An idea of an NHL Europe is sheer lunacy
LONDON -- With the NHL about to go Euro with two regular-season games this weekend between Anaheim and Los Angeles, many have taken the opportunity to wildly extrapolate that the next step is to launch a full hockey invasion of the continent.
The idea is sheer lunacy on so many fronts it makes you wonder how so much time, effort and oxygen could have been used up debating its merits. But there you have it. Some in the media appear to have made it their life's ambition that they'll have road trips to Prague and Munich.
Mercifully, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Friday doused any notion the league has even the vaguest notion about establishing a European presence when he arrived in town for the first regular-season games to be played on European soil.
"There seems to be a quantum leap that's being made that we have this grand plan to put franchises on the continent here," Bettman told reporters. "And my response to that was, I'll never say never to anything, but that's not anything that we're currently contemplating. Our first goal is to be as strong as possible in North America and to have 30 franchises, all of whom are doing great. That's the ultimate goal.
"We're having more of a presence [in Europe]," the commissioner added, "but we're not straying too far from what is our core foundation, and that's North America."
Everything from travel to scheduling to television to ticket prices and fan bases make the idea of an NHL Europe simply impossible. So, if we accept this basic truth, the next most pertinent question is what the NHL does to continue to market itself outside North America. In short, what do they do for an encore to the British invasion?
Bettman said about 30 percent of visits to NHL.com come from outside North America, which parallels with the percentage of non-North Americans in the league. The league has television deals in a number of countries that allows games to be shown live and there is considerable revenue to be had by tapping into the hockey-mad nations like Sweden, the Czech Republic and Russia. And revenue creates stability.
The question is whether having games like these two games at the sparkling new O2 Arena are going to help the NHL maximize that revenue or if they are a wasteful exercise. You can argue whether there's a "buzz" around the games, but the fact is, within two weeks of the games' announcement last winter, they were sold out. That's a good thing. It would have been a huge embarrassment if they weren't sold out and we've come across folks here who were disappointed not to have tickets.
There was a strong media turnout at Friday's practices, including CNN, the BBC, Reuters Television, a television crew from Prague, a reporter from Ireland and so on. Whether that constitutes a "buzz" is debatable.
Bettman was reticent to promise the league would be back to Europe next year for another slate of regular-season games. Instead, the league will debrief the teams once they return to North America and have had a chance to sort out just how big a drain it was on the players.
"What we're going to do is debrief once the experience is over, talk to the teams, talk to the players, and make sure that not so much today and tomorrow but next week when they're back and they've readjusted to the time zones, that everything is OK," Bettman said. "Because, first and foremost for us, it's about the competition. We have to make sure we're creating the right circumstance for the real games that count."
That's a smart move.
There is no sense coming over here if the players are going to hate it and its going to take them a week or more to bounce back from the travel, putting them at a competitive disadvantage against their peers.
There is no question many players didn't want to be here. But as new Anaheim captain Chris Pronger said Friday, once the trip got closer, they started to get into the spirit of it. Todd Marchant talked about how he was telling his children that he was standing on the London Bridge from the nursery rhyme. That's pretty cool.
The Ducks had a day off Thursday and about half the team went to the Royal St. George's Golf Club in Sandwich, England. It was rainy and windy, and Marchant, for one, left having completed just six holes as he was soaking wet.
"We got the full British Open experience," Pronger said.
Others went sightseeing.
The Kings, when they arrived Thursday evening, took a boat tour on the Thames, and apart from coach Marc Crawford's wife getting boat sick, everyone seemed to enjoy the experience.
If the debrief indicates the trip wasn't too negative, then it behooves the NHL to come back and try it again. In terms of building some sort of pattern, then the NHL should be back over the pond next fall, whether it's in Prague or Stockholm or Munich.
"We can blue sky lots of different things, more teams, more places, but that would be blue-skying. Please don't let your headline writers say, 'We're doing more games in more places,'" Bettman said. "Obviously, if this works well, we're going to want to use this as a steppingstone."
Now, doesn't that sound a whole lot more logical than trying to wrap your brain around whether the NHL should have teams in Europe?
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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