Johnston: NHL, PA set their sights on Europe

Gary Bettman has much to smile about as the NHL looks to expand its influence overseas (AP/Frank Franklin II)

Last year at this time there was only darkness to be found around the National Hockey League.

No lights on in arenas. No discussion about the battle for roster spots at training camp. Not even any of the “split squad” exhibition games that make you pine for the real thing.

In attempting to move beyond the lockout that wiped out almost half of last season, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association agreed to pull back the curtains and open themselves up to a new world of opportunities that should be beneficial for both.

Evidence of that strategy comes this week from Lisbon, Portugal – of all places – where executives from the NHL and NHLPA will participate in a meeting with their counterparts from the International Ice Hockey Federation to address all of the pressing issues in international hockey.

Thursday’s agenda is scheduled to include a discussion about resuming the premiere games, which see NHL teams play each other on European soil, and more talk about reviving the best-on-best World Cup event. The proposed Champions Cup club tournament, which would be modeled after soccer’s Champions League, will also be hashed over.

Even though no formal agreements or decisions are likely to come out of the session in Portugal, it does provide another peek into the expected changes to come – changes that could bring in an additional $1 billion in revenue over the next three seasons, according to an internal league memo obtained by SportsBusiness Journal last week.

A renewed push towards growing the NHL’s brand overseas could end up being the lasting legacy that comes out of the latest collective bargaining agreement. That document includes a section on international hockey which mandates that every team must make at least one trip to Europe before it expires.

And it’s clear that many who were involved in the contentious CBA talks of a year ago are open to dreaming even bigger than that.

“I think there’s a strong responsibility and feeling that with all the players we have from Russia, from Europe, from the other side of the globe, that we have a responsibility to grow the game there as well,” St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, a member of the NHLPA’s negotiating committee, told recently. “Not just from getting players from those areas, but having fans that are over there. Potentially with travel the way it is now what if there was a division of the NHL that was over there? All of a sudden you have a KHL-NHL rivalry that starts.

“You’re talking about a global game. The game is great and we want people all over the world playing it and it’s for everyone.”

By any measure, the NHL seems to have emerged from its fourth work stoppage in 20 years relatively unscathed. There is very little, if any, evidence of bitter feelings to be found now and the business has bounced back remarkably well.

During his state-of-the-game address at the Stanley Cup in June, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman revealed that the league took in more than 58 per cent of the previous year’s revenues during the lockout-shortened season despite only playing that percentage of the original schedule.

“Given the circumstances, that season couldn’t have gone any better,” said New York Islanders captain John Tavares.

Essentially, the paying customers chose to stick by the league and its product.

“It’s why they’re the best fans in all of sports,” Bettman told in May. “They’re more avid, they’re more connected than the fans of any other sports and that’s not something we take for granted.

“It’s not something that we put into a calculation when you go through a difficult period – when you go through a difficult period you’ve got to make the decisions that are necessary for the long-term health of the game.”

The atmosphere around the sport couldn’t be any different now than it was in the days after the lockout started last September.

There seems to be plenty of optimism on the cusp of a season that will include six outdoor games and plenty of focus on growth, whether it is with the new initiatives in Europe or talk of possible expansion closer to home.

There has also been a return to what feels like the normal pace of life, which is something worth celebrating for those that struggled through the uncertainty that marred the end of 2012.

“This is way more fun,” said Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal. “It was tough, especially for me. I’m 27 and in kind of what I’d like to say is the meat of my years in the NHL. To have to go through that was difficult, but a lot of other sports have gone through the same type of labour disputes.

“From a fan point of view, it’s never fun, but I think people have kind of gotten used to and understand it. Now that it’s behind us it’s all about looking forward.”

One year removed from a bitter fight, there is mutual interest for everyone to work together.

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