Here’s a question. Based on the changing numbers of NHL players and the growing population of Canada when did Canada have the highest percentage of its population in the National Hockey League during the modern era? Was it pre-expansion when there were only the ‘original’ 6 NHL teams, or later when there were many more teams in the NHL?
It’s a complicated question, considering factors such as the changing population of Canada and the number of players from countries other than Canada that have made the contemporary NHL a truly international mix. I’ve calculated the numbers based on players who have played at least one game in the league in the given year I’m referring to.
The 50’s & 60’s
Close to 100% of the players in the NHL had Canadian roots in the 1950s and 1960s. However, although the number of NHL playing positions increased dramatically through continuous expansion, the growing presence of Americans and European players on NHL rosters has diminished the odds for Canadian players. For instance, during the 2022-23 NHL season, there were 395 Canadian-born players, constituting 42.5% of all players in the league.
American and European Numbers on the Rise – the 2022-23 NHL season
Crunching the Numbers
How do we answer the question? Let’s start with Canada’s population, which now stands at over 40 million people – more than double our number in 1960.
We can compare that against the number of Canadians in the league. With stats from Quanthockey.com, we can see in the graph below, the high point was the 1990-1991 season.
Although in 1961, there Canadians held 95% of all positions, there were only 157 players who played at least one game that season.
Therefore, the percentage of 177 to 20,055,232 is approximately 0.000883% or 8 out of a million
It’s the 90’s
Our graph below shows the odds for a Canadian Hockey Player of making it to the NHL were best in the early 1990’s, years when Wayne Gretzky was still the NHL’s dominant player.
Because of expansion 736 players laced up for the NHL that 1990-91 season. 544 were Canadians and that is 76% of the players in the league.
Therefore, the percentage of 544 players to a population of 28,015,761 is approximately 0.0019% (19 in a million). Despite an increase in population, Canadians still had more than double the odds of making it to the NHL compared to 1960.
Interestingly, the highest percentage of Canadians drafted in the first round wasn’t during a specific year but over a four-year span: 1993-1996, where Canadians averaged 71.3% of first-round picks.
That was the peak and it happened just before a sudden influx of Europeans and Russians around the 2000 mark. Since the mid-nineties the number of Americans and International players entering the league have steadily diminished the odds for Canadians.