And here’s my latest on nhl.com.
Click here, or read below.
Welcome to Europe
First, there were none. Then there were a few pioneers. Then the Iron Curtain fell, and all of a sudden, everybody was going to the NHL. Now today, kids in Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and probably even Russia, play road hockey and pretend they’re playing at the Air Canada Centre or Boston’s TD Banknorth Garden, dreaming of taking the shot with seconds remaining that beats the goalie and wins the Stanley Cup for the team that they dreamt to be drafted by.
It used to be that those kids pretended to be their countrymen playing for their national teams and winning the World Championship, or the Olympic gold. Then again, it also used to be that “turning pro” meant tossing your helmet to the laundry basket, and gluing your toupee to the skull with SuperGlue.
For the past couple of decades, the cycle of hockey has been turning the same old way. European kids become NHL prospects who then turn pro and move to North America to play hockey and pursue their dreams. I’m not sure when it happened but I would say that European players who have entered the NHL this millennium probably have always thought winning the Stanley Cup is the biggest prize in hockey.
Just as long as there have been European-born and trained players in the NHL, there have been plans, ideas, talks, schemes, articles, research papers, steering groups, and crazy (but rich) hockey entrepreneurs floating around with the purpose of setting up a pan-European professional hockey league.
The opportunity seems too good to pass up, and no wonder.
One, there are obviously a lot of great European players in the NHL. Two, hockey is a popular sport in Europe. Three, it looks like it’s a virgin market. Four, there’s got to be money in Europe, right? It’s a no-brainer: a pro league in Europe.
Yes, there have been cross-border tournaments, European cups, and the European Hockey League, a cup tournament set up by the International Ice Hockey Federation. Even Dennis Murphy, the co-founder of the original World Hockey Association looked seriously into creating a European hockey league, as did the Anschutz Group, a huge sports and entertainment corporation, and the owner of the Los Angeles Kings.
But there’s no league to be seen.
The problem is that the countries where hockey is huge are small. With the exception of Russia, of course, and maybe that’s why the newly-rich Russians are going ahead with their own plans.
The team with the highest attendance average in Europe this year was SC Bern in Switzerland, with almost 16,000 spectators a game. There are three teams in Europe with an average of over 10,000, and, for example, the biggest draw in the Finnish league, Jokerit Helsinki, had an average of 8,600. That was still the eighth biggest in Europe.
Now a Russian gas company, Gazprom, wants to create a super league in Europe, using the Russian league as the base, and then expanding to the neighboring countries. The current Russian league is already called the Super League, so the new one has to be something truly spectacular, but Gazprom may pull it off. It has a lot of money to burn.
Another kind of European league is launched by the International Ice Hockey Federation. Next fall, it kicks off its Champions Hockey League (CHL), with teams from the best European national leagues competing in a cup tournament. The winner will walk away with a few million dollars, and a shot at the Victoria Cup, a challenge between the winner of the CHL and an NHL team.
Gazprom is one of the investors in the CHL as well.
That’s all nice. Real nice. But it’s nothing compared to the excitement around the games that the Penguins and the Senators are going to play in Stockholm, or the contests between the Rangers and Lightning in Prague, or the exhibition games those four teams will play in Europe as part of their training camp.
The NHL is the engine, the yardstick, the touchstone. The NHL is what everybody is aspiring to, dreaming about, and working toward. NHL Europe is the dream we dream. Come on over, NHL, there’s a party going on here! But remember, it’s BYOB. Bring Your Own Billionaire.
Who knows, maybe in thirty years, there are kids in Saskatchewan, playing road hockey and pretending that there’s only a few seconds remaining when they take that shot that … beats the goalie … and wins the Stanley Cup for their Stockholm team.