Games fun, but NHL's invasion didn't take London by storm
LONDON -- Cheerio, London.
Thanks for having us even if the presence of National Hockey League players and the Stanley Cup didn't spark spontaneous outbursts of Stompin' Tom Connors' "The Hockey Song" on the Tube or along the mighty Thames.
Spot of tea before you go, whoever you were?
The NHL's experience here these past few days will be remembered as settling somewhere between the ends of the sporting and cultural spectrum. Even Sunday's game, a decisive 4-1 victory by the Anaheim Ducks over the Los Angeles Kings, left little that was definitive about the trip.
The victory featured a Ducks team much more composed than it had been Saturday, including sterling performances from young stars such as Corey Perry, who had two goals and an assist, and Andy McDonald, who had two assists. As much as the second game of an 82-game slate can be deemed crucial, this one prevented the defending Stanley Cup champions from heading home for three straight road games in North America 0-2 after they were dropped 4-1 by the Kings on Saturday.
Not to be outdone by the Kings (as though to keep the scales of this trip firmly balanced), the Ducks turned to a first-time NHL netminder for their first win of the season.
A day after 19-year-old Kings rookie Jonathan Bernier turned aside 26 of 27 shots for his first NHL win, Jonas Hiller won his first NHL start. Hiller wasn't quite as busy, but he deflected 22 of 23 shots in becoming the fourth Swiss-born netminder to play an NHL game, joining David Aebischer, Martin Gerber and Pauli Jaks.
The Ducks were technically the "home" team Sunday, but for 25-year-old Hiller, it truly felt like a home game as friends and family flew in from Switzerland for the match.
"I was really looking forward to playing, naturally, but it was not like I slept bad," Hiller said. "It's not my first big game I've got to play or whatever. I'm 25 years old. I've played a lot of big games. It doesn't make me that nervous anymore."
• 'They like a good fight'
More from London
Through the two games, the loudest cheers by far were reserved for Ducks tough guy George Parros and Scott Thornton of the Kings, who dropped their gloves and went at it with 9:47 left in the second period. The brief dustup was the only fight of the two-game London set.
We'll call the bout a split decision.
"It was a pretty good scrap, and the crowd was waiting for it," Parros said. "They're a hooligan crowd here. They like a good fight."
• Future for Hiller in Anaheim
It will be interesting to watch what becomes of the Ducks' new netminder Jonas Hiller in the coming weeks. The Ducks are expected to move Ilya Bryzgalov, who will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. That would push Hiller into the No. 2 spot on the team's depth chart behind Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Hiller was last season's Swiss goalie of the year, helped his team win the Spengler Cup and was on the national squad at last spring's World Championship. Hiller had many suitors before the Ducks signed him during the playoffs.
"He's a guy who, for his age, has a really impressive record," Anaheim goaltending consultant Francois Allaire told ESPN.com after Sunday's game. "He took care of his team [on Sunday], his teammates. We're really very happy to have him on board."
Does Hiller think he can surprise people this season?
"For sure, that's what I want to do. I want to surprise everybody. I actually want to surprise me day by day and improve," Hiller said. "As a goalie, you also need the right team, the right situation and that it works out, and I hope that it's in Anaheim. And right now, it looks good."
-- Scott Burnside
In some ways, the split might help the NHL if it decides it wants to try this experiment of having NHL teams play meaningful regular-season games overseas again. League officials will meet with players, coaches and team officials in the coming weeks to try to assess their respective experiences, both positive and negative, in London. A sweep might have left a bad taste in the Ducks' mouths and made it difficult for the league to sell it to other teams.
"I don't know if we'll know in a couple of weeks," Anaheim captain Chris Pronger predicted. "We probably won't know for a couple of months as we get into the grind of the season and get more travel in. I would imagine it would be a couple of months before you see any toll of the travel and jet lag."
"We had fun. Once we got here and everything, it was OK," Anaheim forward Ryan Getzlaf said. "The fans and everything were great.
"It would have been tough going back to three home openers [in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Columbus] down 0-2," Getzlaf added. "We know we can play now, and we can move forward."
Reports already have surfaced that the league is looking to send the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning to Prague, Czech Republic, next season, although those plans are far from finalized. Czech reporters covering the games in London said they were told by Czech officials the New York Rangers, who have a strong Czech presence in their lineup led by Jaromir Jagr, likely would be involved next fall.
As for fan support in London, that's another thing that's difficult to gauge.
Many of the media who covered the event insisted there was no buzz surrounding it. Perhaps it depends on how sensitive your Buzz-o-meter is.
It's true city residents did not fling themselves to the ground in excitement when they saw the Stanley Cup or NHL players. Nor did they march around Trafalgar Square chanting "Give us pucks or give us death."
But did anyone expect them to?
It's entirely likely the city will react in exactly the same fashion when the NBA shows up later this year or even when the NFL plays a regular-season game here in a few weeks. Let's check the Buzz-o-meters then.
What is undeniable is there was a palpable thrum in the O2 Arena for both games, which were listed as sellouts even though Saturday's attendance was reported as 17,551 and Sunday's attendance given by NHL officials was 17,239. Hundreds of fans crowded around the Stanley Cup, which was on display in the atrium of the arena.
The fact there were fans in attendance from throughout Europe's hockey community should be a positive sign if the NHL does move forward with plans to visit Prague or other European hockey cities.
"Obviously, we're not pleased with our result from tonight," Los Angeles coach Marc Crawford said. "But I think if you take a big-picture view of it, they had two very entertaining games, two games with sellout crowds here and a wonderful venue. They saw some inspired hockey by both teams."
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand for Saturday's game, but had to leave early to attend the funeral of Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz. In a statement, Bettman said: "The facility was terrific, the teams were extremely supportive, the hospitality was wonderful and the fans welcomed us warmly. Those elements combined to create a memorable experience that will factor strongly into our consideration of more such undertakings in the future."
Often prickly Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle seemed supportive of the experience, as well.
"I thought the fans were enjoying both games," Carlyle said. "It seemed we had our share of fans and they had their share of fans. There seemed to be a lot of excitement. People cheered when you scored; they liked the physical play; they liked the fight [Anaheim's George Parros and Los Angeles' Scott Thornton dropped the gloves]. From a fan's standpoint, I thought they got to see a little bit of everything in the two games."
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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