One of the most common things I get emailed about is players asking me what to expect when playing hockey in Poland and if I had any connections to help them get their foot in the PHL door. While I love to see players’ excitement and hope they succeed in their hockey careers, 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.
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 were confused by my question and seemed to think Poland was a city in Germany…
Poland has a long hockey history, and they have been members of the International Ice Hockey Federation since January 1926. Poland sends teams to all five levels of IIHF hockey. The most significant success came in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Poland regularly competed in the Elite division 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. After an upset win over Kazakhstan, the group recently advanced to the final round of Olympic qualification, and there they would upset Belarus before falling to Austria and Slovakia. The national team would finish off the year winning gold and promotion at the Divison 1 Group B World Championship after defeating Japan 2-0 on the final day. Some current prominent players include former Minnesota fifth-round NHL draft pick Marcin Koulsz who plays in the Polska Hokej Liga, along with Alan Łyszczarczyk, Aron Chmielewski, and Pawel Zygmunt who play in the Tipsport Extraliga.
The Top League
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 import limit. Going into 2022, the import limit still does not exist, but there are some requirements on who appears in the lineup. In 2022-2023, each team will be required to have six Polish players in the lineup, foreign players with a polish passport count as Polish. If a team has a foreign goalie, their backup will need to be a Polish goalie. Teams will also need to keep two youth Polish players in their lineup.
Nine teams are expected to compete in the PHL next year. The season will be split into five rounds with 40 games. Poland will likely have 9 teams, but due to the ongoing situation in Ukraine, there have been talks about including Ukrainian teams. Many clubs in Poland have also said they will be not signing Belarusian or Russian players for the 2023 season. In 2022, they made up about 20% of the League. So there are plenty of open spots in Poland.
KH GKS Katowice – The most recent champions of Poland! Katowice is one of the premier teams in the PHL. Expectations are always high, but it is an excellent environment in a beautiful city. The team is coached by legendary former Polish player Jacek Plachta, who has coached professionally in Germany and Poland. Katowice will also be competing in the Champions Hockey League, a competition among the best teams in Europe due to being the Polish champions. After a strong year in Katowice, forward Anthon Eriksson was able to turn his PHL success into a deal in Sweden’s top hockey league.
Unia Oświęcim – They are a club on the rise, with quite a few recent second-place finishes in the PHL, including in 2021-22. 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 town. 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. The team has attracted quite a few exciting imports the past few seasons, with former NHLers Gilbert Brule, Ty Wishart, and Victor Bartley appearing for the club.
JKH GKS Jastrzebie – Jasztrzebie has been the talent factory of Poland recently. No club had produced more young talent than they have. Current national team head coach Robert Kalaber is at the helm. A great team that uses imports to supplement and grow their homegrown talent. They are a considerable threat to win every year. While they don’t have the most significant budget in Poland, they use what they have exceptionally well, and their homegrown talent keeps them at the top. They won the bronze medal during the 2022 season.
GKS Tychy – The premiere team of Poland. They have made it to the finals in all but two years since 2014, and in that time, they won three championships. GKS Tychy is a top organization all-around with a substantial budget as well. There are not many better clubs in Poland or Europe, as seen by their behind-the-scenes staff taking home some hardware from the Champions Hockey League. After two years of falling to the bronze medal game, Tychy is loading up to make a run back to the top.
Cracovia Krakow – Cracovia 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 Poland’s largest and most exciting cities, and the team also has one of the most significant budgets in Poland. They were primarily made up of Russian imports in the previous seasons but have committed to not signing any for the 2023 season.
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, and their club has a smaller budget than most PHL teams. Club leadership deserves a lot of credit for finding diamonds in the rough. Torun can always find a few players in the lower leagues of Eastern Europe that become PHL stars. They do go through imports quickly, and in the past, many players were just brought in for tryouts.
STS Sanok – A proud hockey team that has returned after falling off the hockey map for a few years. They mix their young talent with a heavy import presence, mainly those with Finnish backgrounds. While they may not be the best team, they will never go down easy. The team is led by former Finland U20 assistant coach Miika Elomo. They have one of the biggest fanbases in Poland, finishing first in PHL attendance with 1,568 average fans per game, 200 more than then second place Oswiecim.
Zaglebie Sosnowiec – They have been hard hit by COVID-19 and have a much smaller budget than most PHL teams. They will always have a good mix of veterans and young players, but not enough depth to win right now in the PHL. Their fan base is also on the smaller end, as they finished with the third-lowest attendance at 565.
