During the ten years leading up to its lockout, the NHL had been by far the most experimental and creative of the nation's major sporting leagues. The period saw a wave of rapid expansion that outpaced anything that had existed in the other 'big four' games. When some of the new fans complained about their puck spotting skills, the league introduced the infamous glowing blue halo, much to the pleasure of David Letterman's writing staff. The International All Star Game put a unique spin on the mid-season classic — after all, how much loyalty could Calgarians really feel for the 'West'? Indeed, the NHL consistently exhibited a distinct taste for innovation.
If that decade-long period constituted an era of creative experimentation, then the last year has been nothing short of a Ken Kesey acid test. Who would have ever imagined that professional athletes could agree to significant contract downsizing — aren't they supposed to change agents or career allegiances over a couple of percentage points in salary? When they finally return to the ice, they will discover a rule change list that's drastic enough to ruin some careers while buoying others.
Supposedly, the more exciting pace of play will help people forget the omitted season. Fortunately, all of these strange agreements helped to obviate the weirdest of all the NHL news stories — Bain Capital's offer to buy the entire league for a few billion dollars. Though some question the seriousness of the effort, the whole ordeal did remind hockey fans that this league is — for lack of a better word ... a bit 'special.'
Still, despite the best laid plans of owners and players, the real issue facing hockey has nothing to do with contracts, rules, or league structure. A lack of interest remains the greatest challenge of all. Sure, the smaller goalie pads could lead to higher scoring games, but will that do much to help? The early 1980's featured almost twice the scoring of recent years, but that didn't exactly explode the sport. If the NHL wants to expand fan interest, then it needs to look at its own physical expansion.
Like any good company, the league must carefully target where it extends its operations and reach out to ideal customers. The first step in 'customer targeting' requires a bit of backpedaling. There are a few cities that really don't need — or deserve — an NHL franchise. No offense to North Carolina, it's a beautiful state, but it doesn't exactly fit the hockey mold. Nor does Georgia, for that matter. The league should carefully re-examine which cities really have the potential to become Hockey Towns, and it should offer to move those teams which are not feeling the affection. This is easier said than done in some cases, but teams in unprofitable markets will eventually pack their bags and leave town — even if it takes a few years of convincing.
Some might wonder where the unwanted clubs can relocate. The answer could not be more obvious: Europe. That's right, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe deserve to have a conference all to themselves. Imagine the Stockholm Panthers, the Prague Hurricanes, and the Mighty Ducks of Moscow. Could such a crazy idea work? If one analyzes the potential challenges, then it turns out to be far from absurd. The first big question mark is the almighty dollar — or the even mightier euro. Could such expansion yield better profits? The answer is an overwhelming 'yes.' Those in the United States and Canada may think that they live in the wealthiest part of the world, but they are dead wrong. As it turns out, Sweden, Finland, and Norway all boast stronger per capita GDP's than their North American rivals. That means that the typical Oslo citizen gets a fatter paycheck than his counterpart in Minneapolis. Even more attractive is the spread of wealth. Scandinavia is not a country of 'haves' and 'have-nots.' Virtually every person can afford a game ticket or a flashy team jersey.
Prague, Moscow, and St. Petersburg might not be as wealthy as their Norse neighbors, but they easily overcome the second largest concern: TV ratings. Eastern Europe boasts some of the Western world's largest metropolitan areas. Even if Moscow dwellers exhibited half the interest of those in Nashville, the overall ratings would prevail. It has several times as many citizens. Plus, the local culture would encourage television watching. After all, Europeans live significantly easier-paced lives than Americans. Very few fans will still be at work when the puck drops.
Another possible roadblock is travel. The flight from Moscow to San Jose might be a bit longer than ideal. That said, this hardly represents a major problem point. As things stand, the league is cutting back the contact between West Coast and East Coast teams, such that clubs will rarely journey outside their time zones. Under the terms of intercontinental expansion, the European teams could do a once-a-year trip to America for eight or nine games, and each of the American conferences could return the favor in the two subsequent years. That way, a team would have to deal with the jet lag every three seasons, which is hardly a big deal. Give them a four day rest cushion before and after the journey if need be.
The final worry might be the example set by NFL Europe, which has not exactly won the hearts and minds that some might have hoped. The comparison is a tenuous one at best. That questionable expansion was made difficult by the fact that nobody across the Atlantic knew how to play the game. Europeans invented hockey. Heck, the Russians love it so much that they used to count it as part of their military. Doubters should know that an NHL foray into Europe will be completely different from the NFL's effort — and the results will be one hundred and eighty degrees from identical.
In short, there aren't really that many problems associated with taking the big step towards European expansion. Would it be a huge change for professional sports? Absolutely. But the timing could not be better. If the NHL is going to redefine itself, then it needs to take risks — and this is one that will surely pay off. At the very least, the decision would garner some much-needed international headlines. At the very best, it could totally change the way professional sports leagues around the world operate.