Johnston on NHL: Sochi is just the beginning

The NHL is so committed to growing its product internationally that it plans to open a staffed European office by the end of 2013, according to a source. (CP/Jonathan Hayward)

All of the painstaking months that hockey’s powerbrokers spent haggling over insurance, travel and hospitality issues weren’t just about delivering a deal to send NHL players to the Sochi Olympics.

The parties at the bargaining table also believe they’ve laid the foundation for bigger and bolder – not to mention more lucrative – opportunities in the future.

You see, the fifth straight trip to the Olympic Games for NHLers will only be the start of an expanded calendar of international events across the sport.

Click here for the NHL’s full 2013-14 schedule

The rebirth of the World Cup tournament for 2015 is also on the horizon, as are expanded forays into Europe by the NHL. Those will include more regular-season games on that continent along with the expansion of the Victoria Cup concept, which pits NHL teams against the champions of European leagues.

In fact, the NHL is so committed to growing its product internationally that it plans to open a staffed European office by the end of 2013, according to a source.

These are exciting times for those who love international hockey.

As difficult as the Olympic negotiation process proved to be in recent months, there seemed to be genuine optimism coming from the NHL, NHL Players’ Association and International Ice Hockey Federation following Friday’s announcement about the Sochi Games.

With those groups showing a spirit of co-operation, it left some of the most powerful men in the sport dreaming big.

“I hope that this is the first step in a multi-year deal, which will involve World Cups, Victoria Cups and other new events internationally,” Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson told “I think that there is a great opportunity for the IIHF, NHL and NHLPA.”

There is no doubt that the NHL recognizes the opportunity.

In recent years, it has launched native language websites and hopes to eventually have live game distribution available across all devices in Europe.

The contentious labour negotiations last year also included a hint of what was to come. NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr repeatedly mentioned the need to explore more opportunities in Europe and the new collective bargaining agreement mandates that every NHL team must make at least one trip overseas before it expires.

The NHL and NHLPA also seem ready to work together on reviving the World Cup tournament. The first event of that kind since 2004 is being targeted for a year after the Sochi Games, which means that preparations will have to start soon.

While Nicholson acknowledged that there wasn’t an in-depth discussion on the World Cup during the recent Olympic negotiations, he expects to be part of one in the very near future.

“Hopefully we’ll have these next talks started by the end of the summer,” said Nicholson, who also serves as a vice-president with the IIHF.

What it means is that the best players on the planet will likely be given more opportunity to pull a national team sweater over their heads. Sidney Crosby hasn’t done that since scoring the Golden Goal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and seemed downright giddy about the possibility of doing it again soon.

The Pittsburgh Penguins star is clearly in favour of the new international initiatives being planned for the sport.

“I think it would be great,” Crosby said Friday afternoon. “I think expanding (the international calendar) and playing different teams, representing Canada, the more that you get an opportunity to do that I think it’s great for everyone.

“I see that happening in the future.”

The wheels will start being set in motion soon.

While much of the focus from fans and media will now be on preparations for Sochi – Hockey Canada is expected to formally introduce head coach Mike Babcock and his staff, plus its list of invitees to next month’s orientation camp, in the coming days – a lot of other planning will be taking place behind the scenes.

With the continued growth and expansion of the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League, the ground seems to be shifting in the game on a global level. The NHL is clearly playing a role in the movement as well, starting with the deal to send its players back to the Olympic Games.

“The National Hockey League features the most international player population in professional sports, and our outstanding athletes take tremendous pride in representing their homelands on the global stage,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “The decision to participate … was in many ways a difficult one, but one that we know will be well received by our players and, most importantly, by the vast majority of our fans and sports fans everywhere.”

And they’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of possibility.

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