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The National Hockey League (NHL, in the French-speaking part of Canada “Ligue nationale de hockey”, LNH) is a professional ice hockey league in North America that has existed since 1917. In the USA, the NHL is one of the four most popular leagues alongside the NFL, MLB and NBA, the so-called Big 4. In Canada, it is the most popular league.

Of a total of 31 teams, 7 are based in Canada and 24 in the USA. The winner’s trophy for the winner of the season, who is determined after the regular season in the play-offs according to the best-of-seven mode, is the Stanley Cup. The 2017/18 season’s title winner is the Washington Capitals team. The Stanley Cup 1892 was donated by Lord Stanley, then Governor General of Canada. The names of all participating players, coaches and managers of the winning team will be engraved on the cup. In addition, each player of the winning team may keep the trophy for one day. Originally, the Stanley Cup was a challenge cup played between the winners of several leagues. Since 1927, it has been awarded exclusively to the winner of the NHL.

The NHL is closely linked to the American Hockey League and the ECHL, so the teams of the NHL are linked to teams of these leagues as so-called farm teams. Many players who are selected by the NHL franchises in the NHL Entry Draft often play in the AHL first in order to gain playing practice and experience. The Entry Draft is the standard NHL event where clubs can secure the rights to young players. The purpose of this mechanism is to distribute young talent as evenly as possible among the teams.

Teams and structure of the NHL

When the NHL was founded in 1917, it was a regional league for the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Since that time, only the cities of Montreal and Toronto had a team in the league throughout. In the mid-1920s, the first US teams were added. Two locations, Boston and New York City, were directly on the east coast, the other two, Chicago and Detroit, on the Great Lakes near the Canadian border. Other locations in the United States, which before the time of the Original Six were usually home to an NHL team at short notice, were Philadelphia and Pittsburgh a little further south. The attempt to station a team further southwest in St. Louis caused major problems, not least because of the costly trips to away games, and failed after a short time.

The next advance was made at the end of the 1960s. Besides the return to the three former cities Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis and an expansion in the north along the Canadian border to Minnesota, two teams were placed for the first time at the west coast in Oakland and Los Angeles. In the following years, teams followed on the west coast of Canada in Vancouver, in the interior of the United States in Kansas City and in the southeast in Atlanta. At the same time, the former heartland was strengthened with teams in Buffalo, Washington, D.C. and a second team in New York. Most of the locations were able to hold their own, but others were also abandoned. From Oakland, a franchise moved to the heartland of Cleveland, where it found no permanent home, and from Kansas City, the team moved to Denver for three years, before moving to New Jersey for a third team in the New York metropolitan area. With the acquisition of four teams from the World Hockey Association, Canada in particular was strengthened. The NHL returned to Québec after a 50-year absence. In Winnipeg the league now had a team in the interior of Canada and the Canadian West got its second leg in Edmonton. Hartford, a city between Boston and New York, was added. The move from Atlanta to Calgary in 1980 led to a corresponding density in western Canada, while the southeast was left without the NHL team for the time being.

The 1990s saw the conquest of market share in the southern regions of the USA, the so-called Sun Belt. In San José, the gap left by Oakland almost 20 years earlier was closed, and with Anaheim, Los Angeles became a close neighbour. Florida got two teams in Tampa and Miami, and Canada got a franchise again after 60 years in the capital Ottawa. In addition, there were a number of relocations. The first move was from Minnesota to Dallas, Quebec was abandoned and the franchise returned to Denver, from Winnipeg a team moved to Phoenix and the Hartford Whalers moved to North Carolina.

A further expansion in the southeast reached the NHL with new teams in Nashville and Atlanta, where the league returned after 20 years. A little more to the north was the NHL’s two locations for two teams that have been in the league since 2000. Columbus in Ohio and St. Paul in Minnesota joined the NHL as new locations. Since the 2011/12 season, Winnipeg has again had a team in the NHL. If you want to see this as a trend reversal to the north, you can also classify earlier considerations of moving the team from Nashville to Hamilton, Canada, in this way. In 2017, Las Vegas, another city in the south of the USA, received a team.

