If you go back to 1957, a hockey fan might have called it preposterous, the notion of having an NHL team in southern California.
Ten years later, the Los Angeles Kings were born.
In 10 years from now, where will the NHL be?
To some, the answer is clear: Europe. Perhaps a European division — Berlin, London, Prague, Stockholm, Helsinki, Zurich. It’s not a far-fetched idea.
“There is a great deal of enthusiasm and a real market for the NHL game in Europe,” says Paul Kelly, executive director of the NHL Players Association and one of the leading proponents of the globalization of the game.
For now, the league talks only of doing what’s best for the 30 existing teams.
The Phoenix Coyotes are living off league handouts, the Florida Panthers have laid off staff, the Nashville Predators have one of its owners in bankruptcy court, the Atlanta Thrashers owners are suing each other, and the situation in Tampa changes minute-by-minute.
Relocating weak teams — perhaps putting a second team in Toronto, or one in Hamilton or Winnipeg — within North America is certainly more likely in the short term than locating a team in Europe, said Kelly.
Detlev Zwick, a professor of marketing in the Schulich school of business at York University, sees Europe as the NHL’s best hope, believing the North American sports market to be saturated, witnessing an economy in recession.
“They have to look at Europe, and yes, there are lots of logistical problems that come into play,” says Zwick. “But it’s sort of inevitable from a corporate perspective. They need to develop new markets if they want to see real growth.”
The NHL also has its reputation at stake as the world’s premier hockey league. It faces a direct threat from the KHL, the former Russian Super League that has pan-European aspirations.
“The NHL may not have a choice if they are to maintain their premier position as the best hockey in the world,” said Zwick.
Caught in the middle are European ice hockey federations, desperate to keep their national leagues intact, fearful that the biggest cities in those leagues would be poached by outside interests.
“We don’t see any reason for the NHL to play permanently in Europe,” Jukka-Pekka Vuorinen, president of Hockey Europe, said.
The International Ice Hockey Federation says the NHL would fail miserably, citing the fact that the NFL pulled the plug on the money-losing NFL Europe and saying the NHL would be seen as interlopers along the lines of how the WHA was perceived when playing in NHL cities.
“It would be a potential disaster for this NHL’s European Division,” said Rene Fasel, president the IIHF.