Pound for Pound, What is Canada’s Best Hockey Town?

Canadians Playing Hockey Outdoors

Forget what you think you know about Toronto and Montreal. Hogtown and La Belle Ville may have 37 Stanley Cups between them, but when it comes to breeding hockey players, those storied hockey cities fall short. How about The ‘Peg, Cowtown, or even the City of Champions itself? Nope: the Prairies are good, but not that good. The West Coast? The Maritimes? The Far North? Not even close. Without a doubt, the best pound for pound hockey town in Canada is the unassuming, northern Ontario transportation hub of Thunder Bay.

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It all started with a 22-year old scrapper named Jack Adams, who suited up for the Toronto Arenas (a predecessor to the Toronto Maple Leafs) eight times in the NHL’s inaugural season in 1917-18. He scored zero points that year, but racked up 31 minutes in penalties. He played fewer than half the games for that season’s Stanley Cup winners, but Adams remained in the league, and after a middling playing career became famous as coach and GM of the Detroit Red Wings. Adams was the first in a long and bountiful line of NHL players from the small town of Fort William, later to become known as Thunder Bay, after merging with Port Arthur in 1970.

This place is special. Firstly, it has simply produced an astounding number of NHL players for a city whose population has remained at about 100,000 residents since the 60s. The region of Thunder Bay has regularly churned out at least one NHL player (often more) for every 15,000 residents, a remarkable feat. Today’s NHL features Thunder Bay family connections like the four Staal brothers, two Pyatt brothers and the Chorneys (current NHLer Taylor and father Marc); oldtimers like all-time great Alex Delvecchio and all-stars Gus Bodnar and Charlie Simmer, are just a few of Thunder Bay’s native sons that went on to don NHL sweaters.

Secondly, Thunder Bay has produced NHL-ready players at a remarkably consistent rate — every season since the NHL’s founding in 1918 has featured at least one or even a handful of Thunder Bay products, which cannot be said for any other Canadian city of its size (or smaller).

To explore this argument more deeply, we generated an interactive heatmap of Canada, showing the concentration of NHL players from each region over the years, beginning in 1923 (the first year we were able to get complete NHL player data), and progressing in 10 year intervals. Regions of Canada are assigned a color intensity based on the number of players whose birthplace was in that region. The higher the number of players relative to the area’s population, the higher the intensity.

So what did we find?

Hockey Powerhouses

Besides Thunder Bay, we observe that the metropolitan areas of Toronto and Montreal have indeed been solid hockey factories since the very earliest years of the NHL. Certainly the fact that the NHL was, and in many ways still is, a product of the east coast of North America, has played a role in player development in these cities, not to mention that Toronto and Montreal were for a long time the only two Canadian cities with an NHL club to call their own. In today’s NHL, Toronto-area born players include PK Subban, Steve Stamkos, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin and Brent Burns; Montreal-area born players include Martin Brodeur, Corey Crawford, Roberto Luongo, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier.

It may surprise some readers, however, that Edmonton has also been cranking out NHL talent at an impressive rate, especially beginning in the 1980s (and at a per capita rate, Edmonton has outperformed both Toronto and Montreal since at least the 1990s, depending on the definition of the metropolitan areas of these cities). Hockey folk heroes like Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr and Scott Niedermayer all hail from the City of Champions, while the list of current players from Edmonton includes Jarome Iginla, Jay Bouwmeester, Joffrey Lupul and Johnny Boychuk.

After these three big cities, the output drops somewhat, with sizable cities like Winnipeg, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Ottawa and Quebec City holding their own with a steady if unspectacular stream of NHL talent. The biggest cities in the east — Halifax and St. John’s — and in the west — Victoria and Vancouver — have only recently started to contribute its young men to Canada’s game in meaningful numbers.

Small but Strong

Many small communities throughout Canada have contributed more than their fair share of players. In our analysis, however, two regions stood out in particular. Firstly, the entire province of Saskatchewan, especially outside of the big cities of Regina and Saskatoon, is solid hockey country. These small towns aren’t exactly household names, and they are often one-and-done when it comes to NHL representation, but they sure give us great players: Aneroid (Patrick Marleau), Oxbow (Theoren Fleury), Kelvington (Wendel Clark) and Val Marie (Bryan Trottier) are just a few. Along with potash, hockey is definitely this province’s greatest export.

