By traveling to London, Ducks, Kings taking one for the team
LONDON -- So, is this the future of the National Hockey League? Bangers and mash between periods, fish and chips before the opening faceoff? A little home-and-home action between the London Lagers and the Paris Poodles?
And let's be honest, if you're a cynic (and we know the hockey world is full of them), this week's foray across The Pond to London for the first NHL regular-season games in Europe smacks of gimmickry and, worse, a bit of a scam. After all, the first two games of the 2007-08 regular season, pitting the Los Angeles Kings against the Anaheim Ducks, will be played at the O2 Arena, which just happens to be owned by AEG, the same group that owns the Kings.
Think global hockey markets, and London ranks right up there with Istanbul and Marrakech as places hockey is never going to be a big deal. Attempts to create a bit of a buzz in the city with the arrival of the NHL have stutter-stepped along as a trip to the birthplace of the Stanley Cup had to be canceled because of construction. The league also failed to get a local member of Lord Stanley's family involved in the proceedings this week. It might have been a nice touch to have family members drop the first puck at either game, but, barring a last-minute change of plans, that's not going to happen.
But let's put aside cynicism for at least a moment and give NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly a say.
This isn't a one-off thing, Daly said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. Whether it will be an exhibition series like the one the Kings completed in Austria before coming to London this week or future regular-season games, the NHL will continue to try to increase its exposure globally and especially in Europe.
As for London, apart from the obvious connection between the Kings and the O2 rink, this is one of the world's great cities, one of the largest financial centers on the planet. The games are reportedly sold out and it's a short trip from other hockey-playing regions and nations like Germany, the Czech Republic, Scandinavia and others, Daly pointed out.
While almost all of the many forays into European markets by NHL teams in the past have involved offseason or preseason visits, Daly said being able to treat European fans to regular-season contests adds some "oomph" to the proceedings.
And with 30 percent of the league's 720 or so players hailing from outside North America, it makes sense to continue to reach out and connect with that fan base. Future league-organized games like this will likely take place in more "indigenous" hockey nations, Daly added.
Other Overseas Trips1938: Canadiens, Red Wings
The two teams were the first to play exhibition games overseas. They played in Paris and London. May 1959: Bruins, Rangers
The Boston Bruins and New York Rangers embarked on a 10-city, 23-game European tour after the end of the '59 season. The tour stopped in London; Geneva, Switzerland; Paris; Antwerp, Belgium; Zurich, Switzerland; Dortmund, Germany; Essen, Germany; Krekfeld, Germany; Berlin, Germany and Vienna, Austria. April 1976: Capitals, Kansas City Scouts
September 1980: Capitals, Minnesota North Stars
The clubs played a round-robin tournament in Sweden from Sept. 22-26 with Swedish club teams, AIK and Djurgarden. The final game between Washington and Djurgarden was televised live on "Hockey Night in Sweden."
The Capitals held training camp in Sweden before taking part in a preseason tour of the Soviet Union. The Capitals were joined by the defending Cup champion Flames, who held camp in Prague before meeting up with the Caps.
September 1990: Canadiens, North Stars
The Habs and North Stars traveled to the Soviet Union for the "Friendship Tour '90." Games were played in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Riga.
September 1990: Blues, Oilers
Joining the Canadiens and North Stars overseas were the Cup champion Oilers and the Blues. Edmonton and St. Louis both held a four-day minicamp in West Germany before joining West German League champion EG Dusseldorf for the three-match Epson Cup. The Oilers also played a five-day, two-game exhibition tour against pro teams in Austria.
Chicago and Montreal played a two-game exhibition series at Wembley Arena in London. September 1993: Rangers, Maple Leafs
The Rangers and Maple Leafs played a two-game preseason series sponsored by French's Mustard. New York won both games and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
September 1994: Winnipeg Jets
The NHL picked Winnipeg to travel to Finland for a preseason tournament against Finnish club teams.
The NHL traveled to Japan for a pair of regular-season games -- the first regular-season games outside of North America. The games were played at the Yoyogi Arena and helped provide exposure of the sport to locals in advance of the 1998 Nagano Olympics. September 1998: Sabres, Lightning
Buffalo and Tampa Bay traveled to Austria to participate in the International Challenge, taking on Austrian squads as well as each other. October 1998: Flames, Sharks
The NHL returned to Japan with a two-game series between the Flames and the Sharks, again at the Yoyogi Arena. September, 2000: Canucks
The NHL returned to Sweden for the fourth time as Vancouver arrived to take part in the NHL Challenge. Swedish teams Djurgarden, AIK and MoDo joined the Canucks for the tournament. October, 2000: Penguins, Predators
Jaromir Jagr was the premiere attraction for local fans as the NHL returned to Tokyo for the third time in four years.
September, 2001: Avalanche
The 2001 NHL Challenge Series was cut short by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The three-game tour was cut one game short as the Avs faced Swedish Elite League's Brynas club. Games against Djurgarden and Finnish first-division club Jokerit were canceled.
The Leafs traveled to Sweden and Finland for a three-game tour as part of the NHL Challenge Series, playing against Djurgarden and Farjestad in Sweden and Jokerit in Finland.
