It has been predicted that the NHL is considering expansion, unsurprising when looking at the inbalanced nature of the NHL conferences currently. At the moment the leading contenders for expansion are in Canadian cities and towns such as Quebec, another franchise in Toronto, Hamilton and also American cities such as Seattle and Kansas City.
However there was an idea which was floated by Bill Daly, Deputy NHL Commissioner, only back in 2008, that suggests there could be another route to expansion rather than expansion/relocation in Canada or the United States. That is Europe. Puck Daddy Reported the Story back in 2008.
The Original Article from the Globe and Mail noted that ‘Asked whether he viewed European expansion within 10 years as a good possibility, he said: "I hope so. But again, I think it's a long way between here and there. And I think all the pieces have to continue to line up in order for that to happen.'
Since then there have been an increasing number of exhibition games played in Europe in the pre-season and also NHL teams playing each other in Europe. In 2011 the New York Rangers played games against HC Sparta Prague, Frolunda Gothenburg, Slovan Bratislva and EV Zug. These exhibition games are testing the interest of European populations to NHL teams.
With the KHL pressing expansion as well in the past few years, in particular into Central Europe, but also planning an ambitious dream to have a 64 team league across 22 nations spreading from Far Eastern Russia into Western Europe (A time zone difference of 9 hours) should the NHL be thinking of expansion as well? If the NHL, like it suggested in 2008, is open to the idea of European expansion could they be facing a race to beat the KHL into lucrative markets in Europe?
The acquisition and movement of Jokerit, a prominent Finnish Hockey team, to the KHL shows how serious the KHL takes expansion into the entirety of Europe. Will they continue to spread westwards?
Back in 2008 Paul Kelly, then Executive Director of the NHLPA, said that, "Once we reach that point, I do think we should at least explore the process of perhaps one day having a division of NHL teams based in Europe,"
With the westward and aggressive movement of the KHL into Europe does the NHL feel the need to guard its place as the best hockey league in the world by focusing ideas of expansion not into hockey mad Canada but into cities in Europe such as Stockholm, Helsinki, Prague and other places such as Germany, Switzerland and perhaps the United Kingdom?
Should the NHL deke out the KHL by aggressively pursuing expansion into European to secure their future in Europe?Back in 2008 25-35% of unique traffic to nhl.com was from Europe. You only have to look at the Defending Big D Global Map of "where DBD readers come from" to see that even a team from Texas attracts followers from a variety of European Nations.
I have to admit that I have a personal stake in the idea of expansion, either of the NHL or KHL, into places in Western and Central Europe, in particular Britain. As most regular readers of Defending Big D will know; I am British. Ice Hockey in Britain is not a huge deal though they have several professional ice hockey leagues. The Elite League is predominately filled with players who have failed to make it in North America. There is a very dedicated and fanatical but small fan base in the UK. Expansion of either the NHL or KHL to the UK would certainly raise the profile of Ice Hockey in the UK and also provide examples of some incredibly talented players. It would certainly help the development of British ice hockey players.
There are obviously issues with NHL expansion into Europe.
Firstly, and most basically, there is the time zone issue. The United Kingdom is 5 hours ahead of the East Coast of America and 8 hours ahead of the West Coast of America. That is a significant time difference. However it's important to consider the KHL example. Currently there is a nine hour difference from its most westerly and easterly teams, the league still functions and still provides a high quality level of play. It is therefore conceivable that the NHL could also cope with the time difference that this would place upon the players and the league.
Secondly, would the NHL in Europe be profitable? Hockey games are much cheaper in Europe than they are in Canada. Would they be able to sellout games? It seems unlikely at NHL prices. Are the arena's big enough? The Ericsson Globe, has a capacity of 13,850, and Hartwall Arena, Jokerit's Stadium, has a capacity of 13,506. The new arena for the New York Islanders, the Barclays Center, has a capacity of 14,500. Both of the two bigger arenas in Europe are not as large as an arena which has been considered, in reality, slightly too small for NHL hockey.
