By Ian Mendes in Stockholm, Sweden
If Eugene Melnyk had his way, the National Hockey League would be actively pursuing expansion into Europe.
The Ottawa Senators owner voiced his opinion on the subject of European expansion prior to Sunday’s game between the Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins in Stockholm.
“It’s happening and it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of time and how we can set up a schedule,” Melnyk told reporters on Sunday. “I would be a huge fan of expansion into Europe. I was three or four years ago. And now – absolutely and irrevocably – I am committed that my vote is in for European expansion.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was quick to point out that Melnyk’s comments did not reflect the official league policy on European expansion.
“Mr. Melnyk was not voicing an official league position. He may be right, he may be wrong,” responded Bettman on Sunday. “We want to develop a more permanent and more regular presense in Europe. Permanent doesn’t mean franchises on the ground in the near future or ever. It might happen at some point, but it’s not on the drawing board.
But NHLPA director Paul Kelly also seemed to back Melnyk’s position, by suggesting the player’s association is very interested in the idea of having teams in Europe. And according to Kelly, the timeline might be closer than the commissioner is willing to admit.
“That door is very much open. Of all the major sports, we are the ones who could expand into Europe,” said Kelly, speaking at the same news conference as Bettman. “We need to work out a lot of logisitics and we are studying it. I could see it long-term, like five to ten years down the road.”
Most observers believe it would be difficult for a North American sports league to expand in Europe, with travel being the main concern. However, Melnyk believes those hurdles could easily be cleared if the league put together a solid plan for this unique venture.
“At the end of the day it can be done. How you do it is going to be novel,” Melnyk added, saying he would love to be part of the NHL group in charge of devising such a complex plan. “There are a lot of ways to do it. Look what they did with soccer. They have more tournaments, leagues and championships than anyone. You can’t even keep track of how many things Manchester United plays in.”
Bettman did say that the league is closer to expanding to Europe today than it has been at any point in its history. However, the travel over the Atlantic Ocean remains his greatest concern.
“If supersonic transport was routine and you could get from here to there in three or four hours and you weren’t dealing with those issues, it would probably be even closer,” added Bettman.
Melnyk is certainly in favor of moving the NHL product into Europe on a full-time basis, but the players participating in this weekend’s games in Stockholm seem more reluctant to embrace the idea. Senators forward Jason Spezza is one NHL star who doesn’t think expansion into Europe is possible at this point.
“I think it will be tough for the league to expand here,” said Spezza, who said he would be in favor of seeing a champions league format similar to what is done with soccer. “But to have a regular season all the time and a separate division might be tough. Obviously the passion of the fans is here – but the geography doesn’t work.
Sidney Crosby also believes the European fans have enough passion to support the NHL, but the game’s biggest star stopped well short of saying overseas expansion was on the radar for the players.
“The games here sold out. The games in Helsinki sold out, they’ve had good responses,” Crosby said. “It’s definitely a possibility and something that’s been talked about, but there’s a lot of thought that needs to go into it before you make a decision like that.”