dual focus helps athletes prepare for life beyond ice hockey, underscoring the league’s dedication to holistic player development. 

The WHL is revered for its highly competitive games, marked by speed, intensity, and technical precision. It provides a challenging platform for its young players, with the league brimming with talent aiming to make a name for themselves. Its reputation as a pipeline to the NHL is well-earned, with numerous WHL alums achieving star status in the NHL. Names like Joe Sakic, hall of fame defensemen Scott Niedermayer, Bob Clarke of the infamous Broadstreet Bullies, and Carey Price honed their WHL skills before achieving superstar status.

Quebec Major Junior Hockey League – QMJHL

Comprising 18 teams from across Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, the QMJHL is an exciting mix of cultural diversity, fast-paced action, and impressive talent. Known for its highly offensive style of play resulting in exciting, high-scoring games, the QMJHL offers a distinct flavor of ice hockey deeply rooted in the cultural fabric of these regions.

Many QMJHL alums have gone on to become NHL stars, such as Sidney Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, and Mario Lemieux, showcasing the league’s ability to nurture world-class talent. Player development extends far beyond the rink; as with the other two CHL leagues, the “Q” heavily emphasizes education and community outreach.

The QMJHL has the hockey world in an uproar when the league voted to ban fighting in 2023. Some call it soft, while others favor letting skill and talent prevail over toughness; what’s next, will they outlaw bodychecks?

NCAA – American College Hockey

a michigan ice hockey player holding his hockey stick wearing a blue jersey

The NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has emerged as a thriving developmental league for aspiring NHL players. College ice hockey in the United States has an extensive history, dating back to 1893 when Yale University and Johns Hopkins clashed in the inaugural college ice hockey game. But until recently, it produced very few NHL players; most elite-level prospects played major junior hockey in the CHL. 

Over the last few decades, the skill level in NCAA has significantly increased to levels never seen before. A remarkable testament to this rise was witnessed in the 2020 NHL draft, where four of the first five picks came from the powerhouse University of Michigan.

The NCAA serves as a crucial stepping-stone for aspiring professional hockey players. The league has produced many players who’ve transitioned into the NHL and other professional leagues. Some of the distinguished graduates from the NCAA are Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, and Jack Eichel. They all showed exceptional skills in college hockey before achieving success in the NHL.

The atmosphere at NCAA ice hockey games is electric, often characterized by intense rivalries, passionate fans, and a strong sense of school spirit. This unique combination of high-stakes competition, academic enrichment, and a lively atmosphere ensures that NCAA hockey remains a significant part of the American hockey scene.


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American Hockey League – AHL

The American Hockey League, or AHL, is the second-best professional ice hockey league in North America. Functioning as the minor league or farm system for the prestigious National Hockey League (NHL), the AHL plays a crucial role in providing a vital platform for aspiring players, coaches, and officials, aiming to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Jon Cooper of the Lightning got his start in the AHL.

There are 32 AHL teams, each affiliated with one of the 32 NHL teams; the AHL acts as a training ground for the major leagues. It offers a fiercely competitive environment where athletes can refine their skills, accumulate valuable experience, and exhibit their potential.

The AHL isn’t solely reserved for young prospects; it also attracts seasoned veterans who spend most of their careers in the league, fueled by the enduring hope of a long-cherished dream—a call-up to the National Hockey League.

One of the defining elements of the AHL experience lies in its deep-rooted connection with local communities. AHL teams are typically situated in smaller cities, fostering a close-knit relationship between the teams and the communities they represent. Fueled by passionate fan support and active community involvement, the vibrant atmosphere during games culminates in a unique and exhilarating experience at AHL games.

East Coast Hockey League – ECHL

The East Coast Hockey League, or ECHL, is a mid-level developmental league that is a step down from the AHL. Most players in the ECHL won’t play in the NHL, but it’s still a professional hockey league, so why not make some cash playing the game they love? There have been some notable ECHL alums to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup, such as Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings (twice) and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins; both are excellent goalies.

The ECHL was founded in 1988; there are 28 teams in the league scattered across the USA and Canada. The league has grown so much they should think about changing their name, with teams from Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City, Utah, that doesn’t really represent the east coast.

Like the AHL, most ECHL teams are in smaller cities that don’t have major professional sports teams, so there is a strong sense of community regarding these hockey teams. ECHL teams are known for their robust community engagement programs, where players and staff participate in local events and initiatives. This strong bond with the community creates a lively and passionate fanbase, making ECHL games an entertaining experience for spectators. Plus, there are lots of penalties and fighting in the ECHL compared to other leagues worldwide.

European Hockey Leagues

European ice hockey players battling for the puck in one of the best hockey leagues in the world

European ice hockey is slightly different than North American hockey. The most significant difference is that the rink is wider; it’s the same 200-foot length but 15 feet wider (100 feet wide instead of 85.) This larger ice surface provides more space and time for players, emphasizing accurate passing, strategic positioning, and creative plays. European hockey is more of a finesse game, while North American hockey is more physical.

The most noticeable difference is those crazy uniforms in European pro hockey leagues. They are covered with advertisements and look more like a Nascar than a hockey sweater, but you gotta pay the bills one way or another.

