One of the most common things I get emailed about is players asking me what to expect when playing hockey in Poland, along with if I had any connections to help them get their foot in the PHL door. While I love to see the excitement of players and hope they succeed in their hockey career. I don’t believe it is my place as a journalist to help teams and players find each other. That is why I created this guide to playing hockey in Poland. As a note, a lot of this information was collected pre-COVID-19. Some things may be subject to change.
An updated version of this article can be found here.
Yes Poland has hockey
I will never forget one interaction I had with a player who messaged me, saying they had an offer from Poland. After I asked them which city, they replied, confused at my question and seem to think Poland was a city in Germany…
Poland has a long hockey history. They have been members of the International Ice Hockey Federation since January of 1926. Both the men’s and women’s senior and junior national teams play in the IIHF Division 1 Group B Championships. The most significant success came in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Poland regularly competed in the Elite divisions of the IIHF being led by NHLers Mariusz Czerkawski and Krzysztof Oliwa.
The men’s national team is currently led by Slovakian head coach Robert Kalaber. The team recently advanced to the final round of Olympic qualification, after an upset win over Kazakhstan. Some current prominent players include former Minnesota fifth-round NHL draft pick Marcin Koulsz who plays in the Liiga, Aron Chmielewski who plays in the Tipsport Extraliga, PatrykWronka in the Polska Hokej Liga, and Alan Łyszczarczyk in the ECHL.
Poland’s top league is the Polska Hokej Liga (PHL). The league has been in operation since 1925. In the past, the PHL has also gone under the name 1 Liga, Ekstraklasa, and Polska Liga Hokejowa. It has been referred to as the Polska Hokej Liga since 2013. In 2019 the league made a significant change to abolish a previous limit on imports. This is a strongly controversial topic, as though it raised the quality of the league. Many feel it will hurt Polish players in the long term. In 2020, the league featured 11 teams, with one team, Naprzod Janow, falling out mid-season due to financial reasons. Twelve teams have submitted applications to play in the 2020-21 PHL season. The season will be around forty plus games, with an eight-team playoff.
Only two teams will not be returning to the top league from the previous year in Naprzod Janow and Lotos PKH Gdańsk. Gdańsk was pretty much forced out by a second Gdańsk team in the PHL, SA Stoczniowiec Gdańsk.
GKS Tychy – The premiere team of Poland. They have made it to the finals every year since 2014. In that time, they have won three championships. They also were named the champions for the 2019-20 PHL season, which was suspended due to Covid-19. GKS Tychy also will compete in the Champions Hockey League this season, which is a competition of top clubs from around Europe. The team that finishes first in Poland is guaranteed a spot in the Champions Hockey League. GKS Tychy is a top organization all-around. There is no one better in Poland.
Unia Oświęcim – They are a club on the rise, finishing second in the PHL for the time since the early 2000s. A lot of credit goes to Slovenian head coach Nik Zupancic. The team is based in the city that was the place of the Auschwitz nazi concentration camp. The Athletic.com did a great piece on what it is like playing in the city. The team itself has some of the most passionate fans in Poland, along with a great mix of imports and Polish talent. They will be playing in the Continental Cup this season A smaller Euro club tournament featuring teams from Kazakhstan, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and more. The winning club gets a spot in the Champions Hockey League.
Podhale Nowy Targ – One of the most historic clubs in Poland has had a bit of an up and down ride lately, with some rumored financial struggles. Despite that, the team is full of national team talent and remains a force in the PHL. Their success shows no signs of changing in 2020, as they continue to bring back their core, along with hiring head coach Andrei Gusov, who helped make GKS Tychy into the dominant force they are.
JKH GKS Jastrzebie – Jasztrzebie is the talent factory of Poland. No club produces more young talent than they do. Current national team head coach Robert Kalaber is at their helm. A great team that uses imports to supplement and grow their young talent. Although a Polish championship has evaded them recently, they are a considerable threat.
Cracovia Krakow – Krakow is a weird club. They are like the New England Patriots of the PHL. They can never be counted out. Every time it seems like the team is at its end. They somehow still pull off a great year. Czech coach Rudolf Rohacek has been behind the bench since 2005. He runs the team like a well-oiled machine, even if unpopular at times. Krakow is one of the largest and most exciting cities in Poland as well. This year due to Covid-19 related budget cuts, the club is looking to mix mostly their junior talents with strong imports.
KH GKS Katowice – Katowice is a top team in Poland that just hasn’t gotten the results many expected of them. They returned to the PHL in 2016 after a short hiatus. In 2019, they finished first in the league but lost in the semi-finals. They have an absolute gorgeous arena, and great behind the scenes staff. The expectations are high in Katowice, but it is a great environment.
