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It ended this afternoon (early evening, Buffalo time) with a shoot-out goal by phenom Sidney Crosby on Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller before 70,000 freezing, mostly-drunk fans mixed from Canadians and the occasional actual Buffalo Sabres fan amid a blinding snow storm.

If you squint a little, that’s kind of how professional hockey began, more than 125 years ago, in the ponds and rinks of Ottawa and Montreal. Ironically it was in Buffalo where the beautiful game captivated the imagination of my favourite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, inspiring him to become a sports writer. Even with more than 45 minutes of delays for snow clearing, hole patching, and refreezing, it was a great game which took hockey back to its roots. I think that’s an important point.

Dan Barnes, an Edmontonian, gloats that this happened first at the 2003 Heritage Classic in Commonwealth Stadium, and it’s a very good article outlining the motivations and tribulations that led to that successful effort at an outdoor game. He also advocates some other changes and innovations for the NHL season schedule.

Before I read his article I had opined a few days ago to Rhys that the NHL needs to take it on the road more often. This year the season opened between Stanley Cup winners the Anaheim Ducks and the L.A. Kings in the hockey hotbed of London, England in an event which garnered more buzz on this side of the Atlantic than it did in the UK. Leading up to that game, something (I think) more significant happened… the Kings played two exhibition games in Austria against Austrian League champions Red Bull Salzburg, and against Sweden’s First Division team Farjestad.

You can bet those two squads were up for a game against an NHL team, even one whose roster was as weak as that of the LA Kings. And you can bet Austrian fans (and those that drove from Munich and nearby in Switzerland) were treated to some great (though exhibition) play. But did the NHL do anything to promote those games? Did they even learn anything from the experiment?

Not likely. And you probably won’t see a lot of these again, except for yet more outdoor games in big football stadiums with lots of fans, in the same cities teams usually play in. Here’s a key problem: Unlike any of the other of the top 10 professional sports leagues on this earth, NHL teams are primarily financed from gate revenues at the stadium. Whereas, ticket sales are pure gravy for teams in other sports, which make most of their money from broadcast licensing and avertising, these dollars at the ticket counter the meat for NHL clubs. This means that when a team sacrifices those revenues to play elsewhere, they generally lose money.

The only reason the London game happened at all was that Kings owner Philip Anschutz also owns O2 Arena, and so was able to move the cash around his various enterprises. But for that little tidbit you’d be unlikely to have seen the game there.

In 1997 and 1998 the NHL opened the season with two games each in Japan in the run-up to the Nagano Winter Olympics. Although the League declared these a success there is some evidence that they were expensive, under-supported, economic failures — and the second of these series practically ruined the San Jose Sharks’ season, resulting in the league’s longest consecutive road trip. That has made Bettman’s promise to continue the initiative difficult to fulfill.

I’m not sure that developing a fan base in Japan particularly benefits the NHL. One thing that helps an audience identify with the players is seeing people who are like them. Unfortunately, the best the NHL could offer up to Japanese fans at the time was Paul Kariya.

Moreover, the problem with these being regulation league games (for points) is that these far-flung contests have to be woven into the NHL schedule. And after playing them, teams have to make the journey back to the US and Canada, adjust to pretty considerable JetLag, and hit the ice again for a real league game within 24-48 hours. This doesn’t exactly encourage them to want to sign up.

Watching the Spengler on TV and reading Paul Romanuk’s excellent blog on the tournament reminds me that there really is something special about how professional hockey is conducted in Europe. Having played there and seen how fans react to the teams and vice-versa, it’s reminiscent of what I can only presume to have been the case during the heyday of the NHL, through the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

You may have noticed that 30% of the players in the NHL are European, but not one of them is from the UK. In fact outside of England’s foundering attempts to create a successful hockey league, Europe has a well-supported hockey community and Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, and Denmark all have vibrant professional hockey leagues with many fans. So why not support them, and in the process pull more fans to a direct interest in the NHL?

There’s already a revolving door for players between the NHL and leagues like the DEL … why not one for the fans as well? By my observation the relationship between hockey fans in Europe and the NHL is at best superficial. When the Washington Caps made German-born Olaf Kolzig their #1 goaltender, plenty of German hockey fans went out to buy Capitals jerseys with his name on the back… but are they staying up late to watch games? Ordering an NHL channel on digital cable (if there is such a thing)? Picking their favourite players for hockey pools? Not likely.

The Exhibition season for the NHL is actually rather half-hearted. Fans generally aren’t as enthusiastic about the games because the teams field the B-squads, holding their celebrities in reserve for conditioning and in fear of injury. They are also rarely broadcast on television, and as far as selling tickets goes, teams fill the seats for these throw-away games by stacking the games into full and partial seasons’ ticket packs and with give-aways .. for many teams there’s little to no honest profit in the Exhibition season.

But there is one nice thing about Exhibition games … as the LA Kings proved, you can pretty-much do whatever you want and as a bonus, you can stagger and schedule them vis-a-vis the regular season however you’d like. Some teams see the exhibition season as a necessary evil … I see it as a potential problem-solver.

My Modest Proposal is to therefore do two things during the Exhibition season, giving each team the choice of either:

  1. Exhibition games in small North American towns with able support for a larger-scale game (ie. 5000+ seats in a hockey arena). Unfortunately this is too early in the winter for elaborate outdoor games. … or …
  2. Exhibition play against Tier 1 club teams in Europe, perhaps a road trip consisting of 4-5 games each with a 3-day layover prior to the season start. Share the gate revenues with them (some play in NHL-sized arenas) to cover costs.

This would be a fabulous way to enhance the dialog between fans in Europe and NHL teams, and also to support the small communities which couldn’t support an NHL team (in Mr. Bettman’s opinion) but which still have rabid fan bases built around AHL, University, or Junior hockey teams. Again, this doesn’t detract from the success of those smaller-market teams but likely adds enough water to the tide to float all boats.

Let’s not kid ourselves that big-stadium outdoor games like the Heritage Classic and today’s effort in Buffalo really do anything to enhance the market for the game. Similarly I think it could be argued successfully that both experiments in Japan and in London were not cost-effective in enhancing the league’s market reach.

If the goal is making more money on an exciting winter event, fine. Let’s embrace these pond hockey games as novelties, for sure, and by all means keep doing it (teams report making more money doing so, so within reason I say fill your boots).

But if the goal is expanding the revenue from the league and growing beyond simply operating on gate receipts, let’s also work toward a schedule that does something to enhance the game and its growth; that brings in a new active global fan base; that invigorates the game with a dash of European flavour. There is natural affinity there, and a largely untapped market.

Let’s work toward growing the sport and fostering an exchange with the European leagues that will enhance the game both on and off the ice; and which also respects the contribution made by thousands of communities around the globe that contribute players to this game.