Wednesday, August 8, 2007

England - Our NHL Season Opener. Woo-hoo!

Fish 'n chips? Ice Hockey?

As we are counting weeks for the opening of the NHL season, I wanted to celebrate one very bad decision by the NHL that is further diluting our already troubled world of hockey. The Stanley Cup champion Ducks will open the league's 90th anniversary season with a two-game series against the Los Angeles Kings at the O2 Arena in London. It marks the first time the NHL will hold a regular-season game in England, and in fact, anywhere in Europe. There has been no announcement thus far which network in the States will be broadcasting these opening games.
I posted here last month regarding this issue, and it was received with mixed emotion and downright disagreement.

The branding of the NHL in London is a bad idea. Some would disagree with me on this, but understand, on the positive side, I do believe exposing hockey anywhere is a good thing. Furthermore, I will acknowledge there are already established leagues throughout Europe, Russia, Czech, etc, that are powerhouse leagues (Elite) that provide some of the best NHL league players. England on the other hand is limited and audiences don't much care for it. Of all of the European cities to choose from, this one is a stinker.

Not for trying, huge efforts have been made to expand the game of hockey throughout the United Kingdom -- but unlike the national sports of soccer, rugby (and God help us, cricket) where one can play in any open field or park, equipment and ice skating facilities are much greater financial burdens on smaller towns, and in most cases, not accessible. In fact, the tiny country of Finland - where hockey is worshipped, has over 250 professional ice rinks used for the training of amateur & professional sports, recreational skating, etc., whereas, throughout all of England, they have under 40 workable ice rinks. Additionally, most of Englands' fan base identifies with their local sports team and admires those that are 'from our town' celebrities; there are historical rival cities and it is especially challenging for local fans to identify with players that are currently imported.

In order to objectively consider the NHL's 'London Calling', it is best to look at the history of hockey in England over the last decade or so. The Elite Ice Hockey League is the professional ice hockey league in the United Kingdom. Formed in 2003 following the demise of the Ice Hockey Superleague, it is the highest level of ice hockey competition in the United Kingdom. Unlike its North American counterparts, the Elite League is not divided into conferences; teams compete in a single division.
The league currently consists of ten teams.

Ice hockey is a minor sport in the United Kingdom and the EIHL, like its predecessors, faces a constant struggle to stay on the ice. Turns out ice hockey receives little national media coverage in the United Kingdom. Some national newspapers list results and provide short summaries of the league's news but more extensive coverage remains minimal. There was a small surge in interest during the 2004-05 season when newspapers such as The (London) Times reported on the NHL players playing the Elite League as a result of the lockout but since the lockout ended, coverage has returned to its previous levels.

Elite League teams rely heavily on 'imports', players from outside the United Kingdom. The majority of these players are from North America, and typically played in the North American leagues such as the ECHL before coming to Britain. For example, of the 21 players to play for champions Belfast Giants in the 2005-06 season, 10 were Canadian, 7 were British and 4 were American. The league restricts the number of import players which can be on a team's roster at any one time, with a current limit of 10 imports. Player turnover is high, with a large proportion of players spending a single season at a team before moving on, and multi-year contracts are uncommon.

British ice hockey's structure underwent major reorganization in 1996. The British Hockey League (the highest senior competition since 1982) was disbanded and replaced by the Ice Hockey Superleague and British National League. The BNL pursued a British player orientated structure, while the Superleague increased the wage cap significantly and abolished limits on the number of overseas players, resulting in the highest standard of ice hockey seen in the United Kingdom in the modern era of the professional game. By 2002, both leagues were suffering financial problems and a shortage of attendees. The Superleague in particular was having great difficulty. Record attendance levels achieved shortly after the league was formed proved unsustainable, and as a result, the cost of maintaining the Superleague's high standard of ice hockey became unaffordable. A number of clubs folded amidst financial problems, and others had to seek new ownership in order to stay afloat. Hockey couldn't find an audience in England, so they attempted to reinvent hockey once again to it's current status.

So all in all, it suggests that if the English leagues cannot generate enough fan base and interest in their own hockey leagues, then the NHL's expansion effect on hockey in England will be, at best, minimal. We can thank our homeboy hockey-man leader, Gary Bettman, Overlord of the NHL, for opening our proud hockey season in London and for further 'spreading thin' the NHL brand - as one third of our own league needs more exposure, higher and more mainstream television coverage, and a good 'ole fashioned kick-in-the-pants.

Coincidentally, Bettman made this deal with Phil Anschutz who just so happens to own the Los Angeles Kings, the Staples Center in Los Angeles, and also the O2 Arena in London - where the opening NHL games are taking place.

Perhaps Mr. Bettman is looking for employment over the next couple of years!!?




  1. DarkRanger, you just don't like London do you? The coverage they get in England is not that different than the lack of coverage we get in the states, but i do see your point that London may not be the best choice. the Dutch, russian, Czech states would have more influence -- and i prefer exhibition games overseas, not to open the season. that's a lot of typing to make a point. any post that ends sniping Bettman is a good one in my book.

  2. I actually love London. I also love hockey. My separate lives.


  3. Gary Bettman is an idiot and has completely ruined the NHL.

    These guys have the right idea:

  4. Love it. THAT's a friend link of The Dark Ranger. Thanks for the tip.

  5. I still think Bettman's initial choise was Lisbon

  6. Very nice article... I have nothing against England but this is definitely a half assed attempt at spreading the game and gaining exposure for the NHL. That last point you made about Anshultz was a great one too. The Anshultz Entertainment Group is one of the largest investors in sports and entertainment venues and promotion.. seems more like one hand washing the other to me. Maybe Bettmans next job could be as Commissioner of the MLS, Anshultz has a lot of pull in our thriving American soccer league.

    Also, thanks for the line you dropped me on tuesday I appreciate the support. Nice site and good article. Keep up the good work.

  7. London??? To the Tower.... definitely a transparent and bad choice. Love your blog!

  8. In terms of the NHL's choice of London as a destination, I don't think it is all that far off...

    The city is full of ex-pat Canadians and I beleive that an NHL game featuring these two teams where the Ducks have an overwhelmingly heavily Canadian roster would spark comparatively little interest in the countries where hockey is already a popular sport...

    London is a city where the rich like to get out and be seen, and where better to do this than at an event that will most likely be televised in North America at an hour more suitable than if the games were played further to the East like Moscow or Prague?

    There would be a lot more effort necessary to get an arena to play in that one of the more prominent Euro league teams calls home, without having to pay a pretty price for it...

    Not to mention that the NHL already has a working relationship with the Elite League...

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