SASKATOON -- As we've seen from the preliminary round of play, ice hockey may be an international sport, but it's one of extremes in terms of competitiveness.
According to the 2010 IIHF World U20 Championship's Official Media Guide, there are 67 member nations currently registered with the IIHF. That number, however, is quite generous in terms of activity. In their 2009 IIHF Survey of Players, only 60 nations provided numbers of registered players, referees and rinks. And of those 60, only 47 participated in at least one 2009 IIHF sanctioned event.
Since this is a junior tournament, I decided to have a quick look at those numbers to see if we can spot any trends going forward. What do countries have to do in order to become more competitive?
There are over 1.45 million registered hockey players throughout the 60 surveyed countries. North America makes up a vast majority of these numbers, with just shy of 970,000 total players. Of that number, the majority are youth players, as 65.1 percent of Canadian players are junior-aged, 63.0 percent of American players are junior-aged and Mexico's small contribution has 81.1 percent being junior aged players. The worldwide numbers show that 61.3 percent of hockey players are less than 20 years of age.
A second factor to consider in potential growth has to be infrastructure. It's one thing to be signed up to play the game, it's quite another to get good ice time. The IIHF's survey also collects the data of available rinks in each country, and breaks them out by whether they are indoor or outdoor facilities. Despite the popularity of the NHL's Winter Classic, competitive ice hockey has essentially become an indoor game. Indoor rinks are more conducive to league play, and as a result should be more effective for developing skills and successful youth programs.
For every indoor rink in the world, there are an average of 228 registered hockey players, and 140 of them are under the age of 20. European nations are lagging a bit behind the global average, as there numbers indicate there are 244 players vying for ice time per rink, and only 138 of those are under the age of twenty. These numbers show that North American hockey players are generally younger than European ones, and they have more ice time available to them to further those skills.
So who is in the most trouble? At a quick glance, the Czech Republic stands out. Though they have the third most registered players in the world (97,102), only a third (33.6 percent) of those are junior-aged. Ice time is a major concern, as with only 157 indoor rinks, Czech hockey players average 618 players for every rink nationwide. It simply does not seem sustainable that the Czechs can keep pace with the best in the world, and the Czechs entering the relegation round of this year's U20 tournament could be a regular occurrence.
Russia also has an obscene gap between players and number of rinks. Given Russia's hockey tradition, it's hard but to conclude that a major investment by the nation's oligarchy in building rinks would be a better for building Russia's hockey base than the KHL.
Although Russian youth provide a strong number of Russia's total player base (68.8 percent), the country averages 330 players for every indoor rink. Despite Russia's cold winters, there aren't a lot of outdoor rinks, either (only three according to the IIHF). The lack of ice time seems to have completely stunted the women's game in Russia, as only 278 females are registered to play in this hockey rich nation.
As for Canada vs. the USA, Canada still has more facilities for their eager hockey mad population than the Americans do, by about 55 more people per rink. Combined with Canada's obscene amount of outdoor rinks (11,000 is the estimated figure), Canadian hockey seems in great shape in the future when compared to the USA. Despite USA's much larger population base, the facilities simply aren't there for the USA to surpass Canada.
Building more rinks has to be a high priority for USA Hockey.
In the end, perhaps the most impressive part of the survey is how they confirm just how hockey mad Canada is vs. the rest of the world. Around 1.5 percent of Canada's entire population is a registered hockey player (Finland is second at 1.1 percent), and Canadian hockey players make up 34.3 percent of hockey players worldwide.
Canada has 36.5 percent of the junior-aged players in the world, and 38.4 percent of the world's indoor rinks. If the estimated 11,000 outdoor rinks in Canada are counted, Canada has 73.2 percent of the total hockey rinks on the planet.
Hockey writer Bruce Peter will be providing coverage of the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championship tournament for Yahoo! Canada and Puck Daddy, including daily recaps of game action and exclusive sights and stories from the event.