Group distribution

With the initially four teams in the NHL, a division into groups was not yet necessary. It was not until the continuous expansion in 1926 that the league was divided into the American Division and the Canadian Division. The teams were divided regionally by country, only the New York Americans played with the Canadian teams. Already at that time it was usual in the NHL to play more against the teams of the own division, but also matches against all teams of the other division were played. Through numerous dissolutions of teams, the league was again united into one group in 1939.

Development of the NHL teams

It was not until 1967, when the league was expanded from six to twelve teams, that another division into two divisions took place. The league was divided into the Eastern Division and the Western Division. Here, however, a geographical division was not followed, as the names suggest. In the Eastern Division the former Original Six franchises played, in the Western Division the new teams. The league continued to grow and this was taken into account in 1974 when the NHL introduced two conferences with two divisions each. In the Campbell Conference, named after Clarence S. Campbell, then president of the NHL, the Smythe Division was arranged with the western teams. Until 1981, the Patrick Division was the second division with teams from the New York area. After that the Norris Division belonged to the Campbell Conference. Most of the teams played here were from the middle of the United States. The other teams played in the Prince of Wales Conference, to which the Adams Division was assigned with the teams from the northeast. Until 1981, this included the Norris Division, which was replaced by the Patrick Division.

Since 1993 the league is divided into an Eastern and a Western Conference. Until 1998, the old divisions continued to play there and were replenished with the newly founded franchises. When the Nashville Predators joined the 1998/99 season as the 27th franchise, the number of divisions was increased from four to six. With the addition of Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets for the 2000/01 season, these reached a strength of five clubs each.

For the 2013/2014 season, there was a reorganization of the Conferences, which became necessary due to the newly created or relocated franchises. From now on, each conference will be played in only two divisions, with the Eastern Conference with 16 teams representing one more than the Western Conference. For this purpose, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Detroit Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference, while Winnipeg went the opposite way.


After only six matches in the first NHL season, the stadium in Montreal played a major role. It burned down and the Montreal Wanderers had to stop playing. Throughout the NHL’s history, stadiums have continued to play a key role in the choice of location, relocation and disbanding of teams. In 1930, the Pittsburgh Pirates moved from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to play in a new stadium because the stadium was too small. It was 37 years before the NHL resettled a franchise in Pittsburgh. In 1931, Toronto was the last of the later “Original Six” cities to build a new stadium with Maple Leaf Gardens. It had a capacity of about 15,000 spectators and at that time corresponded to what was expected of a contemporary stadium. The New York Americans were also looking for an alternative venue to Madison Square Garden until 1942. In times of war, this was an unsolvable undertaking, leaving the league with six teams behind.

In the selection of the six cities to receive an NHL team with the major expansion in 1967, St. Louis was on the list because of its large stadium owned by the Chicago Blackhawks. In the San Francisco Bay Area, on the other hand, the league management speculated on the construction of a new hall in San Francisco and placed the team in Oakland for the time being. The construction failed, and so the team left California after nine years. The situation in Calgary was different. When the Flames came from Atlanta, the team had to play in a hall with room for 8,000 spectators. The upcoming Winter Olympics ensured the construction of an appropriate hall at short notice.

The NHL was also extended in the 1990s, when the league was often in advance. In San Jose, the team played for two years in a hall with just over 10,000 seats before the new stadium was completed. The same situation arose in Ottawa and Tampa. The team from Florida, however, helped themselves elsewhere by moving to the Thunderdome after a year, a stadium designed for American football matches, which was specially rebuilt for ice hockey matches. Here, the team also set a new NHL record with 27,227 spectators. In the 1990s, new stadiums were built in most NHL cities. Many of the old stadiums were located centrally in the city centres and the existing infrastructure was used by building the new stadium close to the old location, for example in Boston and Buffalo. In Vancouver, the planners followed many other models and built the new stadium in a central location, while in Chicago the arena was pulled out of the center and in Florida the venue moved from Miami to a suburb of Fort Lauderdale. The Carolina Hurricanes also had a planned relocation in front of them. As the stadium in Raleigh had not yet been completed, the team played in Greensboro for the first two years. The Buffalo Sabres experienced that there was also a risk in the new buildings when the video cube came loose overnight and fell onto the ice surface. The new and current viewer record was set on 1 January 2008 in Orchard Park at the NHL Winter Classic 2008, when the Buffalo Sabres played against the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second time in NHL history under the open sky in front of 71,217 spectators at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Today, 28 of the 30 teams play in stadiums built in 1993 and later. The oldest stadium, Madison Square Garden, is located in New York. Opened in August 2010, the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh replaced the Mellon Arena, built in 1961 and previously the oldest venue in the NHL. The newest stadium is the Little Caesars Arena, which has used the Detroit Red Wings since the 2017/18 season. The stadiums in Montreal (21,273) and Chicago (20,500) are the largest, while only the Winnipeg Jets (15,294) and New York Islanders (15,795) have less than 17,000 seats.

