Is flying international good or bad for the NHL?
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: The Kings and the Ducks have been struggling since their trip to London to open the season. Is there any point to these trips for the league and the players? Does it fit into an overall Olympics concept that is likely going to end in 2010?
Damien: So Scott, now that you've had a couple of weeks to -- ahem -- get over pub withdrawal and refocus, I guess I'm wondering what having the Kings and Ducks and Burnside all in Mary Poppins Land for a few days was all about.
Scott: Allow me. Having been to London (I kept a deep-fried carrot as a memento), I'm not sure you can blame a slow start for both the Ducks and Kings on having to travel overseas. The Ducks are still missing Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, and at the time, did not have Jean-Sebastien Giguere or Samuel Pahlsson. Now that Giguere is back between the pipes, the Ducks have bounced back. Naturally. The Kings? Well, they simply aren't that good and still don't have an NHL-caliber netminder. Didn't in London, don't in Los Angeles.
Damien: Sure. But clearly, it didn't help them, did it? What possible benefit could there be for either team? The Kings, in particular, really needed to be back home in North America getting ready to try and stitch a decent season together in what might be the NHL's toughest division. There was no value in them going, other than the fact their owner, Phil Anschutz, owns the building in London.
Scott: Agreed, the motivation, in large part, was to fill a building owned by the same group that owns the Kings (and apparently every barn, rink and lean-to in the free world). But let's think big picture for a minute. The NHL gets hammered consistently for not promoting itself. One-third of NHL players come from outside North America. If there's a way to open a door to more European television money and the sale of merchandise, don't teams owe it to the league to answer the bell once every 10 years if that's what it takes? I think two teams aren't enough. I think they should send an entire division (plus one) and have a mini-tournament in two or three hockey cities like Prague, Stockholm, Berlin, etc.
Damien: See, but it's the lack of consistency that drives me nuts. I was there in 1993 when the Leafs and Rangers went to London to play for the French's Mustard Cup (seriously). So they haven't made a step forward since? This is a league where the World Cup gets played in 1996, then 2004, and maybe not ever again, and where commitment to the Olympics is, like an upper-body injury, a day-to-day issue. The NHL, as far as I can tell, is just throwing darts at the European board, rather than executing a specific strategy for international hockey.
Scott: I think you're picking nits, just because the World Cup of Hockey happens to run on the unusual eight-year time cycle. It's kind of a double-Olympics, or something like that. Agreed, it would be nice to know if there is indeed a plan other than AEG scooping up a bunch of money. But I think the NHL has to first identify what it really wants to do about the Olympics. Are they in or are they out? You know as well as I that the feeling is Vancouver is the last Olympic hurrah for the NHL. But why not say it? Because, maybe, no one knows for sure. And if you don't know for sure, you can't go forward and make plans to have a World Cup of Hockey or Euro visits.
Damien: But it isn't nitpicking, because it applies to everything this league does, from rules to uniform systems to playing overseas. It's all a shot in the dark, hoping something hits something. If you want to be in Europe, then commit to a strategy that goes beyond one season, because otherwise you're asking teams like the Kings and the Ducks to sacrifice the start of their seasons for no particular reason. Was there much newspaper or TV coverage of the games in London?
Scott: There wasn't a lot. But again, I think it's difficult to define "a lot." There were lots of media around. Folks from Sweden, the Czech Republic, Ireland, CNN, BBC -- so I guess it got some attention. I spoke with a broadcaster who lives in London (and actually met the Queen and actually talked hockey with her), and he said the NBA visit, which followed the NHL's visit in late September, was well-attended but seemed to draw fewer actual fans of the sport. So I'm curious. What do you think the NHL should do about the Olympics? I hear the Black Sea area that will host the 2014 Winter Games is lovely. If only I could find it on a map.
Damien: Having a lot of media around. Hmm, all that means is there must have been lots of free stuff. About the 2014 Olympics and so on -- I'm torn. I like the best playing the best, but then again, there was always something to having a rag-tag group of Canadians or Americans taking on the world. I think I could care more about the NHL being in the Olympics if the league would take more than a three-day break to compete.
Scott: Well, the one thing I found fascinating while watching the games in London was, unlike games in Toronto, there were actually fans in the seats watching and talking about the games. I thought all the media discussion about whether there was a "buzz" about the games was hysterical. The games were sold out, fans came to watch. What more do you want? If you think it's a good idea to appeal to the millions of hockey fans in Europe, why not throw them a bone and let them see a couple of meaningful games every year?
Damien: OK, but surely there's more to this than "throwing them a bone" -- I love quoting Burnside. Surely, there's a strategy to this, yes? I can't figure it out, so I assume one who is accustomed to the huge hockey crowds in Atlanta could explain.