The culture of hockey in Europe is as diverse as the continent itself. The sport is deeply intertwined with national and regional identities, often reflecting the character of the countries it plays in. From the disciplined precision of Swedish hockey to the physical and aggressive style of Russian play, these cultural nuances shape the game in fascinating ways.

Kontinental Hockey League – KHL

a map of Russia with the KHL teams listed by location on the map
Photo Courtesy: Sports League Maps

The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) was established in 2008, swiftly earning its place as the premier hockey league in Europe. While the NHL undisputedly holds the top spot by a significant margin, the KHL has garnered considerable recognition and acclaim as the world’s second-best professional ice hockey league. Comprising 23 teams primarily based in Russia, the KHL has played a vital role in fostering an appreciation for ice hockey in China, which proudly hosts one of its teams, and other neighboring countries.

In terms of playing style, the KHL embraces a skill-centric game that emphasizes puck control, swift transitions, and strategic gameplay. Compared to North American rinks, the larger ice surface provides ample room for creative plays and places a premium on speed and technical prowess.

Noteworthy NHL stars have emerged from the KHL ranks, with players like Alexander Radulov, Evgeni Malkin, and Artemi Panarin beginning their careers in the KHL before venturing across the globe to showcase their exceptional skills in the NHL. The KHL also attracts former NHL veterans who, although past their prime, still have something left in the tank.

Swedish Hockey League – SHL

a hockey player from Sweeden wearing a yellow and blue jersey, Peter Forsberg skating, he was one of the best Swedish hockey players

The Swedish Hockey League, which used to be known as the Swedish Elite League, comes in as the second-best European professional hockey league behind the KHL. The quality of play is very high, with teams boasting a mix of talented domestic players and skilled international athletes. The SHL has been instrumental in launching the careers of several NHL stars, including legendary players such as Henrik Lundqvist, Peter Forsberg, and Nicklas Lidstrom, who all started their professional ice hockey journey in Sweden before earning Hall of Fame status in the NHL.

Swedish hockey is recognized for its emphasis on technique, puck possession, and structured play. The system values intelligence and creativity, fostering a playing style that is both disciplined and dynamic.

The fan culture is vibrant, with supporters passionately backing their teams through chants, songs, and colorful displays. This combination of on-ice talent, unique playing style, and community involvement makes the SHL a thrilling spectacle for ice hockey fans and a significant contributor to the global hockey scene.

SM-Liiga – Finland

SM-Liiga, officially known as The Liiga, is Finland’s premier professional ice hockey league. Boasting a storied history since its establishment in 1928, the Liiga has firmly established itself as a fertile ground for talent development and captivating high-level competition.

On the ice, the Liiga is renowned for its disciplined, team-oriented approach. Finnish hockey culture strongly emphasizes tactical understanding, which resonates in The Liiga’s distinctive style of play. Games often showcase well-executed defensive strategies, relentless forechecking, exceptional goaltending, and a collective mindset prioritizing intelligent teamwork over individual heroics.

Off the ice, the Liiga seamlessly intertwines with the fabric of Finnish society. Fan culture runs deep, with arenas frequently filled with dedicated supporters passionately singing, chanting, and cheering for their beloved teams. Moreover, the league’s teams actively engage with their local communities, forging a profound connection between players, clubs, and fans that transcends the game.

National League – NL Switzerland

Switzerland’s National League (NL) is on the rise; it has drastically improved the talent level over the last decade or so. The Swiss league is known for combining skillful play with a vibrant fan culture set in some of the most iconic mountain landscapes in the world. 

The Swiss style of play promotes puck movement, positional awareness, and a solid defensive structure. Players are encouraged to develop a comprehensive understanding of the game, making the NL a place where both physical and mental attributes are honed.

Czech Extraliga – ELH Czech Republic

Lastly, the Czech Extraliga (ELH) represents the apex of professional ice hockey in the Czech Republic. With a rich history and a solid developmental system, ELH has contributed many players to the NHL and international play. It’s a testament to the enduring influence and global reach of the sport we love.

The level of competition in the Czech Extraliga is substantial, with teams fielding both talented homegrown players and international athletes. The league has a proud history of producing players who have enjoyed successful NHL careers, including legendary names like Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek, and stars still in the NHL like David Pastrnak and Jakub Voracek.

One of the Czech teams is owned by the most prominent figure in all of Checzh hockey, Jaromir Jagr, who still laces up the skates, competes, and probably still dominates at the ripe old age of 51.

Final Thoughts of the Best Hockey Leagues in the World

Ice hockey is more than just a game; it’s a global language spoken in the dialects of passion, determination, and camaraderie. From the storied franchises of the NHL to the talent factories of the CHL, the academic-athletic blend of the NCAA, and the charm of the European leagues, hockey truly is the ultimate global sport.

It’s a global phenomenon that a whole town can rally behind; from the quaint fishing villages of Sweden and Nova Scotia to the bustling big-city life of Moscow, hockey transcends the ice rink and reaches into the community to share everyone’s love for this exhilarating sport.

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