It appears unlikely that European franchises would not turn the profit that many NHL teams do and would therefore be a drain on the NHL resources. It is this factor which likely dooms the possibility of NHL expansion into Europe, unless the NHL is willing to put a lot of money and hope that they will work.
Another factor that has to be taken under consideration is the International Ice Hockey Federation. When asked back in 2010 his opinion on Europe Expansion Rene Fesel, head of the IIHF, replied "Try to come. Good Luck". The IIHF is under the opinion that European Hockey should remain that, European. "This is our territory and I will fight like hell to not allow anybody to come from abroad, I think in Europe we are strong enough to do something on our own, and then have the competition between Europe and North America. That makes the fan happy."
Its possible that this opinion has changed considering the KHL aggressive movements westwards into Europe. Would they prefer the KHL in every European nation, or the KHL and NHL competing or for both of these two leagues to remain within their own borders.
So why should the NHL risk this venture if it appears like it would hurt the financial workings of the league and is against the wishes of the IIHF?
In recent years there has been an increase in Anti-Russian feeling, the ‘Russian Factor' so to speak. Russian players are avoided because of their potential to flee back to Russia to play in the KHL. There is uncertainty over where they will decide their future lies. It doesn't help that many young Russian players are demonised, in particular by the Canadian media, and accused of being lazy among a wide range of insults. Why would they stay in an environment where they are abused and looked upon suspiciously in case they were packing their bags to return home?
However there have been several developments that makes me wonder if this ‘Russian Factor' could evolve into a ‘European Factor'. Firstly the purchase of Jokerit, who will join the KHL after next season, and secondly the change when it comes to the CHL Import Draft.
Why would the purchase and movement of Jokerit to the KHL make European players more likely to stay at home? Jokerit is a giant of Finnish hockey and its movement to the KHL seems like it could be only the first of many. I can see a situation quite clearly where there are multiple KHL teams in Finland, Sweden, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria within the next decade. Why does this matter?
This connects with my second development. The 2013 CHL Import Draft was the last one that allowed goaltenders to be selected. From now on all CHL goaltenders entering the league will be from North America. There are Russian Agents who believe that, if the CHL continues to use the same logic, that its only a matter of time before the CHL stops the import draft altogether.
In an interview with Maria Rogovskaya of Championat.com Russian hockey agent Alexei Dementiev said that "The decision is very logical, at the NHL Entry draft I spoke to many junior league executives and it looks like the CHL is going to close its doors for all import players. Goalies are just the first in line."
When it comes to things such as attitudes it is generally something that comes up with young players. A large percentage of NHLers will have played in the CHL, an environment, if they end the import draft, where they would have been told that only North Americans are welcome. What happens to the NHL when this happens? Should the NHL only be for North Americans? There are already prominent commentators, admittedly mostly represented by Don Cherry and his colourful suits, who are very open about their dislike of European players and how they play. Could this view become more widespread?
With the combination of limiting access into the junior levels of Canadian hockey and the growing availability of high level hockey at home, in the form of the KHL, why would young European players decide that the NHL is the place for them? Especially when they could be treated with distain by media, fans and potentially their own teammates. What I am suggesting could happen is probably, in my mind, the worst situation that could emerge out of these apparently small developments. This might not happen at all.
To bring this article back to my original point, the expansion of the NHL into Europe, there is a case to be made that placing even one team into Europe could help show young Europeans that the NHL considers Europe part of its umbrella. Expansion would serve to compete with the KHL before they have established themselves as the most tempting league for young European players. Europe is potentially a large new market for the NHL that could be lost before they've even started fighting for it.
What would the NHL be without the Datsyukian deke? The Sedin Twins incredible passing and playmaking abilities? Kari Lehtonen's highlight reel saves? The NHL is what it is today because of the mixture of North American and European styles of play.
It would be a crying shame if the NHL and North American hockey sleepwalks into a future where a European player considers the KHL the best league in the world to compete, and one in which they won't be frowned upon and not accepted by the media or the fans. European expansion is just one way of dealing with this issue, albeit the most radical one, but one that shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.