Hockeynomics: A model to determine which hockey country will capture world supremacy

As the World U20 Championships continue in Sweden this week, and countries prepare for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia next month, the claim for world hockey dominance remains a much coveted title.

In 2009, noted soccer journalist Simon Kuper and English economist Stefan Szymanski released Soccernomics, a book exploring various aspects of soccer through economics reasoning.  One of the most compelling chapters in the book tackles the determinants of a successful soccer nation.  Through a series of well researched and keen observations, the authors demonstrate that the key factors that determine a country’s success at the World Cup and other competitions are its wealth (measured by the country’s gross domestic product), its population and its experience with the sport.  These factors have enabled such nations such as Brazil, Germany and Italy in the past to capture the most World Cups, and have allowed other Western European nations to dominate the sport over recent years.  However, as world economies and populations have shifted since the 1950s, the authors boldly assert that these factors will enable the United States, Japan, China and Australia to be the most successful soccer nations over the course of subsequent generations.  Whether this proves to be true is a matter of debate, as none of these countries have made a tangible impact on the world stage over the last decade.  Yet, the arguments are compelling, and challenge what we know about sport.

If these principles outlined by Kuper and Szymanski are applied to international hockey, a similar course can be charted.  Unlike international soccer however, the number of countries participating at the top level of the sport is small.  Furthermore, fewer “best-on-best” international matches are played.  However, using the Soccernomics model, let’s examine the currently perceived top hockey countries in the world, and reason which teams will dominate the sport in the years, and generations to come.

  1. Principle One: All things being equal, a larger population enables a country to have a bigger pool of players to select from.  Countries with larger populations are more likely to find elite, “one in a million” type players.

Here are the top hockey countries and their overall populations (Source)

Population by country

Not surprisingly, the number of hockey players around the world do not follow this distribution.

Here are the top countries that produce the most hockey players in 2012-13.  As we are referring to the future of hockey, we will make mention only of players in each country under the age of 20. (Data is taken from the annual  IIHF Survey of Players).  NOTE: The data is not easy to find.  The IIHF does not keep an archive of these figures on their website for public use.  I have the 2009 data to use as comparision.

figure 2

Number of Registered Junior Players (2009 and 2013) per Country

Though the comparison in the changes in percentage only covers four years, it is interesting to note the dramatic increase in junior hockey registration in Canada (37%), despite news stories suggesting otherwise.  (In fact, while researching this article, it became clear that the article credited to QMI, and perpetuated in newspapers across Canada was incorrect.  The number of players in Canada grew between 2012 to 2013, according to the IIHF data, published in it’s annual reports).  In contrast, there is a disturbing trend towards a decrease of youth hockey participation in the Czech Republic.  Many of the reasons are cited in this article I wrote for this blog back in October.  They are the only country in the last four years to see their numbers drop.  Another interesting feature is that that Russia, despite having nearly five times the population of Canada has nearly seven times less junior hockey players than Canada.

    2.  Principle Two: If all things were equal, countries with a higher GDP will have more income to invest towards a youth hockey development infrastructure, including coaching, facilities, equipment and training.

Figure 3

Since a GDP of a nation coincides with the population of the country, perhaps the GDP per capita is a better marker of the wealth of a nation, and its available resources to devote to luxury pursuits such as ice hockey for the country’s children.

figure 4

Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries of the former Eastern bloc have lower GDP per capita, resulting from the change to market economies since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the lack of natural resources.  As hockey is an expensive game to play, in terms of procuring ice time and actual equipment, countries like Czech Republic, Slovakia and Russia will suffer.  As consequence of lower GDP per capita, families will have limited disposable income, and will be less likely to enroll their children in hockey, compared to other sports.  Governments will be less likely to build facilities. Meanwhile, in the countries with relative wealth (Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, the United States, Finland and Germany), governments and individuals can reasonably fund the pursuit of ice hockey.

3.       Principle Three: All things being equal, countries with more hockey experience will be more successful than those with less experience. 

The term experience is somewhat more difficult to define in the international hockey context.  Kuper and Szymanski define experience in soccer as the number of games the national team has played over a period of time.  Yet, this is difficult to use in international hockey, since the number of best on best competitions is few and infrequent, especially in the Bettman era NHL.  World Championships data is difficult to use because of the variability in the rosters, in that some years, the team representing the country is not a true representation of the country’s talent.  This is the case with Canada and the United States in most years.  So what does experience mean in this equation?

This was a difficult question to answer.  Arguably, the best correlate would be strength of domestic league.  It is universally accepted that the NHL is the best hockey league in the world, and that the KHL is likely the second best league.  Being a strong league not only allows the players to face the best competition to prove themselves, and thereby increases their chances of being named to their national teams.  Additionally, it also allows the development of a fan culture, enabling communities to be engaged to the sport, and providing inspiration to young players for something to aspire towards in the sport.  Clearly, common sense would suggest that countries that care more about the sport would have an advantage over other countries that do not care as much.

