The landscape of hockey around the world is rapidly changing. With the reemergence of the World Cup of Hockey, the NHL’s decision not to attend the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, and growing countries all around the world, international hockey has never been more interesting.
Hockey Around the World: A Look at the Rising IIHF Nations Across the Globe
Although we pay the most attention to the Elite Division of the World Championships, there are some intriguing nations on the rise in the lower divisions.
South Korea’s ascent to the Elite Division has been sudden and swift. As low as the third tier just seven years ago, South Korea has brought their hockey program to life, just in time to host the 2018 Olympics.
Ranked 33rd following the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, South Korea has fought their way to reach the top flight. After gaining promotion this year, South Korea will enter their first World Championship ranked 21st, the highest the country has ever been.
A quick glance at South Korea’s roster shows hometowns of Clinton, Brandon, Ajax, Ennismore, and Peterborough, definitely not cities in East Asia.
At the 2017 Division IA World Championships, the Canadian imports played a major role in securing the nation’s first promotion to the Elite Division. Alex Plante was named to the Media All-Star team, Matt Dalton started all five games, and Michael Swift recorded four points in five games.
Although the Canadian-Koreans have been important pieces, the program has done a great job at developing their own talent.
With three teams in Asia League Ice Hockey (ALIH), South Korea has been able to keep their players at home to develop. Supported by the imports, the South Koreans have built a solid base of players from which to grow.
In seven short years, the South Koreans have turned their program around. Although the successes in 2017 have been fantastic, 2018 is the year to prove it. With opportunities to upset in the Olympics and the World Championships, 2018 will be a huge year for the South Korean program.
While the South Korean rise to the top flight has been quick, the Hungarian rise has been much slower.
After years of playing in Division IA, Hungary has finally found their footing. The Hungarians broke through to the Elite Division for the first time since 1939 in 2009, but did not record a point and went directly back down.
Since then, Hungary has slowly progressed in Division IA. For six years they were unable to fight back into the top flight, finishing one spot out of promotion four times.
In 2015, the Hungarians finally made it back. Defeating Poland, Japan, Italy and Ukraine, their lone defeat came at the hands of Kazakhstan.
The following year, led by 23-year old Adam Vay in goal, the Magyars won their first World Championship game in 77 years. Hungary defeated Belarus 5-2 in their second last game of the group stage.
Their one victory was not enough, and the Hungarians went back down. Vay’s stellar performance caught the attention of many, becoming the first Hungarian to sign an NHL contract when the Minnesota Wild came calling.
Vay debuted in the ECHL in his first professional season in North America. He was not overly impressive, with a 3.03 GAA and a .900 SV%. Vay just playing in North America is a success for the Hungarian team, who will be looking to send their first player to the NHL in the coming years.
Due to Vay’s participation in the ECHL, he was not available for the 2017 Division IA World Championships. Although Hungary won the opener versus Ukraine, the Hungarians fell in two-goal games against South Korea, Poland, Austria, and Kazakhstan. Resulting in a disappointing fifth place finish, the standings do not tell the whole story for the tough Hungary team.
It’s been 78 years since Hungary has made back to back World Championships, but with a young roster and developing players around the world, they are in a good position for future success.
Once a hockey giant at the start of the 20th Century, Great Britain has fallen out of the picture over the past 70 years.
In the early 1900s, Canadians with dual citizenship would suit up for the British national team. With these players at their disposal, Great Britain won Olympic bronze in 1924 and gold in 1936. They also had success in the World Championships, winning bronze in 1935 and silver in 1937 and 1938.
As the years went on, Canada became more and more independent from the British. Those players who would play for Great Britain started to play for their new home. Obviously, the British national team suffered.
Since 1951, Great Britain has qualified for the World Championships just twice, in 1962 and 1994. The Brits have toiled in the second and third tiers, sporadically making big strides towards the top flight.
Formed in 2003, the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) has helped push Great Britain forward. Comprising of teams from England, Wales, and Scotland, the league has been much more successful than its predecessor, the Ice Hockey Superleague.
The EIHL has brought an interest in hockey back to Great Britain. In fact, there have been rumors of a London expansion team in the KHL, though they have not materialized.
In recent years, Great Britain has continued to ride the waves of ups and downs. Ranked as low as 31 in 2006, the British have climbed to be ranked 24 in 2017.
Great Britain has spent the past four years stuck in the third tier, unable to break back through to Division IA. In 2015 and 2016, the Brits finished just one spot out of promotion.
This year, in the 2017 Division IB tournament, it all came down to the final day. Japan and Great Britain were tied in points at the top of the standings in the final game of the competition.
The British shutout the Japanese 4-0 to gain promotion for the first time since 2011.
Great Britain has an aging team, but some exciting young prospects on the way. 18-year old Samuel Duggan made his debut with the national team in 2017, as did 22-year old Liam Stewart. Their starting goaltender, Ben Bowns, is just 26, and 23-year old defenceman Paul Swindlehurst has four World Championships under his belt.
Great Britain will be in tough in the 2018 Division IA World Championships. Up against Kazakhstan, Poland, Hungary and two other nations from the Elite Division, the British have not seen this level of competition in many years.
The British are on their way back to the top flight. The EIHL is an important league that will continue to be vital to British development. A KHL team in London is likely the ultimate goal, but that will stay on the backburner for now.
One of the last places you expect to find a hockey nation would be the outback. Despite the lack of ice across the country, Australia has built their way towards success in ice hockey.
Australia has been on a rocky course over the past few years. Playing in the third, fourth, and even fifth tiers, Australia has been searching for consistency.
Relegated to Division IIA in 2012, the Mighty Roos struggled over the next few years. A pair of fourth-place finishes were followed up with relegation to the fifth tier.
In the 2016 Division IIB World Championships, against countries such as Mexico, Israel, and North Korea, Australia went undefeated.
This year, Australia nearly gained back-to-back promotions. The Aussies were very strong in Division IIA, losing just one game. They fell two points short of promotion, as Romania went back up to the third tier.
The Australian Ice Hockey League, established in 2000, has been the home for most of the national team. Highlights are aired on Fox Sports Australia, and the eight-team league has attracted players from North America and Europe.
With a growing league and a progressing national team, the most interesting part of Australian ice hockey surprisingly comes from Pennsylvania.
Drafted 89th overall in 2014, Nathan Walker is the ultimate underdog story. Born in Cardiff, Wales, Walker moved to Australia at a young age. He picked up the game of hockey at six, in which he excelled. TO further his development, he moved to the Czech Republic at 13 to join the HC Vitkovice system. Walker is also undersized, at just 5’8″ and 176 pounds.
Walker was passed over in two NHL Entry Drafts. He was finally taken by the Washington Capitals in 2014, becoming the first Australian to be drafted in the NHL.
Now 23, playing for the Hershey Bears, Nathan Walker is knocking on the door of the NHL. At 22, he recorded 17 goals and 41 points.
If Walker can play in the NHL, it would be a major milestone for international hockey. The lone problem lies in the World Championship format. Walker is unable to play for Australia, as their games take place in April. As a result, he hasn’t played for the Aussies since 2013.
Hockey Around the World
Of course, these are just four examples of growing nations in hockey. All around the world, countries are progressing and developing. In the coming years and decades, we will undoubtedly see NHL players from plenty of unlikely destinations.