Name rights

With the exception of Madison Square Garden in the New York metropolis, all NHL stadiums carry an advertising medium in their name. American Airlines paid the highest price for the American Airlines Center in Dallas. For 195 million dollars, the name rights were sold for 30 years – 6.5 million a year.

By far the most names had the stadium in Boston. Shortly before the opening of the hall, the original owner of the name rights, Shawmut Bank, had been taken over by Fleet Bank. The stadium was opened as a Fleet Center. After the Fleet Bank had also been taken over, they bought themselves out of the contracts. In the time until a new namesake had been found, interested parties could buy the name rights for one day on 30 days over the auction house eBay. The 32nd name is still current today. Until 2025 it should be called TD Banknorth Garden.


Officially, the NHL has been publishing spectator figures since the 1960/61 season, when the teams sold over 2.3 million tickets in the 210 matches. This resulted in an average of 11,000 spectators per match. Until the end of the “Original Six” era, the number of spectators rose continuously to over three million, with an average of just under 14,700. With six new teams, the 1967/68 season saw 444 matches. The league still failed just under five million spectators, who were reached in the following year. Before the World Hockey Association started playing, the NHL had reached over 7.6 million viewers in the 1971/72 season and remained just under 14,000 on average. When the teams had 720 matches on their schedules for the 1974/75 season, a new spectator record of 9.5 million was set, but by the last season of the 1978/79 WHA, spectator numbers had dropped steadily to 7.7 million and an average of 11,400.

Four more teams, no competition and Wayne Gretzky in the league, increased the demand again. In the 1979/80 season, more than 10 million viewers were recorded for the first time and the viewer average, which was 12,540 this year, rose to almost 15,000 over the next ten years.

New teams with small stadiums brought more matches and increased the absolute number of spectators, but also depressed the average. In 1992/93 the teams played more than 1,000 matches for the first time and attracted more than 14 million spectators, but the average dropped to a good 14,000. New stadiums in many cities helped to further increase this figure. In 1995/96, the audience exceeded the 17 million mark. On average that was 15,983 viewers and since the following season the 16,000 had never been undercut.

In the 2009/10 season, an average of 17,070 spectators attended the NHL matches in the regular season. As in the previous year, the Chicago Blackhawks had the best average number of spectators with 21,356, while the Phoenix Coyotes came last with 11,989 visitors per home match. The total number of spectators for the more than 1,200 matches of the regular season was just under 21 million.

Awards and trophies

The NHL currently awards a total of 24 trophies for teams, players, coaches and general managers during the season. The best known is the Stanley Cup, which is awarded to the winner of the playoffs and has existed since 1893. The oldest individual player trophy is the Hart Memorial Trophy, which has been awarded to the most valuable player of the regular season since 1924. Over the years, the League has introduced more trophies to honor the different types of players. A special tribute is given to the players, officials and officials who are admitted annually to the Hockey Hall of Fame. A maximum of four players, two officials and/or one referee or linesman are admitted to this Hall of Fame each year.

Regular season

A season in the NHL is divided into the so-called Regular Season and the Post Season, the so-called Play-offs. In the Regular Season, each team plays 82 games, although the division of these games into the 2017/18 season is different in the two Conferences, as the Western Conference is home to 15 teams, one less than the Eastern Conference.

In the Eastern Conference, each team plays 28 matches within its division. Four games (two away games and two home games) are played against seven teams. In addition, there will be three matches against each opponent from the other division of the Eastern Conference, i.e. a total of 24. Finally, there will be one away match and one home match against each team of the Western Conference, a total of 30.

In the Western Conference, each team also plays a home and away match against each Eastern Conference team, a total of 32.