KH Torun – There is a lot of fan support for Torun, and they finish towards the top of the PHL in attendance every year. Torun is also a pretty place. Their club has a smaller budget than most PHL teams. Belarusian head coach Yuri Chukh deserves a lot of credit for being able to find diamonds in the rough. Torun is always able to find a few players in the lower leagues of Eastern Europe that become PHL stars. They do go through imports quick though, and a lot of players are just brought in for try-outs.
Zaglebie Sosnowiec – They have been hard hit by COVID-19 and have a much smaller budget for this year. They are looking to supplement their junior talent with imports like a few teams in the PHL. The team has a lot of potential for the future, but this will definitely be a step back year for them as they regroup. For imports though, this means a lot of ice time and chances to show their skills.
Other clubs in Poland that maybe in the import market include KTH Krynica-Zdrój, ŁKH Łódź, Naprzod Janow, Polinia Bytom, SA Stoczniowiec Gdańsk, UKS Niedźwiadki MOSiR Sanok. With the exception of maybe Gdańsk and Sanok, all these team operate at a much lesser scale of all the teams listed above. We did a larger dive on hockey in the city of Łódź here.
What the Agents Say
If you are going to play in Poland, you will most likely need to get there through an agent. At the end of the article will be a list of agents that have worked in Poland. Teams in Poland will often contact agents with the list of positions they’re looking to fill.
From my perspective, I’ve had clients in the PHL the last few years, all of them carrying EU or Polish passports. I enjoy working with teams in the league.
The PHL as a whole does not take many North American imports, as they are more expensive due to visa and travel costs typically. That is not to say they don’t want to have more North Americans in the league. But for a North American player to come to Poland they often have to take a lower salary than they would ideally prefer. The nature in which some Polish teams try to sign imports to “tryout contracts” as well makes the league a tougher sell sometimes to other comparable leagues. Polish teams expect a lot from their imports. The league has no import limit which has helped in increasing the level of the league. Most of my clients who I have sent to Poland have had fine experiences that I sign to standard player contracts. A couple have not, all whom signed “tryout contracts,” to begin with, and I avoid this at all cost unless the player wants to go for it and has no other decent options. – 83, LLC
1.liga is a good league for younger players looking to jump into men’s hockey and gain exposure to Polish hockey and PHL clubs as the PHL has no import limit, the sky is the limit for young players to earn potential opportunities! The PHL is a good league which continues to improve each season. Now with the no import rule, teams can add as many import players as they wish to strengthen their lineup and boost the level of the league! The winner gets to participate in the ChampionsHL while the runner up participates in the Continental Cup, two high level European tournaments! – 93 Hockey Services
I tell the players to be pleasantly surprised with the caliber of play. It is close to echl level. The travel isn’t as bad as some leagues which is a selling feature. (When asked about pay) Very reasonable it is on par with EIHL and DEL2 and Denmark and Norway – Darryl Wolski of 2112hockey
What the Players Say
I have talked to countless players about their experience in Poland, some players really enjoy it and want to stay for the long term. There are a lot of players that don’t even make it until the end of their contract. A very mixed bag, the biggest thing I have noticed is that players with prior European experience suffer less of a cultural shock to how European hockey runs and are more likely to stay.
Playing in Poland has been a great experience for me. I truly enjoy the lifestyle, the hockey, and the people. The hockey culture might be a little bit behind the modern countries such as Sweden, Finland and so on, but I’ve enjoyed my playing experiences way more in Poland than any other place in Europe. Great and supportive fans as well. – Nick Vilardo former Opole and Podhale Goaltender
I could write a book after one season. On ice: There was a big gap between best and weak teams but also between 1st and 4th line. Off ice: Off ice practicing is crazy. Running running running… everyone works with same weights and drills. It’s like soviet union style what they used in Finland 30 years ago. And one more thing. Everyone should learn to speak polish even little bit if you are not living in big cities. With my experience 25-50% of players can speak English. – Anonymous former PHL defensemen. Player did add he wouldn’t be against returning.
Training styles are a bit ancient at times, but the travel and pay are decent enough with nice cities. In my experience players either love or hated it. No in between. I would love to return one day. – Anonymous former PHL forward.
What the Staff Says
well I guess a lot depends on a team, our league is getting better, it was before that virus thing and right now no one knows how will it look like when whole this situation is going to end. We mostly expect from import players that they are going to be better than polish ones. – Roch Bogłowski, Manager GKS Katowice
Imports need to make a great first impression teams won’t hesitate to cut them after a couple poor performances. You’re taking a Polish players’ spot, so you better prove you’re worth the extra money fast. Imports usually widely accepted by their teammates quickly though. Lot less travel compared to past coaching jobs. – Anonymous former PHL coach
Again if you want to play hockey in Poland, you will most likely need an agent. Here are some agencies that have handled and negotiated deals for players in the PHL. There are plenty more agents out there, but these are ones I have heard positives things from when talking to players and have had multiple players in Poland.