By Pierre LeBrun
The NHL gets hammered for many things, some of them deserved, but let’s applaud it for what’s happening this week in London, England.
The puck drops for the NHL’s 90th season with the Los Angeles Kings and defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks playing back-to-back games at the 02 Arena.
I will be on hand and I can’t wait.
Officially, these games are nothing more than the NHL showcasing its brand to a new audience.
"This is a good opportunity to dip our toe in the water," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told me a few days ago. "A third of our players come from outside of North America and the hockey fans in those countries like to follow their players."
I’m not actually sure how many Brits not born in Canada are actually hockey "fans" but certainly Bettman is right about Sweden, Finland, Russia, Germany, Slovakia, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. Take it from a guy who’s had the privilege of covering six IIHF men’s world hockey championships from 2000 through 2005. You don’t need to sell the game hard in those places. They have passionate fans who appreciate top-level hockey.
Which brings me to a (pipe?) dream I’ve had for many years, one that’s been ridiculed by most of my close colleagues (Scott Burnside of ESPN.com, are you reading this?): NHL expansion to Europe.
I know, I know, crazy right? Well, let me see. Somehow we put NHL teams in such hockey hotbeds as Miami, Nashville, Atlanta, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Tampa, Phoenix and Raleigh, N.C. Surely those were better bets than Stockholm, Helsinki, Moscow, Prague, Zurich and Berlin, right? Not to mention St. Petersburg, Russia; Goteberg, Sweden and Cologne, Germany? You know, where some actual NHL players come from?
I’ve watched hockey games in some of those locales and it’s just as impressive an experience as watching the game in hockey meccas Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa.
So why not Europe?
Don’t think for a second that the NHL hasn’t put some thought into this. I know it has. But for now, it’s a very, very long-term project.
"It’s nothing we’re planning on, but by the same token I’ll never say never," Bettman told me. "There are many, many, many things that we have to do and have to happen before we can consider it. And there are logistical issues."
I don’t disagree there. First of all, there are professional leagues in Europe and they’re not going to roll out the welcome mat for the NHL. They would also have the IIHF fighting their fight. I remember IIHF president Rene Fasel scoffing at me during a news conference in Prague at the 2004 world championship when I suggested NHL expansion to Europe.
Somehow, if the NHL ever goes this route, there will have to be something in it for the IIHF.
Most people point to the obvious hurdle: travel. The reality: It’s not that big of a deal. Why is a seven-hour flight from Montreal to Europe such a fuss? Isn’t it nearly the same to go to Los Angeles from Montreal? No doubt it’s a much bigger haul for the Oilers to play in Europe, but we suggest one big road trip a season for the Western Conference teams. Similarly, the European teams would only have to play road games in the Western Conference once as well. In the meantime, the Eastern Conference teams can head over at least twice and vice-versa for Europe.
No, travel is not the biggest issue. Ticket pricing is. Sports fans in Europe aren’t generally used to paying the kind of dollars North Americans dole out. Most soccer teams in Europe have cheaper tickets than NHL ducats, and certainly all pro hockey leagues in Europe charge much less. So herein lies, I think, the biggest hurdle over the next decade to make this happen. Somehow convincing European hockey fans that it’s worth $150 a ticket to watch the Columbus Blue Jackets take on the Moscow Dynamo.
Then again, maybe the Blue Jackets will have moved to Helsinki. I can only hope.
— Sportsnet hockey analyst Pierre LeBrun is a hockey writer for The Canadian Press national news agency in Toronto.