Ice hockey is a team sport played on ice, in which skaters use their sticks to hit a puck into the opponent's net. It is a fast-paced physical sport. Ice hockey is most popular in areas that are sufficiently cold for natural reliable seasonal ice cover, such as the Czech Republic, Latvia, the Nordic countries (especially Finland and Sweden), Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, and the northern latitudes of the United States.
With the advent of indoor artificial ice rinks it has become a year-round pastime in these areas. In the United States, ice hockey is the lesser of the four major professional sports, but is followed far more enthusiastically in Canada. In North America, the National Hockey League (NHL) is the highest level for men and both the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) and the Western Women's Hockey League (WWHL) are the highest levels for women. It is the official national winter sport of Canada, where the game enjoys immense popularity.
While there are 68 total members of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), 162 of 177 medals at the IIHF World Championships have been taken by seven nations: Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden and the United States. Of the 64 medals awarded in men's competition at the Olympic level from 1920 on, only six did not go to the one of those countries. All 12 Olympic and 36 IIHF World Women's Championships medals have gone to one of those seven countries, and every gold medal in both competitions has been won by either Canada or the United States.
A game played on ice with a curved bat and a ball existed before Ice Hockey in the form of IJscolf, or Colf on ice, which was a popular game in the Low Countries between the Middle Ages and the Dutch Golden Age. The game was played with a wooden curved bat (called Colf or Kolf) and a ball made of wood or leather between two poles or simply convenient nearby landmarks, with the object of hitting the chosen point with the least number of strokes.
However, most believe that ice hockey evolved from stick-and-ball games, played outdoors, and adapted to the icy conditions of Canada in the 19th century. The games of British soldiers and immigrants to Canada, influenced by stick-and-ball games of First Nations, evolved to become a game played on ice skates, often played with a puck, and played with sticks made by the Mi'kmaq of Nova Scotia. The name of hockey itself has no clear origin, though the first known mention of the word 'hockey' in English dates to 1799 in England.