Hockey’s appeal spans continents. So what’s preventing NHL expansion beyond North America?
Despite ranking fourth in terms of popularity and revenue of the Big Four North American sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL, and the NHL), hockey isn’t short on fans. The Chicago Blackhawks have 2.82 million Facebook fans, while the league has 4.66 million fans overall.
Worldwide, hockey is a popular mainstay in countries that feature cold climates, such as central and northern Europe, and it is moving east into Russia. The sport delivers on technical skill that impresses, speed that makes play exciting, and enough physical contact to make each game seem like a battle.
In other words, hockey’s appeal is broad, its rules are simple, and its popularity spans continents. So if the NHL qualifies as the world’s largest and most prestigious hockey competition, then what’s preventing NHL expansion, with the league reaching beyond North America?
NHL executives and hopeful franchise owners are asking the same question. Moving forward, what are some of the NHL’s prime considerations, both obstacles and appeals, when looking to move eastward to Europe?
NHL Expansion in North America
The NHL shows no signs of slowing NHL expansion in North America. Recently, the Vegas Golden Knights became the latest team to join the league with their inaugural 2017-18 season. In their first run, they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before bowing to the Washington Capitals.
Since the Golden Knights hit the ice, sports betting has expanded beyond Nevada’s borders. And with an increasing number of reliable sportsbooks offering free bets for newcomers, the interest in wagering on ice hockey is likely only to grow. This bodes well for the league’s interest in expanding abroad, as the new betting industry is set to reinvigorate sports fans.
Currently, 23 NHL teams compete in the US and seven compete in Canada. The Seattle Kraken team is expected to join the league in 2021. They’ll compete in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division along with newcomers, the Vegas Golden Knights.
If investors continue to show interest in establishing new franchises across North America, the leap abroad wouldn’t be so far-fetched. Some fans may even look forward to the potential of another expanded playoff series like that seen in the 2020 altered season, which included a 24-team format.
Much like the NFL’s International Series, the NHL’s Global Series is designed to lay a foundation of fan interest abroad. However, while the NFL has struggled to gain momentum in places like London and Mexico City, the NHL has had little problem arranging games in the likes of Switzerland, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Sweden.
So far the NHL’s Global Series has seen 29 regular-season games played overseas, with an average attendance of 13,339 per game. However, this isn’t just about promoting the NHL abroad and attempting to put down roots where potential fan bases could someday grow.
The Global Series also acts as a showcase to entice international hockey players to keep working toward a future playing professionally. Introduced in 2012, the Series saw the NHL’s Player Association (NHLPA) approve the international recruitment of top players from Europe and Russia.
Compared to the NFL’s efforts to put down roots in London or Mexico City to gain fans, the NHL’s relationship with hockey in Europe is more symbiotic. It’s not just about promoting an American game abroad; it’s about merging two separate hockey ecosystems.
Promising Talent Pool
Canada is considered by many hockey fans to be the motherland of superior hockey talent—especially given that of the top 5 goaltenders of all time, 4 are Canadians! Though the US isn’t far behind in terms of producing elite athletes, neither North American nation is guaranteed to remain the home of hockey.
Internationally, hockey is often discussed in the context of the ‘Big Eight’ teams when it comes to the Olympics and other international competitions. These teams consist of Canada, the US, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Switzerland.
To date, Canada’s national team has a .682 win percentage. This puts them ahead of their nearest competitor, Sweden, with a win percentage of .630. Even so, Sweden is known for performing well against elite competitors from Russia to Canada.
The NHL today comprises a diverse range of players from these Big Eight countries listed above. Though Canadians and Americans make up the bulk of the league, 76 players hail from Sweden, 32 from Russia, 31 from Finland, and 24 from the Czech Republic.
This signals that the NHL is already prepared to construct multilingual and multi-cultural teams in Europe. In fact, these teams would likely seamlessly blend into the existing league even if few North American players were on the roster.
While the NHL seems to have addressed many key points that the NFL still struggles with while considering a move abroad, both leagues face plenty of challenges in terms of red tape. Though the NHL already bridges the US-Canada border, the jump across the Atlantic wouldn’t be quite as seamless.
The NHL needs to answer questions about player contracts and rights, taxation laws, and more than a few time zone and divisional format concerns. These issues wouldn’t just bridge the US-Canada NHL to the EU, but also to Russia.
Still, Bill Daly, the current Deputy Commissioner of the NHL, recently said that the league’s expansion into Europe was “probably inevitable,” though maybe not in the immediate future. In other words, momentum may be slow but it’s unfailing.
For now, hockey pundits and fans are eager to predict which cities would likely get franchises. At the top of the list are Stockholm, Helsinki, Prague, Berlin, and Zurich, with other options like Vienna and Bratislava not far behind.
In terms of scheduling, NHL teams already make a cross-continent journey to play. The six-hour travel time between the east and west coasts of North America is comparable to a trans-Atlantic flight—though groups moving from the west coast to Europe would need a special arrangement.
One final consideration is that the NHL’s expansion to Europe could dilute its star power. That means that every team may lean on one single star rather than having dynamic rosters.
However, this is likely to be a factor in North America more so than in Europe. In Europe, the vast proliferation of soccer leagues hasn’t compromised star power from accumulating across those leagues, which indicates it won’t likely be a problem for the NHL.
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