Secondly, the town most famous for its mines (though it should be for its hockey players): Sudbury. Forget about the huge number of players that this town has consistently churned out, certainly rivaling our champion Thunder Bay in this regard. There’s something in the water there (heavy metal, maybe?) that gives its native sons a certain unique quality. Whether it’s Eddie Shack (the “Nose”), Mike Foligno (the “Leap”), Ron Duguay (the “Hair”), or Todd Bertuzzi (let’s not go there), these guys have personality. Al Arbour wore glasses on the ice, for goodness sake. And we can’t talk about Sudbury without mentioning the heartache that the cities of Toronto and Vancouver have suffered under the helm of Sudbury-born Randy Carlyle and Mike Gillis. The NHL would not be the NHL without the Nickel City.

Family Ties

See if you can spot the great hockey families that light up our map over the years. Here are a few to get you started.

  • the Sutters: Brent, Brian, Darryl, Duane, Rich, Ron and Brett
  • the Staals: Eric, Jared, Jordan and Marc
  • the Bouchers: Bill, Frank, Buck and Robert
  • the Benns: Jamie and Jordie

Check out our world hockey map to see which region is the world’s undisputed hockey hotbed.

Methodology Notes

We divided Canada up into Census Divisions (the standard geographic unit of division used by Statscan), and assigned a color intensity proportional to the number of players per capita whose birthplace was in that census division. Due to the 2012-2013 lockout, our last map is for 2012 (and not 2013), where the data was smoother. A player is included in the map for year X if X falls between the start and end of his NHL playing career (even if only 1 NHL game was played). Some very large geographic regions are coloured bright red but have only produced a single NHL player (see Northern Manitoba in 2012); this is due to the very low population in these regions. We have provided a toggle button to remove colouration from regions with only a single player, which may be considered by some to be a fluke.

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  • Darren

    Thunder bay also has the most outdoor hockey rinks per capita in Canada…possibly in North America. There is a direct relationship between our hockey success and access to skating rinks.

    • Darren – that’s fascinating! Perhaps for a follow-up post, we’ll look at that correlation in more depth.

      • Darren

        The city of Thunder Bay floods around 100 outdoor rinks….in every neighbourhood, not to mention the hundreds of private rinks in backyards. Toronto only has about 50.

        • Darren – where are you getting this data from? I’d love to check it out myself.

          • Nathan

            the cities website lists just under 40. perhaps the surrounding area is added into his stat and that could pass the 100 rink mark.

          • Nathan

            *Correction* it has 60 rinks on the city website!

          • Ryan from Thunder Bay

            http://www.thunderbay.ca/Living/recreation_and_parks/Facilities/Arenas/Outdoor_Rinks.htm lists all the outdoor surfaces. Do the math, and it adds up to 60. At least 10 arenas around the city as well, with the Tournament center having 3 surfaces in it. They’re also looking at building another multiplex arena inside the city.

  • Mike John Allan

    I think you missed someone else from Thunder Bay that is quite important.

    • Mike John Allan – who is it?

      • Nathan

        Patrick Sharp? technically born in Winnipeg, but played hockey in Thunder Bay growing up.

        • We limited our map to birthplace. We needed some way of standardizing the process across a large dataset.

          • Kathy Otway

            Carter Hutton, Robert Bortuzzo, Trevor Letowski, Alex Auld, Ryan Johnson, just to name a few missing in the article, from Thunder Bay.

          • Sarah

            Understandable. See my above post. Alex Auld is also from Thunder Bay. Just not born there.

          • Els

            Also forgotten is J Bob (Battleship) Kelly, born and raised in Fort William, played in ST Lou8s, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

          • Arik Motskin

            Hi Els! We definitely didn’t forget the Battleship. Move the slider at the bottom of the map over to 1973, and you’ll see JB Kelly where he belongs.

          • ed bulmer

            Norm McIver and Walt pudubny from thunder bay

    • olie

      How about Edgar Laprade and Pentii Lund?

