PYEONGCHANG (Reuters) – The 14 countries participating in this month’s Olympic ice hockey tournament in South Korea come to the event with wildly disparate credentials as “hockey nations”.
Perennial powerhouse Canada, winner of three of the last four Olympic gold medals, arrive as the sport’s pre-eminent nation, according to data from the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Home to more than a third of the 1.76 million registered players of all ages globally, Canada is also host to around half of the roughly 17,500 ice hockey rinks on the planet.
On a per capita basis, that amounts to one player for every 56 people and a rink for every 4,300.
At the other end of the spectrum are contenders who will be attempting to punch well above their weight during the Olympics, including some who have already shown they can.
Take tiny Slovenia, which sports the smallest population among Olympic qualifiers with fewer than 2 million people and has barely 1,000 hockey players, including just 136 men and 66 women over the age of 20. The IIFH counts just seven rinks in the entire country.
Yet Slovenia’s men’s national team, ranked 15th globally by the IIHF, has qualified for two straight Olympics, muscling past more highly ranked squads like Belarus. In Sochi in 2014, they battled into the knockout round and finished seventh.
Reuters ran the numbers from the IIHF’s global database of players and facilities. Following are some other findings on the countries sending the 12 men’s teams and eight women’s teams to Pyeongchang: tmsnrt.rs/2Eur8Bj
This year’s hosts – South Korea – rank as the most hockey-challenged country competing.
Ranked 21st and 22nd respectively by the IIHF, the men’s and women’s squads were awarded automatic bids but have a small talent pool. The country has just 2,675 players out of a total population of nearly 51 million and just 30 rinks.
At the over-20 level, South Korea has just 490 players, the second fewest after Slovenia. That is just one player for every 104,000 people compared with one per every 123 in the Czech Republic, which has the world’s largest density of adult hockey players.
Even North Korea, which will send players for a unified women’s team with the South, has more than twice the number of adult players, at 1,090 with roughly three times as many women playing the game as its southern neighbor: 920 vs 319.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
Finland clocks in with the fourth smallest population of the 14 participants at around 5.5 million people, but it packs a powerful hockey punch.
The Finns come into the games ranked fourth by the IIHF and as the only team in the men’s tournament to have won a medal in each of the last three Olympics.
In two of three measures of ice hockey might examined by Reuters, it comes in at number two – players per capita (one per 148) and rinks per capita (one per 18,000).
One problem is that Finland produces so many players, those rinks are crowded. It has one rink for every 121 players. Only the Czechs have more crowded conditions, at one for every 420.
(For graphic click tmsnrt.rs/2EruxAz)
The United States ranks number six in players per capita, number nine in rinks per capita and number 12 in players per rink.
Still, thanks to its substantially larger overall population – around 325 million – there are more American players participating at the over-20 level than in any other country, nearly 235,000.
As a result its men’s program is ranked fifth and the women are the world’s number one team, likely to battle Canada for gold.
Several countries stand out for under-delivering on their hockey potential, perhaps most notably Switzerland.
The country has about 8.2 million people but comes in at number five in players per capita and number four in rinks per capita and has a middle of the road 41 players per rink. But the Swiss come to South Korea with a men’s team ranked seventh by the IIHF and a women’s team ranked sixth.
The Swiss women won their first medal in Sochi – a bronze – and could contend again this year. The Swiss men, meanwhile, have not won a medal since 1948.
Reporting By Dan Burns; editing by Nick Mulvenney