NHL History: The Most Unlikely Birthplaces of Hockey Players
Craig Adams
Jan 11, 2014; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Craig Adams (27) warms up against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome. © Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

North America, Canada specifically, has been the unofficial home to hockey for over a century, producing the modern game as we know it today and the vast majority of players who have played it.

Modern-day hockey is thought to have originated in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia in the 1850s or 60s, with wooden pucks and hand-made, one-piece sticks, hockey skates, and goals with nets. The sport spread to New Brunswick in 1865 and Montreal in 1875. Ice hockey spread slowly and methodically, province by province, until it arrived on the West Coast around 1890.

Professionally, the sport was played exclusively in Canada beginning in 1909 with the four-team National Hockey Association (NHA). The National Hockey League (NHL) was founded soon after, in 1917, and with it came the first non-Canadian professional hockey player. Pierce George “Gerry” Geran, an American born in Massachusetts, appeared in four games with the Montreal Wanderers in the NHL’s inaugural season.

Ten Different Nations

The globalization of the sport of hockey began sometime after World War 2, but it wasn’t until 1965 that any player from outside North America broke into the league. That player was Sweden-born Ulf Sterner, who became the first Europen to play in the NHL. While Sterner didn’t set the league on fire, he did pave the way for Swedish defenseman Borje Salming, who played 17 seasons in the NHL and recorded 787 points, which remains a record for an undrafted defenseman to this day.

After the fall of Communism, players from Eastern European countries, such as former Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, joined the league.

According to STATISTA, as of November 2022, the country with the highest number of active NHL players was Canada, with 993 active NHL players. Meanwhile, the United States listed 586 active NHL players in 2022, and Sweden reported 225. Ten nations are represented up and down the league’s rank, including in order after Sweden, Russia (128), Finland (111), Czechia (92), Slovakia (26), Switzerland (26), Germany (24), and Denmark (17).

Five Continents

To date, the NHL has seen players from five different continents, some nations where hockey is hardly played. Here is a short list of active and former players born in countries where ice and hockey are anomalies.

Craig Adams, Seria, Brunei

Adams was selected in the 9th round, 223rd overall, in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft by the Hartford Whalers, where he gained the distinction of being their last draft pick. Adams was born in Seria, Brunei, in southeast Asia, while his father was on business with Shell Oil. However, he was raised in Calgary, Alberta, residing and playing hockey in the community of Lake Bonavista. Adams played college hockey at Harvard University and in the NHL with the Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Olaf Kolzig, Johannesburg, South Africa

The longtime Washington Capitals goalie, “Ollie, the Goalie,” was born to German parents in South Africa’s capital, Johannesburg. Coverage of hockey and the NHL in South Africa doesn’t exist, had Kolzig not spent his formative years growing up in Canada, the league would never have been blessed with his talents. Except for eight games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in his last season, he played his entire NHL career with Washington, winning the Vezina Trophy in 2000.

Rod Langway, Taipei, Taiwan

Langway is the only NHL player born in the Republic of China. His father was an American serviceman stationed in Taiwan at birth, but Langway grew up in Randolph, Massachusetts. Langway was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1977, winning a Stanley Cup with them in 1979. He is often credited as saving the Washington Capitals after being traded to the team before the 1982-83 season. Langway won back-to-back Norris Trophies in 1982-83 and 1983-84. He’s one of just 16 Americans inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and his #5 jersey was retired by the Washington Capitals on November 26, 1997.

Robyn Regehr, Recife, Brazil

The Brazilian-born Canadian defenceman Robyn Regehr was the first-round draft pick of the Colorado Avalanche in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. He was traded to the Calgary Flames before starting his professional career, where he played the first 11 years before being traded to the Buffalo Sabres. In 2013-14 he won a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings. Despite only playing in the first round before being sidelined with a knee injury. Kings team captain Dustin Brown finished his championship victory lap by handing the Stanley Cup to Regehr, thanking the veteran for his off-ice presence.

Robyn’s brother Richie Regehr also played briefly in the NHL for the Calgary Flames. The older of the two Regehr brothers was born in Bandung, Indonesia.

Rick Chartraw, Caracas, Venezuela

Chartraw played in 420 NHL games between 1974 and 1984. Selected tenth overall in the 1974 NHL Entry Draft, by the Montreal Canadians, he holds the distinction of being the first American drafted in the first round. Chartraw was born in Caracas, Venezuela, when his American father was employed as an oil engineer. When Rick was three, his family moved back to the United States, and he grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania.

Other Players

Chris Neilsen played 52 NHL games for Columbus from 2000 to 2002 and was born to Canadian diplomat parents in Tanzania.

Former NHL enforcer Rumun Ndur played for the Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers, and Atlanta Thrashers. he was born in Zaria, Nigeria but grew up in rural Hearst, Ontario, Canada.

Claude Vilgrain played for the Vancouver Canucks, New Jersey Devils, and Philadelphia Flyers. Vilgrain was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti but raised in Quebec City.

Ed Hatoum was born in Lebanon’s capital in 1947 and emigrated with his family to Ottawa when he was just 10 years old. He played 47 NHL games for the Detroit Red Wings and Canucks.