  • Jason WIlson

    You also missed Chris Lindberg, Mike Allison from the Rainy River District

    • Jason – Use the slider at the bottom of the map to go back in time and you will find them. I just checked myself.

      • Jason Wilson

        Oh now I understand……got it thanks Zack, good job.

  • There is no Charlie Summer. I think you mean Charlie Simmer and he is from Terrace Bay not Thunder Bay. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Simmer

    • DSgamby – where are you seeing Charlie Summer? Charlie Simmer is from Terrace Bay, which is in the census division called Thunder Bay. He is there.

      • Third paragraph: It reads. This place is special. Firstly, it has simply produced an astounding
        number of NHL players for a city whose population has remained at about
        100,000 residents since the 60s. Thunder Bay has regularly churned out
        at least one NHL player (often more) for every 15,000 residents, a
        remarkable feat. Today’s NHL features Thunder Bay family connections
        like the four Staal brothers, two Pyatt brothers and the Chorneys
        (current NHLer Taylor and father Marc); oldtimers like all-time great
        Alex Delvecchio and all-stars Gus Bodnar and Charlie Summer, are just a
        few of Thunder Bay’s native sons that went on to don NHL sweaters.

        Terrace Bay is in the Thunder Bay district, the district has a population of 146,057 in 2011 far more than the about 100,000 residents the article says.

        • Thank you for the clarification. I’m going to fix the typo with regards to Charlie Summer and will have to think about the latter issue you present.

  • Brendan Fyfe

    Sault Ste. Marie (population 75,000) is the only city in the world with two native sons in the top ten in all time NHL scoring with Phil Esposito (#10) and Ron Francis (#4 for now). Add in Marty Turco & Tony Esposito in the cage, tough guys (Jerry Korab, Denis Vial, Ken Belanger, Chris Thorburn) and a slew of lesser known players and the Soo’s pedigree stacks up against anyone’s. This doesn’t even include coaches like Paul Maurice & Teddy Nolan (Garden River) or front office guys like Lou Nanne and rising star Kyle Dubas. Your article is bang on though, Northern Ontario is one of Canada’s true hockey heartlands.

    • Marla Bishop

      Tyler Kennedy too!

    • Mack

      How about Lee Fogolin Sr. & Jr. both from Thunder Bay?
      http://blackhawkslegends.blogspot.ca/2009/01/lidio-lee-fogolin-sr.html

      • Arik Motskin

        Jr. was born in Chicago, so he doesn’t count unfortunately. Sr. is there in the map — move the slider at the bottom of the map over to 1953…he’s there in Thunder Bay alongside Del Vecchio, Gus Bodnar and others.

  • Kayla Michaels

    Technically, Thunder Bay isn’t northern Ontario, but rather northwestern Ontario.

  • JF

    Patrick Sharp was born in Winnipeg.. but Thunder Bay is his hometown, and where he grew up playing hockey.

    • Lots of people have pointed that out to us. Because of the data we had, we had to go with hometown rather than where the player grew up but it’s cool to see that lots of additional players actually developed their skills in Thunder Bay. Definitely deserver its reputation as a hockey hotbed.

  • Sarah

    Alex Auld also grew up in Thunder Bay. Born in Cold Lake but his hockey was all played in Thunder Bay, with Patrick Sharp and Taylor Pyatt. And yes, these boys all had outdoor rinks.

  • Jacqueline Vallieres-Ktytor

    How about Danny Lewicki. Born in Fort Willam, Ontario 1931. Played for Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, and New York Rangers. Also, as of 2010, he was the only player to have won the Allan Cup, Memorial Cup and Stanley Cup while still a Junior.

    • Arik Motskin

      Hi Jacqueline! Move the slider at the bottom of the map to 1953 when Danny Lewicki was in the NHL. You’ll see him there in Thunder Bay, along with greats like Delvecchio and Bodnar.

  • DB

    What about Thunder Bay’s Ron Talakoski NYR 1986-88

    • Hi DB,

      Unfortunately, because he didn’t fit into our snapshot windows, he won’t appear on the map.

      Zack

  • David Hockley

    missed Peter Schaefer from Yellow Grass, SK. Census division 2

    • Arik Motskin

      Hi David. If you move the red slider at the bottom of the map over to 2003, you’ll see Peter Schaefer (as well as Darcy Verot), both in Census Division 2, SK. Lots of great guys in earlier years from that region too, like Tiger Williams.