In the Pacific Division, there are also 29 matches per team in their own division, with four matches against six teams and five matches against the remaining team. As a team plays one more home match in five matches, these pairings change each year. Three matches are played against teams from the Central Division, i.e. 21. If there is an unequal distribution of home matches, the annual pairings change accordingly.

In the Central Division of the Western Conference, each team plays against four opponents of their own division four times each and against two opponents five times each, resulting in a total of 26 matches. Three games will be played against the eight Pacific Division teams, a total of 24.

The foregoing mode replaced the 2013/14 NHL season, in which only thirty franchises competed. And in the 2008/09 season, one team played six more times against each team from the same division, four times against each team from the same conference, once at home or away against twelve teams from the other conference, and once at home and away against the three remaining teams from the other conference. This mode replaced the eight-match mode against teams from the same division and only ten matches against teams from the other Conference between 2005/06 and 2007/08. This meant that there were no more frequent derbies with rivals and a minimisation of travel costs was rejected, as the fans only saw teams from the other Conference every three years.

Another change, which should increase the attractiveness of the game and became effective in the 2005/06 season, was the introduction of the “Shootout”. If a game of the regular season ends in a draw, a 5-minute overtime follows, as in the previous seasons. The game is played 3 against 3 and according to the Sudden Death mode, so the first goal decides the game. If the game is not decided even after the overtime has expired, a penalty shootout follows, the Shootout. Each team has three shooters. If it is still a draw after their attempts, the decision is made in the knockout system (similar to the penalty shootout in football). Each game has a winner and a loser. The winning team always receives two points. The defeated team does not receive a point in a defeat after 60 minutes, but is rewarded with a point in a defeat after overtime or shootout.


When all teams have played their 82 matches, the tables of the two conferences, the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference, are calculated separately. From each of the two divisions per conference, the three best teams on points qualify directly for the play-offs. In addition, each conference awards two wild cards to those teams that have scored the most points (apart from the six already qualified). Because this award is made across divisions, one division may send five teams to the play-offs and the other division only three. This is the case if the fifth placed team has more points than the fourth placed team in the other division.

This means that eight teams from each conference go into the play-offs, which are played in best-of-seven mode – whoever wins the fourth round first goes on to the next round. The pairings are determined within the divisions and by the number of points achieved: The best player on points plays against the wild card team and the second against the third. If, as described above, two Wild Cards go to the same division, the Wild Card team with the lowest score will play the better first of the two divisions. The first round is followed by the Division Final, where the best teams of the four divisions are determined. This is followed by the Conference Final, where the respective division winners meet. The best teams of both Conferences will then meet in the Stanley Cup Final.


Henri Richard is the most successful player in NHL history with eleven Stanley Cup victories, all of which he won in the Montréal Canadiens jersey. His former teammates Jean Béliveau and Yvan Cournoyer were successful with ten Stanley Cup victories. Claude Provost was also relatively successful with nine Stanley Cups and Red Kelly, Maurice Richard, Jacques Lemaire and Serge Savard with eight victories. With eight Stanley Cups, Red Kelly is the most successful player in history to have never played for the Montréal Canadiens.

The most successful scorer is Wayne Gretzky with 894 goals and 2857 points in the regular season. He won the Hart Memorial Trophy nine times as the most valuable player of the regular season and the Art Ross Trophy ten times as the best scorer. Gretzky only needed 575 NHL games to reach the 500-goal mark, Gretzky also scored the best score of a player’s career with an average of 1.921 points per game, ahead of Mario Lemieux with 1.883 points, Gordie Howe holds the record for the most NHL games played in the regular season with 1767 matches. Howe is the oldest player to have ever played in the NHL. He finished his career in the Hartford Whalers jersey in April 1980 and was 52 years old when he completed his last encounter. He is also the second player alongside Gretzky to score over 800 goals in the Regular Season.

Steve Yzerman was team captain of the Detroit Red Wings from 1986 to 2006, longer than any other player in history.

Martin Brodeur was the only goalkeeper to score over 600 wins, replacing Patrick Roy, who had won 551 NHL games in the regular season during his career, as the leader. Brodeur also holds the record for most goalkeeper shutouts after beating Terry Sawchuk’s record in December 2009 with his 104th match without conceding a goal.