Thursday, October 4, 2007

NHL Premiere in London a big hit with British fans

During last weekend, the National Hockey League's 2007-2008 regular season kicked off across the Atlantic Ocean in jolly 'ol England. This was a venture brand new for the league and their intent is to expand its brand in Europe. Regular season games were played for the very first time not only just in the United Kingdom, but for the entire continent.

The drawing card was the two southern California teams with the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks squaring off for a pair of games against the Los Angeles Kings. While that rivalry has yet to peak, both games were very competitive and it made the two organizations feel the 5,452-mile trip worth it (in case you're curious, that exact distance is between downtown Los Angeles and the site of this event).

We bring you to the city of London, one of the most recognizable cities in the world. It will be hosting the 2012 Summer Olympic Games and during this season, two more major sports events will take place here.

Just six days from now (October 10th), the National Basketball Association will stage an exhibition game here between the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves in the NBA Europe Live Tour.

Then on October 26th, this metropolis will be hosting the first-ever National Football League game outside North America as the New York Giants play the Miami Dolphins at nearby Wembley Stadium. In fact, the Chelsea Football Club (that's a soccer team) announced today a partnership with the NFL to heavily promote the game. Where was this for the NHL Premiere series? It was lacking, but the great news was that both NHL games last weekend were sellouts at The O2 Arena, a beautiful brand-new multipurpose facility that can host a variety of sports and entertainment events, plus much more. Chelsea FC is THE soccer team in London and is a part of England's world-famous Premiere League.

While soccer (known as football to everyone else outside North America) and rugby are the top sports in the United Kingdom, the National Hockey League did a good job in getting the players of both teams to tour Greater London and interact with fans. That helped in building excitement among the locals for the games. Also during their time in London last week, the Ducks took the Stanley Cup around the city (in case you didn't know, this country is where the world-famous trophy was born).

One of the key reasons that the Los Angeles Kings were one of the presented teams for this event has a key connection to London. The Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) owns the Kings and built The O2 (located in London's North Greenwich section and is right at the Prime Meridian... how conveinent!). Arranging the event where the Kings would play their Pacific Division archrival was a no-brainer given the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup championship back in June.

The last time London was given a taste of NHL hockey was when the New York Rangers defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second of two preseason games at the London Arena on September 12, 1993. That venue has since closed its doors in 2005. With the new arena inside The O2 complex, London will bring in many more worldwide events.

Los Angeles would win the opener of the two-game series with a 4-1 triumph sparked by Michael Cammalleri's two power play goals and a stellar 26-save performance from rookie goaltender Jonathan Bernier. Bobby Ryan became only the second player in league history to score his first NHL goal at a neutral site in a losing cause for the Ducks. The Kings are poised to right the wrongs of a very disappointing 2006-2007 season where they finished fourth in the Pacific Division and were among the worst teams in the league.

Whether or not that the Stanley Cup hangover had anything to do with Saturday's loss, it did not affect Anaheim in the second game on Sunday. The Ducks returned the favor with a 4-1 victory of their own as Corey Perry scored twice while Chris Kunitz and Travis Moen added to the scoring sheet. Andy McDonald assisted on Anaheim's two first period goals. Likely to play the bulk of his season for the Ducks' primary minor league affiliate in the Portland Pirates, Jonas Hillier outplayed Jason LaBarbera between the pipes with a 22-save effort. Cammalleri scored the lone Kings goal, his third of the season. Unlike Saturday, American viewers got to see this game on Versus via NHL Network's television feed.

The Ducks did return to North America earlier this week and played their first game back in the United States with a 3-2 shootout loss last night in Detroit. With their record at 1-2 so far, it isn't a cause for panic. With the absence of four-time Stanley Cup champion defenseman Scott Niedermayer and one of the most exciting forwards in the game the last 14 years in Teemu Selanne still comtemplating retirement, Anaheim remains hopeful they'll get the chance to repeat as champions. Should they both not return, the arrival of Mathieu Schneider on the blueline and Todd Bertuzzi as a power forward should help fill the void.

But the underlying question remains, was this a successful weekend in London for the NHL? Was there an underlying goal that is within reach of the league? In the years ahead, those questions should be answered in some way, shape or form. With about one-third of the NHL players coming from Europe, it's already a market that has hockey engrained into the sports landscape. But it's primarily in the northern parts of the continent. Despite the low media coverage in London, the local fans came out and even those that made the trip were from other European countries as well as some from the United States and Canada.

So, the big question is, will the NHL ever place an expansion team in one of the major European cities such as London? The British fans seemed to have fallen in love with ice hockey as TSN reporter James Cybulski found out. Players from both teams such as Chris Pronger, Corey Perry and Rob Blake felt it was an experience they won't forget. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman didn't want to create speculation, but in an interview with Rogers Sportsnet's Paul Romanuk prior to the weekend series, he said it is a long way off before it can even be considered.

My reaction to that is good. Right now the NHL should just focus on fixing their own problems at home. Even with the new collective bargaining agreement that sacrificed a full season to acquire, there are still some markets in the United States that need time to stablize and grow, especially in the southern part of the country. With teams such as the Nashville Predators that has a cloud of uncertainty hanging over their head regarding its future, the NHL cannot even think about Europe before taking care of North American markets to make sure they're strong and financially competitive. With the possibility of having a pair of regular season games in played in Prague, Czech Republic between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins next season as reported on Sunday, at least the NHL can continue to bring its brand of hockey to other European cities even if they're just neutral site games.

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