Commentary

What next for the Premiere Games?

Updated: October 5, 2009, 4:53 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

And so, the NHL put the finishing touches on its third Euro experiment, and barring something completely unforeseen, there will be a fourth trip next year with the league expanding to three cities and six teams across the pond.

The league and the NHL Players' Association had wanted to expand to a three-city, six-team slate this season, but uncertainty over the global economy and planning issues prompted them to stay with the four-team, two-city schedule we saw this past week and last season.

"I think we want to cast the widest possible net," Ken Yaffe, the NHL's senior vice president of international hockey, told ESPN.com before Saturday night's Premiere Games finale in Stockholm between Detroit and St. Louis.

[+] EnlargePremiere Games
Paul Gilham/Getty ImagesThe NHL hosted two season-opening series in Europe this season, one in Helsinki and the other in Stockholm.

These European vacations aren't cheap. Teams have to be compensated for "losing" one home date, which explains why you'll always see some small-market teams in the mix with higher-profile clubs.

Factoring in travel, per diems, buyout costs and the rest, it cost the NHL about $7 million to put on the four games in Helsinki and Stockholm.

It's worth it, though, said Yaffe, who has been putting together international events for the NHL for more than a decade.

Tickets are expensive, but all the games have been sellouts or within a few hundred seats of a sellout since the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks started this process in the fall of 2007. Now, with a certain "branding" accompanying these games after three visits to Europe, the selling of the Premiere Games should become easier, regardless of whether the games are held in Prague, Helsinki, Berlin or London.

Sponsors should be easier to line up as they become more familiar with what it means when the NHL comes to town. Fans continue to come, and as long as smart decisions are made on locations and facilities, the following should continue.

Then, there are the trickle-down benefits, such as a potential boost to European television rights, traffic for the league's Web site and, thus, increased revenues, merchandise sales and stronger connections to the NHL's services.

"It's all part of a much bigger strategy," Yaffe said. "It's more than just dasherboard ads and ticket sales. We want to be on the continent. We're relevant on the continent; we're the premier league in the world."

So, where to next season?

If we had to offer an educated guess, we'd say a return to Prague and Helsinki, and perhaps Berlin, which has an NHL-style arena and a lot of hockey interest.

Which brings us to our favorite part of this European scenario -- Russia.

The NHL continues to have a tumultuous relationship with the country and, specifically, with Alexander Medvedev, the head of the Kontinental Hockey League. There are issues of player-transfer agreements and continued concerns about the KHL's predatory view on plucking players from the NHL.

The league's presence in Europe every fall acts as a counterbalance to the Kontinental Hockey League's periodic assertions that it would like to become a pan-European presence. But make no mistake, the NHL wants to bring its game to the Russians, literally.

"We're going to do it at some point," Yaffe said of taking the Premiere Games to Russia.

When the NHL makes its first trip to Russia, it will exponentially up the ante dramawise. For a host of reasons, the NHL's first regular-season games on Russian soil would provide a gaggle of storylines, not to mention incredible interest within the hockey-mad country.

We'd love to see the NHL throw down the gauntlet and plow into Russia next season. Bring the Thrashers (assuming Ilya Kovalchuk is still in Atlanta) and the Capitals (we're pretty sure Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin will still be in Washington), and show fans what real hockey is about and that they've been bombarded by rhetoric about the power of the KHL during the past two years.

But maybe that's a little too cowboy for reality.

The reality is, as much as the NHL would like to rub the KHL's nose in it by taking the international ice war to its turf, these international forays work because the host countries and cities want the NHL there. Imagine the potential problems the NHL might encounter by trying to make a hostile takeover of the Russian hockey market, if even for a week.

Instead, look for the NHL to use the Premiere event as an olive branch at some point to try to smooth over the difficulties that currently exist between the two hockey bodies.

There is also the looming issue of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The Russians desperately want the NHL to play there when they host the Olympics for the first time. It will be a mostly hollow victory if the NHL bows out of the Olympic hockey tournament after Vancouver in February (many owners hope that will be the case) and the Russians win gold in the Games' marquee event.

At some point, the two hockey nations and the NHLPA will have to sort these things out, and an NHL visit in the fall likely will be one of the major trading chips on the table. It might not be any time soon, though, as Medvedev recently stiffed the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation at a recent meeting in Switzerland, where it was hoped the bodies could find some common ground on transfer agreements.

Until that cold war thaws, watch for more games in Helsinki, Prague and Berlin. And that's not a bad thing.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.