Scott: Well, I didn't say the NHL had a strategy. I have one, but no one has asked -- until now. Why not have six teams go and play a couple of exhibition games and then play a couple of regular-season games in a tournament format? The fans would love it -- the fact they trekked from all over Europe to wildly expensive London showed that. It would be a good PR move for the league. And if more than two teams go, then the negative of traveling to Europe, whatever that might be, will be more evenly spread throughout conference foes.
Damien: Actually, I don't mind that idea, and it means two teams aren't carrying the entire burden. How about 12 teams in six cities playing 12 regular-season games taking Europe by storm for a full week? Forget mini-tourneys and exhibition games. There's enough meaningless hockey as there is.
Scott: I like it. And I didn't mean to suggest they not play regular-season games. I think they have to, or else it does become an even more obvious cash grab than it already is. Plus, have you been to Prague? Gorgeous. It's the birthplace of beer. And they love hockey. What's not to like?
Damien: C'mon. Honolulu is the place to go. Or Aruba. Don't you think Monaco would love to see George Parros in full stride?
Scott: You know, I'm always willing to take one for the team. That's why I laud Jerry Bruckheimer's efforts to land an NHL team in Las Vegas. But seriously, I am interested in how an NHL visit might play in a country that actually has a connection to the game like the Czech Republic, Sweden or Finland. And, by the by, if I'm going to be sending Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins (which appears will be the case next fall), why not find a Canadian team that will go to ensure maximum media coverage back here in North America?
Damien: Well, I believe the Ottawa Trojan-like Logos are going. I think the NHL could do very well in all of those places you mentioned, but they could do even better if they committed to going back every year for five years. And I'm disappointed you didn't pick up on the Parros imagery.
Scott: I did, but chose to ignore it. Actually, I thought you'd meant Greece and confused Parros with one of the Greek Islands. I don't think the Sens are going, but we'll see. As for committing to going for five years, I think the problem is if you do commit and it turns out the players really hate it and it really does have a negative impact, you're then stuck doing something that should be about profile and PR and it achieves little of what you've set out to accomplish.
Damien: Geez, talk about double-talk. Did Ted [Saskin] and Bill [Daly] intercept these e-mails? Does it hurt, sir, to be sitting on top of that white picket fence? You can't have it both ways. Either you lay down a meaningful plan and go for it, or don't bother and leave Jokerit and Rapperswil to the Euro market.
Scott: Just don't tell Chris Chelios I'm sharing these e-mails. I agree, it'd be nice to have a plan, but why not have a plan that works? I know it's not necessarily the NHL way, but I don't think it hurts to make sure this is going to be worth it.
Damien: OK, as what usually happens at about this time in our weekly cyber-conversations, I'm getting a headache. So tell me this: Who will coach the plummeting Thrashers? Pat Quinn? John Buccigross? Mike Vick?
Scott: I still want to know what you think about the Olympics and whether we're headed to the Black Sea in 2014 or if Vancouver is it in 2010. But since you asked, I think GM (and now interim coach) Don Waddell has an interesting dilemma. Does he hire for the long term, a coach like Randy Cunneyworth, who helped stock the Buffalo Sabres with impressive talent over the last three years, or does he try and find someone who might be able to make some semblance of order this season? If it's the latter, I think Pat Quinn might be able to affect some immediate change, but he's also more than likely to take Waddell's job at the end of the year. Vick's available, though, and he knows the Atlanta area.
Damien: I think Quinn's an interesting choice in that he likes the free-flow game and can probably keep Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk happy. But Quinn teams don't survive long without great goaltending, and Kari Lehtonen just doesn't seem healthy, does he? And the Black Sea question? I just can't see the NHL there. Then again, I was doubtful they'd be in Torino, and they were. Guessing the NHL's next international move is like trying to figure out what Jussi Jokinen's going to do on his next shootout attempt.
Scott: Yes, the one thing about Quinn's teams in Toronto, he had great goaltending right until the end. Lehtonen? There are real questions about his mental toughness. Guess we'll find out starting this week if it was Hartley or something else. I, too, think the NHL will be done after Vancouver, but I hope they have a plan (there's that word again) for keeping the game on the international stage. Good reference to Jokinen, by the way.
Damien: Brother Olli's in town, so the Jokinen clan is on my mind. So to sum up, the Ducks have it all back together and are over their jetlag, it doesn't matter whether the Kings took too many tours of Old England and Don Waddell better make like Vince Lombardi starting tonight. Does that about sum it all up?
Scott: Oh, you are on your game today. I think you'd do well in Prague. Or Athens. Catch you on the rebound.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."