As a winter sport, ice hockey has defied all odds to become one of the most popular and richest among the professional sports leagues around the world.
Despite a relatively limited fanbase because of the seasonal nature of its playing field, ice hockey is in the elite company of Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) in terms of unimpeded growth, commercial viability, and future.
A study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business has revealed that National Hockey League (NHL) fans in North America are the most educated and affluent among all the four major leagues in the United States and Canada, outpacing even the rich crowd following the PGATour.
Ice hockey is the top sport in Canada, the birthplace of organized hockey competitions, where it outranks MLB, NFL, and NBA in popularity and fan support. This attraction translates into higher gate receipts, more advertising revenues, and more lucrative merchandising and commercial rights for NHL, at least in the Great White North.
NHL’s largest demographic fan base consists of males aged 18 to 34, so organizers have shifted to digital technology to reach this computer-savvy market and promote game-related activities. including sports betting. Seen on https://www.oddsshark.com/nhl/computer-picks, for example, is a good illustration to how real-time online insights are used to promote the sport and sports betting on the side.
The NHL was launched in Montreal on November 26, 1917, to take over the operations of the National Hockey Association (NHA), its predecessor, which had been organized in Ontario in 1909. It assumed NHA’s place as one of the leagues that competed for the Stanley Cup.
After a series of disbandment and league mergers, the NHL was left as the only remaining league competing for the Stanley Cup in 1926.
As NHL, the league had only four Canadian teams until 1924, when US-based Boston Bruins joined the league. From 1942 to 1967, the league operated with only six teams, which were collectively called the “Original Six” – Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
More teams have been added since then, with the league expanding its membership to 18 teams by 1974, and five more added five years later. Today, the NHL plays with 32 teams.
On the international scene, ice hockey is played in many countries across the northern and western hemispheres with icy cold winter seasons, including Finland, Russia, Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, and Latvia.
Ice hockey became an Olympic event during the 1920 Summer Olympics hosted by Belgium before it permanently moved to the Winter Olympics in 1924, where it has become a regular event to this day.
But of course, just like in any other event in the Olympics, ice hockey playing nations have to undergo a qualifying process to get into the Winter Games. Thus, only a select number of countries see action in the Olympics, with many players competing in the NHL and playing for their respective countries in the prestigious quadrennial games.
While the popularity of ice hockey in Canada, the United States, and many countries in Europe is continually on the rise, it hasn’t gained ground in Asia and many tropical countries across the globe. So far, only wintry countries from North America and Europe have won Olympic medals in ice hockey.
In the Philippines, for example, the sport is played on artificial ice rinks in giant malls, where costs are prohibitive and thus adoption rate is low.
Other tropical countries in Asia, such as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, are facing similar challenges. Thus they are unable to develop a stronger core to develop young players and prepare them for high-level competitions.
On a positive note, three Asian countries with winter seasons are slowly developing a credible ice hockey program by collaborating with each other to form a league known as the Asia League Ice Hockey. They have also invited teams from Russia and allowed the use of imports, including those with playing experience from the NHL, to increase the league’s competitive level.
As former hosts of three Winter Olympic editions, Japan and unified Korea have helped raise higher public awareness and appreciation for the game and increase adoption rate. The Chinese are certainly on the same page when it won the bid to the Winter Games next year.
The NHL is not without its share of players with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino ancestries. Among them are Nick Suzuki (Japanese), Kailer Yamamoto (Japanese), Jason Richardson (Filipino), Mathew Dumba (Filipino), Jett Woo (Chinese), Austin Wong (Chinese), and Richard Park (Korean).
Just like football and basketball, the sport of ice hockey is slowly, but surely, finding its place in the hearts of many people around the world.