Because if anything, the talent pool is too deep

Jonathan Willis
September 13 2008 07:39AM

The NHL had been getting better at figuring out where to place expansion teams. Both Columbus and Minnesota are solid hockey markets that not only deserve teams, but have a really good chance at sustaining one long-term.

Now, however, the strongest comments to date have come out of the NHL’s head office about the possibility of expansion to Europe. Here are the exact quotes, from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, courtesy of the Globe and Mail’s William Houston:

As time goes on, you'll see us making increasing movement into Europe," Bill Daly said in an interview. "Certainly, it's a possibility that within 10 years time we will be playing games there." 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. So, certainly, we would hope that would be the case. But I can't say with any degree of certainty at this point." "It's a priority for us," he said. "It is focused on as one of our primary growth opportunities."

Let’s look at a few of the problems with a Europe-based NHL Division:

  1. Europe has hockey leagues—good ones, and lots of them. An expansion to Europe would certainly not be welcomed by any of the professional leagues in Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany or Switzerland. The KHL is already trying to position itself as a competitor for NHL-level talent, with the defections of high-profile players like Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Radulov. Four of the other five main European leagues (listed above) can all boast a talent pool superior to that in the AHL and almost certainly would do everything in their power to prevent the NHL from completely converting them into feeder leagues. Given that individual teams in these leagues would find not only their profitability, but possibly their very survival threatened by NHL expansion, one would imagine that the fight could get very bitter.
  2. Travel. Anyone else recall quotes by players like Mike Peca and Jaroslav Spacek about how unattractive Edmonton’s travel schedule was? At least Edmonton is on the same continent as, say, Buffalo. Trans-Atlantic travel is not only unattractive to the players, but very, very expensive.
  3. Development systems. Currently, the NHL has a very good working relationship with the AHL, with 30 teams to each league and NHL franchises having farm teams to store injury call-ups and not-ready-for-primetime prospects. Where would European teams develop their players? Either the AHL would need to expand in a large way, which still leaves the problem of having call-ups on another continent, or the NHL would need to form a working relationship with at least one European league.

There are other problems with relocating to Europe, but those seem to be the biggest ones to me. Additionally, there are a ton of problems associated with general expansion—thinning the talent pool, moving to questionable markets, lining up reliable and solvent groups to purchase teams, locating suitable arenas, etc.

This is a bad idea right now, and will likely remain a bad idea for the foreseeable future.

—Jonathan Willis is the force behind Copper and Blue, and a frequent contributor to OilersNation.com.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 bebop
September 13 2008, 08:28AM
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Good post, well said. I would only add that the rising cost of fuel is going to make any overseas expansion for any sport pretty much impossible. They should just stick with having a couple opening games a year over there. There is no way that the Europeans, especially the Czechs, are going to pay the equivalent of 80$ (assuming that will the be the lowest ticket price in 10 years) and fill an 18,000 seat arena 41 times a year. The only good thing Daly said was that they wanted to stabilize existing franchises before any European expansion was seriously considered, meaning its never gonna happen.

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#2 Paulus
September 13 2008, 10:06AM
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Perhaps Bill Daly believes that in ten years Europe will be much closer to North America. Maybe he knows something we don't. Otherwise, it's all nothing but posturing, perhaps with the Russian Bear in mind?

Consider also that most of Europe is 8 and 9 hours ahead of MST. The expense notwithstanding, the physical toll on teams would be dreadful, as would the struggle of crafting a schedule not akin to murder.

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#3 Colin
September 13 2008, 10:31AM
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Why not follow the example of Soccer and create (or modify an existing) Champions League of Hockey. For example have the top teams in each division play a tournament of some sort against the top teams in the European leagues. That way no toes are stepped on as far as taking over the hockey market. It would greatly expose the NHL caliber teams to new markets and it would give the European teams a large goal to shoot for. I mean think of the bragging rights for a European team that beats an NHL team.

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#4 Fiveandagame
September 13 2008, 11:15AM
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I think expansion should be the last thing the NHL is talking about. Carolina, Atlanta, Florida, should be relocated into strong hockey markets.

Hamilton Halifax and Quebec City.

I think the only way NHL expansion to europe works is if you put in 5 teams. One in Finland, Sweden, Czech republic, Slovakia and London ( I know that sounds weird but it's a city of over 10mil, there would be more fans than in Raleigh)

Then each division makes one trip out a year. and conversely the European teams make two trips a year to north america. Followed by a three day rest (about how long it takes to get over jet lag). The thing would be TV. The north American Market would not want to be waking up at retarded times to see their team play.

I think the biggest thing is there are sooooo many good players. Hell the Oilers could ice two teams and still be better than Vancouver this year. Before anything happens in europe Ontario needs another team, if NY state can have 4 teams? come on.

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#5 B.C.B.
September 13 2008, 06:50PM
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Five&agame: I only count three teams in NY state, unless you are counting Jersey.

If as Gretz' said yesterday Winnipeg is to small for coperation sponsor ship then TV (not the gate) is driving income. TV schedules wouldn't work in games where held in Europe: markets like Edmonton, TO and Montreal would have mass sick days used and 5&ag is right most American markets wouldn't watch.

Lets shink the league so there would be more good players on each team

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#6 Marc
September 14 2008, 02:43AM
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I live in London and I can guarantee you that the NHL won't work here or anywhere else in Europe. Consider:

1. Economics - No hockey team anywhere in Europe brings in even a fraction of the revenue of a viable NHL team. Only a handful of soccer teams do.

2. Travel - Until planes travel much faster than they currently do, I don't see how you could make this work. London is a 9 hour flight from LA and Moscow is another 4 hour flight from here. Plus the jetlag takes a couple of days to recover from in either direction. Players would absolutely hate this. And all teams would lose broadcast revenue from away games that happen in the middle of the day in North America.

3. Media - Most countries in Europe don't have local news, but national news. That means that any new NHL team has to compete for coverage against every team in every other sport in the country. A new NHL team couldn't count on local media to introduce people to the team (and in London's case, the sport). In London it might be lucky to get one small article a week.

4. Logistics - If only one or two European teams join to begin with, it will mean lots of nightmarish road trips for the rest of the league where you have to travel a huge distance (at huge expense) and only play a couple of games. If enough teams join to form a European division, you would have to add 120-150 AHL players to the league all in one season - that's a horrific dilution.

The NHL simply cannot overcome all these obstacles and I think the league knows it.

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