International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel doesn't believe the NHL will be successful if it tries to set up a European branch.
Speaking at a hockey summit conference in Toronto, Fasel vowed to fight any attempt to start up a European branch of the NHL. He also claimed that the NHL doesn't have the marketing strategy to appeal to Europeans.
I beg to differ with Mr. Fasel, because he's only 50 percent right.
He's correct that the NHL doesn't have a good marketing strategy.
Trying to win a lucrative American television contract, the Gary Bettman-led league expanded into unfamiliar American markets, in hopes of making hockey a big-four American national game.
Instead, the league failed to land a big contract, and now several teams are suffering, losing money every year. Meanwhile, cities like Hamilton, Seattle, Milwaukee, and Portland, which have natural hockey markets, go without teams.
But Mr. Fasel is wrong when he says the NHL could not make it in Europe.
Fasel cites the recent demise of NFL Europe as his main example of North American failure. But he ignores the huge difference between American football and NHL hockey.
In effect, the NFL did what Bettman attempted to with the NHL: expand into unfamiliar territory that had little previous contact with the sport.
But if the NHL expanded into the right European countries (Slovakia, Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden, Finland), it would be planting franchises in places where hockey has a following and has grown naturally.
Unlike NFL Europe—which had few native players—NHL European teams would have, and would constantly play against, teams that have European stars on them. That should provide incentive for European fans to attend games.
And European fans would want to see North American stars like Sidney Crosby, Ryan Miller, and Taylor Hall.
Fasel would have a better argument if he based his reasoning on the size of European arenas as opposed to NHL ones. Most arenas that the KHL play in are much smaller than those the NHL play in, and therefore they don't generate the revenue that an NHL team would require.
Failure to build NHL size arenas cost Hartford, Quebec, and Winnipeg their teams. The arena issue would be a major obstacle to setting up a European NHL branch.
But Fasel is wrong if he thinks there is not enough interest in the NHL in Europe.
Each year, the NHL plays more games over there to start the season and the league would not do that if interest was waining like it did for NFL Europe.
Fasel does support a championship playoff round between the NHL champion and the European champion. Ironically, if such a championship did come to pass, it would probably increase European interest in the NHL even further, but right now European expansion is a long term NHL goal.
Fasel is right about one more thing: If the NHL can't get its North American expansion right, is there any reason to expect that it will get it right in Europe when the proper time comes?