Some of the greatest hockey action fans can witness each year come via International Ice Hockey Federation events, mainly the World Championships. The IIHF typically goes with a different rule book than the NHL, which sometimes create more confusion. Instead of players being free to sign with whoever they want in the NHL, there are strict guidelines in IIHF competition aimed at keeping the integrity of the game in check and allow for some fantastic action.

Now most people know about the hockey heavyweights, including Canada, Russia, USA and Sweden. But, if you don’t pay attention beyond that, you may not notice that teams like India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Brazil all having hockey programs too. We don’t blame you, these teams don’t do a whole lot year-to-year. But what makes some teams members while others, that may already play, not? In Part Three of the Understanding the Game series here on The Hockey House, let’s take a deeper look to help you learn about the international game and it’s confusing procedures.

Previous Guides

Major NHL/IIHF Rule Differences Explained

What The? IIHF Player Eligibility Rules Explained

Four Different Memberships

To indicate which teams are eligible to play in which events, the IIHF has four different levels of membership that allow teams to operate under. This means, for example, a team with a IIHF Affiliate Membership, such as Chile, can’t go an play a team like Sweden in the same event. Here’s a breakdown to clarify everything:

  • Full Membership: This is what 53 of the 74 countries have. It’s the standard type of membership, meaning that countries already have an established hockey association and participate in IIHF tournaments. Currently, Canada is the top ranked team in the world, which, of course, also makes them the top full member. In 2015, the United Arab Emirates joined the list of teams with the full membership, becoming the 53rd country to join in on the fun.
  • Associate Membership: This is the second most common group with 19 countries involved. Basically, this means you can compete in ice hockey tournaments, but don’t have their own independent hockey associations just yet. For example, Kuwait is allowed to play in events such as the Challenge Cup of Asia, but they still don’t get adequate funding or individual support due to the fact that their program still isn’t separate from the Kuwait Olympic Committee.
  • Affiliate Membership: An affiliate membership is quite rare for the IIHF, with only two members belonging to this group. An affiliate membership applies to teams that only participate at IIHF InLine championships, with Chile and Namibia filling out the exclusive group. Neither country compete on the ice just yet, but they could get promoted to an associate membership in the near future they do begin to advance their current programs.
  • Conditional Membership: This is a rare one too. According to the IIHF, a team with a conditional membership includes countries that have made significant steps to build their program and have a fully independent hockey association, just like what the full membership requires. Very recently, Indonesia Ice Hockey Federation was given conditional status by the IIHF and will continue to work on building a long-term program for the future.

What makes a qualifying nation eligible for the World Championships? 

Ah, this is the confusing part.

  • A country needs to have, at a minimum, an artificial indoor rink that meets all the size and regulation standards. It must also have a minimum of 500 spectators, so a makeshift pond in Zimbabwe won’t exactly get you the status you want.
  • You need to have a minimum of 60 players to choose from in a single category. So, if you want to play at the men’s World Championship, you can’t just pick out a beer league team and have nothing else to choose from. Same goes for any other competition, whether it be a IIHF U18 event or even a women’s tournament.
  • They need to have a league of some sort. Zimbabwe couldn’t just say “hey, we have 60 players that practice for fun” and be fine. You don’t need to have a great league, but it needs to be organized and keep track of records and info and whatnot. It needs to have a minimum of four teams, so two teams playing each other every week doesn’t qualify.
  • The country must also have a development program, aimed at educating players, coaches, officials and more to help build the game in the country. It basically serves as a way to help recruit players in the long run and, hopefully, avoid a lack of development and player registration in the few years after.

Any team that have teams but are not members, such as Colombia or Argentina, are able to compete in small international events (ones not formally organized by the IIHF), but still need to fill out the various factors to become IIHF members.

What happens when countries split?

This isn’t a very common occurrence, but when a country split in to two or more nations, what exactly happens to the teams involved? According to the IIHF, “If a sovereign state has been newly established by separation from an existing sovereign country and its Member National Association is then affiliated to the IIHF, its national team may be entered into the bottom division or qualification of the respective competitions.” In short, the country with the most participating players in the past four years gets to stay in the division they previously qualified for, while the second team has to start all over again.

Let’s take a look at the two countries that once made up Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It was decided that the Czech Republic would continue to stay as a top division team in international competition, but Slovakia would have to start at the bottom once again. It didn’t take them that long to find themselves back at the top, winning the C1 World’s in 1994 and the B division in 1995 before heading to the main tournament for the 1996 World’s in Vienna.

What happens if two countries form together?

This one’s rare, but regardless, it’s a simple concept. Let’s say Mexico and the United States decided to get married and create one united nation. Mexico, a lower level team, wouldn’t have to worry about spending time in Division IIB anymore because both countries will get to play together as one in the higher division between them. In this case, USA already participates in the top division, which means that the United States of Mexico would get to play at the Olympics and the World Championships. Simple enough?

Want clarification on a different subject? Suggest an idea in the comments below!

Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.

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