If there is one thing the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association agree on, it is that there will be European teams in the NHL one day.
The only question is when.
Naturally, as the first side to go public some years ago with its opinion, those connected to the NHLPA would like the work to start as soon as possible. While NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr insists any comments on the matter are simply his personal opinion because the players as a group have not formed any official position, he has voiced those thoughts long enough that there is no indication of any opposition from the union members.
“I think it would be a real positive statement to create the first really trans-ocean league,” Fehr said on Monday. “I think it would be an extraordinary achievement for everybody. Whether it will happen in my tenure remains to be seen, but hopefully sooner or later.”
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly has been saying lately that expansion to Europe is inevitable. He says the only way it can work is if an entire division of teams, probably a minimum of four, is added. Both Daly and Fehr were at Prime Time Sports & Entertainment’s annual sports-management conference in Toronto on Monday, and Daly repeated what must now be considered the official position of the NHL.
Daly said he does not think European expansion will happen “in the short- to medium-term but with continued growth in the sport, franchises in Europe at some point are probably inevitable.”
The makeup of the players in the NHL at this point also points to placing teams in Europe. In a panel discussion at the conference, Daly said the percentage of Canadian-born players among the 740 or so players in the league dipped below 50 per cent for the first time three years ago. That percentage is now in the “low forties,” and the league “has never had as many international players as it does now,” Daly added.
There are several obstacles to be overcome before European expansion can happen, which is why even the most enthusiastic advocates such as Fehr do not recommend jumping in immediately.
“I think the sooner the better, provided it can be done right,” Fehr said. “You don’t want to rush it ... you don’t want to do it before the capital is committed, the schedule is worked out, all the rest of it.”
Travel is the most obvious problem, which is why the NHL is looking at adding an entire division of teams. The candidate cities include Stockholm, Helsinki, Moscow, Prague, London, Zurich and Berlin. This would allow North American-based teams to travel to Europe no more than once or twice a season and play four or five games on each trip.
Daly said the biggest obstacle outside of the travel is the lack of NHL-style arenas and arena-availability. London has the 20,000-seat O2 Arena, for example, but it is also one of the busiest facilities in the world with a variety of concerts and other events. The more traditional hockey cities such as Stockholm, Helsinki, Prague and Moscow do not have arenas with seating capacities and luxury boxes that would easily produce the revenue needed to run an NHL team.
There is also a cultural problem in that European hockey fans are not accustomed to paying NHL prices to see games. The NHL would also have to strike deals with the European leagues that already have teams operating in the cities it would want to add.
“Those are short-term barriers and we’ll see if they can change in the long-term,” Daly said. “The [Kontinental Hockey League] has expanded into countries outside of Russia where they have absorbed existing teams from European leagues. They’ve done it without real damage to those existing leagues.
“I think we have a very good relationship with all the European leagues. When we bring games over there, we do it in concert with the existing leagues and federations.”
One step the NHL took this season to sell itself is successful so far, Daly said. Every Saturday, an afternoon game is shown in prime time in Europe on television through several partners. The sale of television rights will be a big part of any expansion effort.
“Our international fan-base is really growing because of our [television] rights-holders in Europe and how much NHL hockey is being consumed there,” Daly said. “It’s been enormously successful a month and a half into the season. Television and the ability to translate your game to new audiences is very, very important.”
Two areas in which Daly sees no problems are supplying enough players for a minimum of four teams and finding owners. The league often gets calls from people interested in owning a European team.
“The number of players from outside Canada that are coming into our league now has never been higher. There’s a lot of good hockey players out there,” he said. “I think there would be sufficient interest and capital in European markets to support ownership.”