      • David Hockley

        Thanks, missed that!

  • Pat Ferris

    As of Jan 1, 2015 (NHL’s own stats) Fort St John, BC has

    Rod Stevens National Team

    Braden Pimm NHL – Wash. Cap’s.

    Dennis Robertson NHL – Carolina Hurricanes

    Mike Hartigan NHL + 2 stanley cup teams+spengler

    Jim Hughson NHL CBC broadcaster

    Alan Stewart NHL Devils & Bruins

    Chris Jensen NHL – Rangers & Flyers

    Reg Kerr NHL- Black Hawks

    Gord Strate NHL-Red Wings

    Brad Fast NHL-Carolina

    Not zero, as you are showing for us.

    • Arik Motskin

      Hi Pat, Thanks a lot for your interest! Indeed, in 2012 there were unfortunately no players in the NHL from Fort St. John. Remember that our map is dedicated to only on those who have played at least one game in the NHL, so the youngsters you mentioned — Rod Stevens, Braden Pimm and Dennis Robertson — who haven’t yet played a game in the NHL, they won’t be appearing on the map; Jim Hughson is a broadcaster, so he won’t be there either! Let me tell about the other folks you mentioned: Brad Fast was in the league back in the early 2000s, so if you move the slider on the bottom of the map to 2003, you’ll see him there! Mike Hartigan was actually born in Lethbridge, Alberta and Reg Kerr was born in Oxbow Saskatchewan (despite both growing up in Fort St John), so unfortunately you can’t claim those guys for yourself! (they appear in different parts of the map). Finally, Alan Stewart, Chris Jensen, and Gord Strate have fairly short careers, and weren’t playing in the NHL in any of the snapshots that we took (1983, 1993, 2003, 2012, etc.). So unfortunately, while those 3 last guys are legitimate NHLers from Fort St John, they don’t fit into our map due to the methodology.

  • Guest
    • Hi Jamie,

      Make sure you use the slider at the bottom of the map if you want to see the historical data. Lots of guys on those lists are there!

      Zack

      • Guest

        Gotcha.. thanks!

  • fan

    For Hastings, it would seem that you have neglected to include Rob Ray (born in Stirling) and the Crawford brothers (Bob, Marc and Lou), who were born in Belleville. Bobby and Dennis Hull were born in Point Anne (now part of Belleville). Rick Meagher is another one that comes to mind. Check out: http://www.quanthockey.com/nhl/city/nhl-players-career-stats.php?city_id=3651. Belleville and surrounding area is another hotbed of hockey :)

    • Hi. Check out the slider at the bottom of the map that takes you to the historical data. You’ll be sure to find some of those guys.

  • Kimber Lii

    From Sudbury Ontario, you got Nick Foligno, (his father Mike played in the NHL too), his brother Marcus Foligno, Derek McKenzie, Tyler Bertuzzi, Brian Savage, Andrew Brunette , Troy Crowder, even Joe Ranger made it (NY Rangers), but was injured before playing and had to retire. Thats a lot of talented hockey players who made it, and all from this small city we call Sudbury! :)

  • Stacey Lavallie

    Troy Crowder isn’t on this list and he played for New Jersey for several years. He hails from Lively, Ontario (sudbury).

    • He’s there! Use the slider at the bottom to go to 1993 and check out the Greater Sudbury/Grand Sudbury census division.

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  • JohnnyCThunder13

    There’s something in the water in Thunder Bay. If you include top toer junior players we’d be talking high triple digits. Everyone and their cousin played in the O up here.

  • Bill

    My home town. The best. Plus the Staals, and Pyatt s are family friends. It’s so cool!

  • kelgs13

    For large cities over 1 million metro area Edmonton is by far number 1. There is 28 players with Edmonton or one of its suburbs birth places that have played atleast 1 game so far in the 16/17 season. Toronto area is 2 with 26 players but has 4.5 million more people then the Edmonton area. Saskatoon followed by Winnipeg for cities under a million.

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  • Truly cool article. Good use of data and hockey!