Podhale Nowy Targ – One of the most historic clubs in Poland has had a bit of an up and down ride lately, with some financial struggles. The team has relied highly on its young players over the past couple of seasons.
The following players all made a jump to a stronger league after playing in Poland during the last decade. (Player, Year in Poland, League after PHL)
Anthon Eriksson (2022, SHL), Anton Svensson (2021, HockeyAllsvenskan), Aron Chmielewski (2010-2014, Tipsport Extraliga), Brett McKenzie (2021, AHL), Cody Porter (2021, Liiga), Jakub Ferenc (2015, Tipsport Extraliga), Luka Kalan (2020-21, ICE Hockey League), Marek Kalus (2014-15, Tipsport Extraliga), Pawel Zygmunt (2016-2019, Tipsport Extraliga), Samson Mahbod (2013-14, Liiga & KHL), and Tadej Čimža (2020, ICE Hockey League)
The 2nd League
Poland has a second league called the MHL, and it is a weird mixture of U20 teams and senior clubs. Teams in this league that may recruit import talent include ŁKH Łódź, Naprzod Janow, and Polonia Bytom. These clubs all operate on a much smaller scale than the PHL, and the deals would likely only provide housing and other minor benefits. But they offer chances to be seen by PHL clubs. We did a more considerable 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.
“Most PHL teams present a good sports level. There are many top Polish hockey players in the teams, supported in large numbers by foreigners who previously were in KHL, NHL, SHL, Liiga, or the Czech and Slovak Extraleague. The game in Poland is physical, quite fast, with not many fights. The victory of Cracovia Kraków in the last Continental Cup proves the strength of Polish teams. As for the sports level, I would place PHL on the same shelf as the Swedish Allsvenskan or the Belarusian League, and over such leagues as French, Danish, and Norwegian. Polish clubs are constantly developing and presenting quite a good level as organizations, but in this field, they are still a bit behind the European leaders. A lot of devoted fans come to the halls, but the sport is not very popular in Poland (apart from the final matches, no television broadcasted last season). PHL is worth choosing because of the country itself, its people, cuisine, history, architecture, and environment. In this matter, every foreigner will feel very well in Poland.” – Przemysław Nasiukiewicz of Hockey Progress Management
“I’ve had clients in the PHL over the past ten years. Most have held EU or Polish passports, but I’ve also had a few North Americans in the League. I enjoy working with teams in the League. The PHL allows an unlimited number of import players, which makes it interesting to see how each team constructs their roster. The level of the League and development of young Polish players as a result also has increased over the past few years. The League does not have many North American imports, as they are generally expensive due to visa and travel costs. Only a couple top paying teams in the League will usually sign a few North Americans each season, while most import players come from Russia, Eastern Europe or Nordic countries. That is not to say most of the League does not want to have North Americans. For a North American player to come to Poland, if they are not desired by the top paying clubs in the League, the player may have to accept a lower salary than they would ideally prefer on the market. The nature in which some Polish teams try to sign imports to “tryout contracts” in the past has made the League a tougher sell over other comparable leagues. That aspect is fading, which is great for the league reputation moving forward. If all Polish clubs operate in a professional manner with players, the League will keep improving its market value to top talent. Many of my clients in Poland have had good experiences, and I hope this will continue!” – 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
Estimated Salaries from 2112 Agency.
What the Players Say
I have talked to countless players about their experiences in Poland. Some players really enjoy it and want to stay for the long term, and 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.
“I think right now because of big number of imports level of the League is pretty high. You can find there very experienced players and quite a few young ones who are trying to make their name. It’s more technical but not as physical as in the UK” – Sebastian Lipinski, PHL Goalie from 2018-2021
“I can highly recommend playing Poland. Of course, it depends where u play. There is a couple of places where the city or organization is very bad, like Sosnowiec or Torun (the city is beautiful). Fans are amazing in Poland. That was one of my best memories for myself. Everything is there really cheap (food, drink, etc) Alltough I get fired and they didn’t pay everything back for me, I still enjoy my time in Poland also. Level of life was for me a good surprise. Poland is a modern European country nowadays.” – Anonymous former PHL Forward
“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 defenseman. Player did add he wouldn’t be against returning.
What Staff Say
“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 an impact quickly. North Americans are a bit rare. There is strong comradery in the locker room, and staff, fans, and players are highly passionate. Depending on the club, I would put the level between the US SPHL and ECHL. Top clubs could compete against the better leagues of Europe. – Anonymous former PHL Head 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 positive things from when talking to players and have had multiple players in Poland.