Why The NHL vs Europe Exhibition Experiment is a Bad Idea.
As mentioned last blog, The NHL’s New York Rangers, Anaheim Ducks, LA Kings, and Buffalo Sabres play a total of 7 exhibition games against teams in Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic before the NHL regular season gets underway.
I think it’s a good concept; letting European fans see how their home teams stack up against teams from the best hockey league in the world. But after EV Zug of Switzerland beat the New York Rangers 8-4 on October 3, I wondered, how can this possibly benefit the NHL at all?
The Swiss National League A (which EV Zug plays in) is no pushover of a pro hockey league; many former NHLers dabble in, or finish their careers there. So you can make all the excuses you want – the Rangers played 4 games in 5 nights in 4 different countries (which they did, and that would be tough) and the other teams were well rested, jetlag, they played their pre-season roster, the European ice is too big (it is.), yadda yadda yadda; but at the end of the day, you have a team from the league recognized as the best in the world, not just beaten but routed, by a team from a relatively unknown league, comparatively. All of a sudden, the best league in the world can’t be all that great because its teams are getting beaten by teams that are even lower than the NHL’s supposed European equivalent, the KHL. And it doesn’t even matter that NHL teams win the other 6 games, because that’s what they’re expected/supposed to do. Losing one game over there is a far bigger deal than sweeping every game they play and maintaining their hockey dominance. The NHL has nearly nothing to gain (besides some minor fan support and merchandise/advertising sales, and having the players enjoying seeing the other side of the world or returning to their homeland) by playing these games and a lot to lose credibility-wise; European teams had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The loss unnecessarily dropped the NHL down a few pegs on the international hockey landscape, and European hockey just gained a lot of cred in return.
And how in the world do some people from the NHL argue that they don’t want to send NHL players to the Olympics because of roster depletion, injury potential, and other nonsense; yet they won’t even blink an eye about sending 4 entire rosters of NHL clubs to Europe and exposing them to the potential of the very same pitfalls?
Let’s be honest, as much as fans would like to believe professional sports leagues just want to treat them to competition featuring the best talent in sport, the league is in it to make money and sustain the multiple billions of dollars it has to hand out in player and staff salaries each year, bottom line. I just don’t see how subjecting NHL talent/franchises to the potential of losing to teams in lesser leagues can be good for business. The only way it really makes any sense is if the NHL has a serious plan to expand to Europe in the future. If the NHL doesn’t plan to do this, the only reasons for them to be there in this capacity are either to:
1) Crush European teams, and assert NHL dominance in hockey.
2) Break the hearts of European fans as NHL clubs roll-over their hometown heroes.
3) Milk all the merchandising and advertising sales possible out of a one-month promotion and playing schedule from a market that the NHL fears is cornered by European leagues.
If an NHL club loses to any of these European teams, then all 3 points of this hat-trick attack plan are compromised. After all, why would a hockey fan residing in Switzerland purchase an NHL pay per view broadcast, or plan a North American vacation and buy NHL tickets if they know their Swiss teams are better than NHL clubs? And what Rangers fan is going to get more excited about cheering for his or her team knowing they get beat by Swiss teams? What hope does that give them of their hometown team every winning a Cup again?
As a fan, I think the European experiment is fantastic, and great for the growth of hockey, globally. But let’s not kid ourselves, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman isn’t overly concerned about doing much for the game of hockey as he is making sure the NHL breaks into the American television market and makes a ton of money. From that perspective, this move is quite a head-scratcher.