As such, Canada, USA and Russia would likely be given more points for experience compared to the other European countries (although, the KHL has been encroaching on those European countries in recent years, with big clubs in major cities such as Prague, Bratislava, and next year, Helsinki).  Gabriel Desjardins several years ago attempted to compare leagues, based on players performance in the NHL born between 1960 and 1980.  The European hockey landscape has changed substantially over the last decade with the creation of the KHL and its continued growth, and it would be interesting to chart a new coefficient now.

So what does this all mean:

–  An astute economist can likely refine this argument, through a series of regression analysis.  As I am not an economist, I will defer from that in this article, but would invite the keen reader to pursue this and comment if interested

– Given that Canada does favourably in regards to population + GDP + experience in this model, its position as the world’s top hockey nation likely will not suffer in the years to come.  The country still produces the most junior hockey players in the world, already devotes a significant amount of money towards developing the game’s infrastructure at the grassroots level, and plays host to the best league in the world, ensuring that communities are captivated by the game, inspiring the next generation of players to pursue the sport, and keeping the game alive and healthy.

– The United States also is well positioned in the years to come to compete with Canada.  The number of number of youth players has been increasing in recent years, and the contributions and maturation of NHL teams in the sunbelt towards grassroots hockey, will ensure that there will be a large number of players playing.  In particular, the California teams, Nashville and Dallas have been lauded in recent years for contributing to the growth of hockey in otherwise hockey barren areas.  Compared to other hockey countries, USA Hockey is blessed with money, and programs like the US National Team Development Program and the creation of the USHL has ensured that a strong infrastructure is present.

– Sweden, who once had significant questions aimed at its hockey development program in the early 2000s, continues to have several factors that will ensure its strength in the years to come.  Sweden has a large and rising number of junior players relative to its population, the country has the financial resources to fund hockey infrastructure, and the Elitserien continues to be a strong domestic league.  Though the league lacks the major stars of the NHL and the KHL, the league has been praised for being an excellent developmental league for young Scandinavian players, who have had tremendous impact in the NHL over the last decade

– Finland seems to have similar upward trends as Sweden, but will likely be behind their neighbours, given the smaller population and smaller GDP per capita.  Yet, Finland appears to be better equipped in the years ahead compared to other hockey countries.

–  Russia will be the wild card of this model.  The relative small number of junior players despite a large population is worrisome, and the difficult economic situation for the average Russian citizen may make hockey more difficult to enter.  Yet, the KHL is a strong league on the ice fielding many top class players, and the clubs are attempting to become big brands which represent the ideals of their community.  In coming years, it will be interesting to see whether the rich industrial owners of many of these KHL clubs will invest towards the grassroots game, ensuring that a hockey infrastructure exists for those in coming generations.

– Switzerland has the wealth to devote towards hockey infrastructure, and their top domestic league continues to improve.  This year (2013-14), there are a total of seven Swiss players in the NHL, many of which are young, impactful players.  The results on the international level have improved dramatically in recent years, as the Swiss finished fourth in the 2010 World U20 Tournament, and second at the 2013 IIHF World Championships.  However,  Switzerland has a relatively small population, and the clubs within the country’s domestic league likely do not inspire their communities to the extent that they do in the NHL, KHL, and in European countries where hockey is more rooted

– The Czech Republic and Slovakia have quite concerning trends.  Both countries have small populations, and the relative wealth of the countries pale in comparison to the others in this group.  Despite some improving results at recent World Juniors and World Championships, the quality of player developed in these countries simply cannot compare to the quality developed in previous generations.  Overall, a difficult prognosis is projected for these two countries in the years to come.

This model thus suggests that the future of hockey will be dominated by North American teams, in Canada and the United States.  Is the model perfect?  Certainly, it cannot be.  The definition of “success” in international hockey is very loose, as fans from either side of the Atlantic Ocean value different competitions differently.  North Americans would value a World Cup more than the World Championships for instance, since it enables the NHL’s best players to participate.  Meanwhile, Europeans quite rightfully believe that the World Cups are titled in favour of the North American  teams.  Also, because “best-on-best” competitions occur infrequently, and are short tournaments, this model can easily be broken.  Tournaments can be decided by relatively freak performances which eliminate a team in a one-game elimination (see Sweden in 2002 v. Belarus in the Olympic Quarterfinal).  Additionally, we should not discount that even against all odds, some countries can develop elite talent.  Slovenia for instance has developed Anze Kopitar, the type of player that can have incredible influence on the result of a single hockey game.

As with global markets, trends in hockey power will likely change in the years to come.  The Russians no longer carry the same aura of invisibility as the old Soviet teams from the 1960s-1980s carried, and likewise the Czechs are no longer feared as they were in the early 2000s.  The Americans, who were a laughingstock underdog at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid and who only won one silver medal and two bronze medals at the World Juniors before 1998, have since captured three golds (2004, 2010, 2013) at the U20, and are a medal contender in every tournament.  No one model will be able to predict the future of hockey dominance, but this model is one that can help explain to us why some countries should be worried about their hockey futures, and why others should take every advantage to claim it.

– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada

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One response to “Hockeynomics: A model to determine which hockey country will capture world supremacy

  1. Pingback: Weekly Links: A “Hockeynomics” for predicting success in international hockey; World Juniors reaction and Sochi Olympics news; Landeskog joins You Can Play; and more | Hockey in Society·

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