Does the NHL Have A Future In Europe?

S BCorrespondent INovember 17, 2009

14 Apr 2001:  Peter Forsberg #21 of the Colorado Avalanche takes the puck down the ice during a shift change against the Vancouver Canucks in the third period during game two of their first round playoff game at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.  The Avalanche won 2-1. <DIGITAL IMAGE> Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr/ALLSPORT
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Whose ears didn't perk up when they heard Markus Naslund was coming out of retirement to play with Peter Forsberg for Modo in the Swedish Elite League? Both are even reportedly playing for free.

Not many fans wanted to see either return to the NHL, with both players past their primes. But there's something exciting about the two playing for Modo, matching up against a level of talent that isn't quite NHL caliber.

More and more players are leaving the NHL for Europe. Some, like Jaromir Jagr, left for money. Others, like Kevin Dallman, left because of a lack of NHL offers . And others, like Forsberg and Naslund, just want to play close to home.

The NHL has largely ignored this migration, assuming that the best players will always want to play in the NHL. Which is true. Most players wanting to prove their mastery of hockey are going to eventually try and break into the NHL.

But what about players who have already proven their worth? What about players who had some kind of NHL following but have left for one reason or another?

The NHL doesn't care about European hockey because it doesn't impact the bottom line or the league's longterm health. But by largely ignoring European hockey, they're missing out on what could be an interesting opportunity—bringing a different kind of hockey to fans.

You might have heard the NHL has a television network, although it wouldn't be surprising to find out you didn't realize that. Right now, the network basically shows highlights and occasionally, re-broadcasts of games. Looking at the schedule, you can see they don't have much going on . There are probably certain test patterns that rate better.

So why not show the Modo games? Why not give fans the chance to see Naslund and Forsberg together again?

League management might not like the idea because of the belief broadcasting European hockey would cannibalize the NHL audience. But how many fans would give up their home team for the Swedish Elite League? The reality is, European games could draw fans whose teams were off that night, thus placing more eyeballs on hockey, if not the NHL.

Broadcasting European league games would also give NHL GMs a small bit of leverage with free agents. Say Ilya Kovalchuk threatens to leave the NHL for Europe. Kovalchuk's defection would be a blow to the league, but the blow is softened knowing that fans will still have access to Kovalchuk and his skills, on the NHL Network.

And perhaps, knowing that even by leaving the league, the league would still own a piece of him in some way, Kovalchuk would be more open to NHL offers.

The NHL has a precedent for this. They've shut down for hockey over the past few Olympics. They've begun the past few NHL seasons in Europe. The league recognizes the NHL isn't just about the NHL in particular, but hockey in general.

Getting more involved in European hockey would be an expansion of this idea, growing the hockey brand outside of the NHL context.

If the TV experiment is successful, what if the league decided to expand into Europe? What if, instead of an Eastern and Western Conference, there were Eastern and Western Hemispheres? Heck. Even an interleague All-Star Game would be pretty cool .

The NHL is desperately trying to maintain a franchise in Phoenix, where no one seems to care about hockey. Meanwhile, there's an entire continent the NHL has yet to fully explore. Players like Jagr, Forsberg, and Naslund see something in Europe. What do these players see that their former league doesn't?