Hockey: The NHL & Europe

by Hayden Alfano

Earlier this month, the National Hockey League (NHL) opened its 2008-09 season with two games in Europe; the New York Rangers played the Tampa Bay Lightning in Prague, and the Ottawa Senators played the Pittsburgh Penguins in Stockholm. The teams met again for a second round of games and then returned to North America for the rest of their season.

It’s the second straight year that the NHL has opened its season in Europe, and it’s part of a trend of American professional sports leagues moving their products beyond the North American market.

When the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers take the field at Wembley Stadium in London later this month, it will be the second consecutive year the National Football League (NFL) plays a regular season game across the pond. The first two games of this past Major League Baseball (MLB) season were played in Japan, and commissioner Bud Selig expressed interest in bringing the game to Europe. So, too, National Basketball Association (NBA) commissioner David Stern has made no secret of his intention to put NBA franchises on the continent.

The NHL, however, is the league that needs the potential boost from overseas expansion the most. Hockey was at the bottom of the totem pole of the four so-called major sports leagues even before a labor dispute wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. Unlike its counterparts in baseball, basketball, and football, the NHL has no cable television network devoted specifically to it, and its national television contract is meager compared to the other major sports. Combine this with a number of franchises in areas where hockey is barely played (think Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina, for starters), and the league is in serious danger of dying out.

Europe, however, might provide the NHL with the reprieve it desperately needs. While hockey enjoys its greatest following in Canada, the sport is very popular in Scandinavia and several other European countries, where professional leagues flourish. Foreign players have been dominating the league for years, a trend that continued in the 2007-2008 season, when Russian phenom Alexander Ovechkin led the league in scoring and was named Most Valuable Player (MVP). Henrik Zetterberg, a Swede who plays for the champion Detroit Red Wings, was named the MVP of the playoffs.

The NHL also goes relatively unnoticed in the United States due to unfortunate timing. The start of the season coincides with the MLB playoffs, and the NFL is in full swing. The rest of the NHL season is enveloped by the lengthy NBA campaign, and with that league enjoying a substantial increase in the quality of its product over the last couple of years, hockey’s playoffs — once must-see TV — go largely unnoticed. (Last year’s Stanley Cup finals drew the worst television ratings in history). The NHL has something of a headstart in the race to Europe given hockey’s popularity there, but it cannot afford to let the other major sports establish a presence there and eat into its marketshare.

The mechanics of European franchises in professional sports leagues based in North America may be a bit difficult to imagine, but the NHL needs to figure it out. Fast.

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