There was a time where I was a huge supporter of a Polish team joining the Tipsport Liga. There is a lot of value to the idea. This would be great exposure for Polish hockey and a great experience for Polish players. A lot of the benefits would be for the national team in the short term. Long-term though it could have some risk for Poland. Losing top clubs would result in a weaker Polish Hockey League. The league is undoubtedly on the rise now and has as much talent and competition as ever. The vital question becomes what is best for the growth of hockey in Poland. What will help the game grow more, a strong domestic league or a strong national team?
The benefits to the national team may not be that strong anymore. This year so far, PHL teams have a record of 6-4 against Tipsport Liga teams. There is no doubt in my opinion that the top half of PHL teams would be competitive in the Tipsport Liga. I believe they would fare better than the Hungarian teams that entered the league. This shows the rising talent of Polish teams, but as well as the decline of the Tipsport Liga. The top Slovak league has been falling for a bit now. The two factors should make PHL teams fit right in, but this isn’t about fitting in. It is about improving the national team. How much can players gain or what opportunities could they earn from the slight bump in play?
I don’t think what Polish teams could gain is worth the damage it will cause to the PHL. I think the model that all small hockey countries should want to be is Great Britain. The idea of a single or a couple top teams in stronger leagues has not shown amazing progress for the likes of Croatia and Kazakhstan. Their results may grow for a bit, thanks to the influx of talented imports, but they then decline or flatline. It is a short-term bandaid that hasn’t been able to spur more significant growth.
Great Britain has grown the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) to such a high level that the country is passing the domestic leagues of France, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. They now are even nipping on the heels of Austria, in my opinion. The league allowed talented imports, especially welcoming those from North America. This helped shaped the current style of British hockey. Only the top percent of British players appeared in the league. This has improved league quality a lot and granted British players wonderful opportunities. Liam Kirk was able to be drafted from the league. They shot up in IIHF rankings and World Championships tournaments. They made it to the Elite division and are staying there.
The PHL has removed the import rules like the EIHL did. While there is a lot of pushback from some in Polish hockey. The skill level of the league has already grown a lot. The league is as competitive as ever. Teams no longer have to try and compete over the same small group of top Polish players to win. They can bring in better depth as well. This is very important for teams in large markets that are outside Southern Poland. Torun and Gdansk can play meaningful hockey games now, both teams are leaders in Polish attendance. Stronger teams mean better attendance, which leads to more money, attention, and more kids getting into hockey.
The Visegrad Cup is a significant test for Polish hockey in regards to gaining acceptance into the Tipsport Liga. JKH GKS Jastrzebie went undefeated to win their group, Podhale lost a single game and finished second. While Katowice dropped both their contest so far it was in a competitive fashion. If the tournament was set to judge how competitive PHL teams would be, they proved their worth in a major way. This forces the Tipsport Liga decision soon though.
The PHL is on the rise, and the Tipsport Liga is on the decline. I don’t believe the Tipsport Liga is worth it for Polish clubs. I don’t think there is enough that Polish clubs and players gain from moving the Tipsport Liga. Growing the PHL should be the top concern for Polish hockey. A goal being to get the PHL in more larger markets like Lodz and Poznan, both of which have hockey teams in the lower Poland divisions. In losing top teams, the PHL would also lose their Champions Hockey League spot which is excellent exposure for Polish hockey. The PHL can not absorb such losses.
In this scenario, the current crop of Polish players do take a hit. There are fewer jobs for them in the PHL, and top players lose on some growth. Top Polish players need to leave Poland to get better, and the current generation of talent seems to believe that. Wronka has left for the EIHL, Łyszczarczyk is staying in America, Lewandowski is in the United States Hockey League, and Zygmunt left for the Tipsport Extraliga. Polish players in stronger leagues and a growing PHL are exactly what Polish hockey needs.