Friday, September 12, 2008

Is the NHL really considering European expansion?

This is a question that has been asked from time to time in recent years. When the first NHL Premiere series was played in London, England nearly a full year ago, it was brought up without any surprise.

Will the National Hockey League consider expansion into Europe down the road?

Coming off last year's NHL Premiere series between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings played at the O2 Arena in London where both games sold out, you couldn't help but wonder. Could London or other major cities across the European continent support the highest professional hockey league on the planet? That question hasn't been answered, but maybe one day it will be put to the test.

William Houston of The Globe and Mail in Toronto had an article published this morning on this very subject.

NHL deputy commissioner William Daly told Houston in an interview yesterday that it is the league's ambition to expand into Europe within ten years. So we are talking about 2018 being a target year.

"As time goes on, you'll see us making increasing movement into Europe," Daly said. "Certainly, it's a possibility that within 10 years time we will be playing games there."

Make note that Daly said this is a goal, not any announcement that there will indeed be expansion teams being awarded to any European cities.

Since the early 1990s, the NHL has had exhibition games played in Europe. Then last year's NHL Premiere series to begin the 2007-2008 regular season. The only other time in league history that the NHL had kicked off a season overseas was when the Ducks and Vancouver Canucks played a pair of games in Tokyo, Japan just months before the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in the Japanese city of Nagano.

The timing of this to some observers might not come as coincidental at all considering there is a rising rival league based in Russia that has vowed to compete with the NHL. The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) was founded earlier this year. The KHL absorbed all 20 teams from the now-defunct Russian Super League and has a total of 24 teams spanning Russia, Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan. It hopes to quickly expand to 30 teams by the 2009-2010 season, matching the current total of the NHL. Interestingly enough, we are now seeing their intentions to only bring in elite teams in Europe and Asia with those signing players that have played professionally and at a high skill level. Just this summer alone, we've seen several high-profile players that did not sign with an NHL team ended up going to the KHL. They would be Ray Emery, Jaromír Jágr, Jozef Stümpel, Alexander Radulov, Branko Radivojević, Andrei Zyuzin, Wade Dubielewicz, Niko Kapanen, Sergei Brylin and Ladislav Nagy.

Radulov is currently under indefinite suspension by the Nashville Predators. This is because he signed with the KHL's Salavat Yulaev Ufa on July 11th with one more season left on his contract with the Predators.

Houston also stated in his article that besides the KHL as their main competition, the Champions Hockey League based on the European club soccer model will begin on October 8th. What does Daly have to say about this development?

"We are obviously monitoring and watching with great interest how they succeed," Daly said.

To date, Toronto-based hockey agent Anton Thun and other high-powered people in the hockey world have been big supporters of placing NHL teams in Europe. But hearing Daly make these comments this week has made the strongest of intentions pretty clear as far as what new avenue the league would like to try.

Carolina Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford weighed in the idea. He's not against potentially adding European teams, but he'd prefer to place one or two new teams in Canada before looking across the Atlantic Ocean.

"(European) cities do a good job for international hockey tournaments, but can those cities afford NHL prices for 42 regular season games plus playoffs?" Rutherford asked. "I don't know the answer, but if they can, then at some point there will be expansion in Europe. But first we have to expand a couple more teams back into Canada, get back into Winnipeg and put another team in Ontario before we see expansion to Europe."

National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) executive director Paul Kelly is open to European expansion, but only after any struggling North American franchises are stabilized.

"Once we reach that point, I do think we should at least explore the process of perhaps one day having a division of NHL teams based in Europe," Kelly said.

Daly likes the idea of placing six teams into a European division where the sport of ice hockey thrives from a fan standpoint, a business standpoint and especially an economic standpoint. Not that these would be the only cities on the radar screen, potential markets could include Stockholm, Helsinki, Prague, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as cities in Germany and Switzerland.

While I didn't mention Canada when I last discussed this subject, in my October 4, 2007 blog entry that recapped last season's NHL Premiere series, here is what I stated back then.

"So, the big question is, will the NHL ever place an expansion team in one of the major European cities such as London? ...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."

Even though I support the idea of European teams down the road, I still stand by that statement.

And by the way, to update that development from a year ago, the Lightning begin the upcoming season in Prague on October 4th and 5th with two NHL Premiere games against the New York Rangers, not the Penguins as originally planned. The Penguins will face the Ottawa Senators twice in Stockholm on the same two days.

There are other challenges the NHL faces besides those here at home. Houston brought up the NHL having to deal with taxation laws that would impact on player salaries, the distance of travel between Europe and North America and the time difference between the two continents for television broadcasts. Undoubtedly, all this has to be factored in if the NHL can even think about having teams overseas. Daly addressed that issue as well.

"The North American economy has a certain demand for North American sports content," Daly said. "I'm not sure that, in the short term, most European economies match that level of demand in terms of types of prices you could charge."

He added, "So, in dealing with a sports-league concept, you want markets that are at least within the same universe to at least support and charge for tickets and support player payrolls."

Roughly a third of all players currently playing in the NHL are from Europe, so turning its attention to expand on its fan and business reach is naturally is something that should be looked into.

When the second NHL Premiere series games are played, don't be shocked you hear this question asked yet again by the media covering them.

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