Sweden loves the NHL.
Just not in Sweden.
The NHL would be in for rough treatment if it tried to expand into Europe.
René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, said at a hockey summit in Toronto last year that he would fight “like hell” against NHL expansion into Europe and that it would never happen “as long as I’m sitting in my chair.”
Still, the idea has its followers in Europe, but they are outnumbered by the skeptics.
Ninna Engberg is the CEO of the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, the largest hockey arena in Scandinavia. She’s also on the board of directors of AEG Sweden, which is affiliated with U.S.-based Anschutz Entertainment Group.
The Anschutz group, which owns the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, among other pro sports teams, has never discussed expansion to Sweden.
“It’s hard to see that the Swedish market would be able to swallow a full season of NHL hockey, even if it is only one team,” Engberg said. “Hockey in Sweden is a family business, and the crowd is mostly youngsters. To see one or two games a year is possible, but over a season? I don’t think so.”
The Globe Arena will play host to two NHL regular-season games this year: the New York Rangers vs. the Kings on Oct. 7, and the Rangers vs. the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 8. The two Stockholm teams, Djurgarden and AIK, play in the nearby Hovet Arena, with a capacity of 8,000.
“The Globe Arena would welcome an NHL team in Sweden, but at the same time there has to be teams from the Elitserien playing alongside the NHL,” Engberg said. “And I doubt there is room enough for that.”
Mikael Renberg, who once played for the Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Phoenix Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs, is now working as a hockey analyst for Swedish state TV. He doesn’t foresee an NHL team in Sweden.
“It’s just not possible,” Renberg says. “It’s not even worth thinking about. It’s charming that the NHL plays their season premiere in Stockholm, but let it stay with that. After all, people are not running to get tickets for those games. And to play regular-season games, it wouldn’t be possible to get people to pay for that.”
Micke Nylander, chairman of the Djurgardens fan organization Jarnkaminerna, is also a non-believer.
“The NHL is too much [about] business,” Nylander says. “Supporters are not interested in that. We don’t care about stars. We like to see players who play their heart out for the local team.”
But there are voices that would like to see an NHL team in Sweden.
“I’m surprised they haven’t pursued that issue more aggressively,” says Percy Nilsson, a Malmo contractor and hockey entrepreneur who, in the 1990s, built a team that won two Swedish league championships. “There will be an expansion to Sweden, and if it’s not from the NHL, it will be the [Russian league] KHL that establishes one or a couple of teams here.”
Two years ago, the KHL tried to recruit AIK to play in the Russian league. But the Swedish hockey federation quashed that idea, declaring that if AIK went to the KHL, the team would be barred from all Swedish hockey.
Former Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin could also see an NHL team in Sweden.
“But it has to be as part of a European division,” Sundin says. “And I’m not sure if it’s financially possible. Stockholm is big enough, for sure, but everything will have to be adjusted to Swedish size wallets.”
There are only three arenas in Sweden that hold more than 10,000 spectators. Malmo Arena, which is close to the bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen, seats 13,500 spectators. The Globe Arena in Stockholm holds 13,850, while the old and worn down Scandinavium Arena in Gothenburg has a capacity of 12,000, but no corporate boxes or suites.
“The limited capacity in Swedish arenas might drive the ticket prices up, and to pay around a 1,000 kronor [$150], forget it. No one will do that,” Nilsson says. Team supporters in Sweden went wild last year when the price for a playoff semi-final ticket skyrocketed to the equivalent of $45.
The Hockeyligan, which oversees the 12 teams in the Elitserien, has tried to fend off speculation about NHL or KHL expansion by having Sweden’s top eight teams play in the European Trophy this season. As of now, the European Trophy is a preseason tournament with 24 teams from the six leading hockey countries in Europe, except Russia. But the tournament could develop into a full-blown European league as early as next season.
“I don’t think there’s room for NHL expansion into Europe, and definitely not into Sweden,” Jorgen Lindgren, CEO of the Hockeyligan, says. “I think the NHL would have a hard time competing with the Swedish League.
“As we see it, it would be much better if they [the NHL] play there and we play here. Then the Stanley Cup champion could play the European champ for a world hockey title.”
Janne Bengtsson is the hockey reporter for Svenska Dagbladet (Swedish Daily) in Stockholm.