There are constant rumours, both legitimate and wacky, regarding the potential existence of new hockey leagues.
These include the World Hockey Association in North America, the Continental Hockey League (KHL) expanding in Russia, the NHL developing a presence in Europe, and the Elite Leagues of Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic uniting.
These may not be possible, probable, or even on the radar, but in order for a True European League (TEL) to exist, it goes well beyond simply signing up teams.
The first part of starting this league is not, unfortunately, hockey; it is money. Huge sums of money are required to run a hockey league, as the NHL can attest.
The NHL had revenues of over $2 billion dollars last year, and yet many franchises were losing money. There are rumours out of Russia that teams are losing money and being taken over by the league.
The Champions League just died after not finding a financial backer. Therefore, the first thing the TEL would have to do is figure out the money. Teams such as Modo are famous in the hockey world, yet the team is struggling both financially and on the ice.
Peter Forsberg and Marcus Naslund are both suiting up for the team for free this season in an attempt to get the franchise into the black.
One reason for the team’s struggles is Modo is based in a town of around 35,000 people. As a comparison, Calgary, at a population of just over one million, is one of the smaller NHL bases. Calgary's Saddledome seats 19,000.
Cash flow is always going to be a problem, and the solutions are difficult.
Firstly, markets are going to have to be identified. A team with history and traditions in a tiny market may not succeed, but a newer team in a larger market may.
While this does sound similar to the situation the NHL faces, going into large markets despite them having no interest in hockey, it may be the only way for teams to survive.
Like Canada, Sweden and Finland have an appreciation for hockey as a country, instead of region by region. Hopefully, this could translate into successful teams.
Secondly, teams will need to establish a salary cap, including caps on individual salaries and first and second contracts.
A huge problem in the NHL is the explosion of contracts in a player's second year. Crosby went from the rookie maximum of $850,000 plus bonuses to $8.7 million per season. Similarly, Dion Phaneuf went from earning the rookie maximum in his first year to $6.5 million the next.
If the TEL could limit the player costs, they will have a chance to succeed.
Thirdly, there needs to be a transfer agreement of sorts with the NHL and KHL. There needs to be an age of unrestricted free agency. A player at the age, for example, of 27 is a free agent and can sign in any league of his choosing with no transfer penalties, costs or problems. Any transfer before the age of 27 would fall under a transfer agreement for cash.
Continuing with players, if a player transfers to a different league, say the NHL, does not make the team, and is assigned to the AHL, the player can return to their former league without a transfer fee going through.
This would hopefully prevent situations like the Nikita Filatov situation in Columbus, where Filatov needed seasoning in the AHL, playing 20 minutes a night instead of the eight minutes he was getting in the NHL. Becoming frustrated, he left his team and returned home.
The next thing the TEL would need is a junior circuit. The Hockey News recently published a story about junior-aged players in the KHL not getting ice time. They are then coming to the Canadian Hockey League and getting the ice time they need to develop their games.
Players in Europe often fly under the radar when, at 17 or 18 years old, they are called up to the Elite Leagues, play six minutes a night, record a season of two goals and five assists and don’t really develop.
A true junior league would give players a place to develop their skills and prevent players from leaving at 15 or 16 for North America.
The other advantage is junior leagues develop more than players; they develop coaches and officials. A good junior league feeds all levels of a professional league.
Finally, there would be more opportunity for late bloomers, players who never got a shot at junior and never had a chance to develop. There are many NHL players today who took the college route, or didn’t have a break-out season until after their draft year, who wouldn’t be noticed. If the TEL had a full junior system, players would get more opportunities.
Let’s pretend somehow everything mentioned above happened. What would happen to hockey as we know it?
Currently, the NHL is about 50 percent Canadian, 15-18 percent American, and 30-33 percent European.
If suddenly a TEL comes, those numbers will change. The Russians playing in the league today are not the average Russian hockey player. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk aren’t the typical Russian player anymore than Jarome Iginla, Sidney Crosby, or Joe Thorton is the typical Canadian player.
The players who have left for the KHL have been the second-tier of Russians—players such as Alexei Yashin and Alexander Radulov.
While these Russians are not franchise players, they are talented players nonetheless. As well, fewer and fewer Russians are being drafted, and the ones who are being drafted are going farther down in the draft.
If the KHL trend holds true, the NHL could expect to see losses such as Kristian Huselius, Pekka Rinne, Miroslav Satan, Milan Hedjuk, and Sami Salo. None of those players would be a huge loss.
Satan and Hedjuk have lost a step and Salo cannot make it through a complete NHL season. Players like Huselius disappear when the game is physical, and goalies such as Pekka Rinne end up battling for playing time. They could be living at home instead, making good money.
While none of those players would be a big loss individually, much talent and skill would be lost as a whole.
There are not 100 or so talented second liners and second pairing defensemen lurking in the AHL right now; there would be a drop off. How the NHL deals with the loss of talent is huge.
One answer would be contraction. Dropping 30 teams to 26 teams would concentrate the talent. With 80-100 fewer jobs, more talent would prevail. It would also handle the NHL’s have-not franchises—Phoenix, Atlanta, Florida, and Nashville.
This is all purely speculation, and while some of this may come to pass, not all of it will. Which is why speculation is so much fun. With the emergence of the KHL and the NHL not taking a major hit from the recession, it appears hockey is going strong and hopefully something like a True European League could surface one day.