-- NHL/ESPN.com news services
"I think it's a good jumping off point," one former NHL GM told ESPN.com this week. "If you want to be big, you want to be in the big places, and London's big. It's like that old saying, 'If you want to make it, go to New York, don't go to Kansas.'"
Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, agrees.
"I think all the American sports leagues need to incorporate competition as part of their international strategy. You are left wondering if London is the right European beachhead for the NHL but give them credit for hopping the pond," Swangard wrote in a recent e-mail.
"The key to all of this working is leveraging and sustaining the awareness and interest," he added. "The risk is you could be like the circus coming to town with little to show for your visit once you pack up the tents. In the NHL's case, you could argue they might have a much better shot of being a big player in the European market than they do of being a big player in the U.S. market. This is a strategic investment in building a successful global business long term."
With the lead-up to Saturday's and Sunday's games in London, there will be much talk about the possibility of the NHL actually expanding into Europe at some point. When the first NHL teams (Detroit and Montreal) ventured to Europe for an exhibition tour in 1938, we're sure hockey folks never imagined a day when the NHL would end up in places like Nashville and Atlanta. We're equally sure any kind of permanent move to Europe is similarly far from being a realistic possibility.
If there is a concern about this kind of endeavor (apart from it simply being a cash grab for an ownership group), it's how these trips affect the teams that are involved. Historically, it's been all over the map.
In the fall of 1993, the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs played two preseason games at Wembley Arena in London. The Rangers won both games and, of course, went on to win the Stanley Cup; the Maple Leafs advanced to the Western Conference finals.
In September 1998, Buffalo and Tampa went to Austria and took on Austrian teams, as well as each other, in a preseason challenge. The Sabres weren't put off as they advanced to the Cup finals in 1999, losing to Dallas on the controversial Brett Hull goal.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 1989, the Calgary Flames headed to Russia with Washington and ended up with the second-highest point total during that season. Last season, long before they became Stanley Cup champs, the Ducks voted on whether to accept the NHL's invitation to come to London. It was a tight midseason vote, and in the aftermath of their Cup win, many players were quietly lamenting having agreed to come.
That feeling is no doubt more pronounced now as the Ducks limp into London missing Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne, who are both still contemplating retirement, and injured regulars Samuel Pahlsson, Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Mathieu Schneider. Even GM Brian Burke, one of the most forward-thinking of NHL GMs, acknowledged there are some negative elements to the trip.
"To me, we've got to look at extending our brand outside of New York, America, whenever we can. And the league has, I think, very successfully taken the NHL overseas in both preseason settings," Burke said during a recent conference call. "And I think these are all important steps for the league to maintain its brand and grow its brand worldwide. So, like I said earlier, when the league asks you to go, you go.
"Is it ideal for preparation? Probably not. Could you do without the fatigue of coming back? Probably. But unless some teams answer that call, then we don't get to play these games. It's a chance for us to market our game internationally. To me, it's a no-brainer. The inconvenience or difficulties it poses for your team, you've got to find a way to get over those."
To try to cut down on travel later in the season, Burke asked for and received some Eastern dates at the end of the London trip, but after starting last season with an NHL-record 12-0-4 start, the Ducks look to be in line for a much rockier beginning thanks in part to the trip overseas. They will play in Detroit, Columbus and Pittsburgh after the two London dates -- all three are the home openers for those clubs.
Burke's counterpart in Los Angeles, Dean Lombardi, pretty much agreed that accepting one of these hockey trade missions is essentially taking one for the team.
"Yeah, pretty much, I think that it is tough logistically," he said. "It affects your training camp, it affects your ability to play young players at the front end, and coming back you're not sure."
He recalled that, back in the day, training camp involved a lot more bonding.
"[It] used to be kind of like football where everybody was together, be it in a hotel or whatever, and it was like you went away to summer camp for two weeks," Lombardi said. "So, whether it was a veteran, a kid, a general manager, you know, that was always the norm. And I think that was huge for guys just being together and learning to like each other."
With a young team that underwent a major offseason makeover with the addition of a number of free agents, the Kings may use this overseas trip as a way of forging new chemistry. Kings coach Marc Crawford has been on these types of trips before, including a trip to London with the Leafs when he was the coach of Toronto's AHL club, and then to Sweden when he was still with the Leafs' organization.
"Both times, those teams were a lot closer when they came back. I think early road trips do that," Crawford said in a recent interview.
There will be the efforts to counterbalance the effects of jet lag and the distractions. But there will also be the big-picture issues that both teams are trying to emphasize.
"There are a lot of North American ex-pats living over there. There's a big following for the NHL," Crawford said. "I've even gotten recognized in Europe quite a bit."
Really? Really, Crawford said. He recalled being in a bar in France during the playoffs two years ago. "The place was rocking," he said. "Those people are coming to England [for the games this week]."
So, does this make Crawford the Jerry Lewis of hockey?
"I hope not," he said. "I'd much rather be Dean Martin."
The NHL, it appears, would be happy to be either.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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