The frenzy of competitive outdoor ice hockey games established since the turn of the century started in 2003, with the first NHL regular season game held outside, at Edmonton, in front of 57,167 spectators, and the idea quickly caught fire through the hockey world, extending to all levels of the sport in North America and most of the professional leagues in Europe.
However, the novelty has passed and today, moving beyond the local fanfare they bring, North-American audiences have become progressively tired of the concept. From the NHL’s point of view, the lack of public interest exhibited for the Stadium Series game played earlier this year at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara – the first to happen in Northern California- has to be a warning signal that something has to change and it’s time to experiment with new concepts.
While it’s undoubtedly accurate that there are still major markets (St. Louis, Minnesota, Denver, Dallas?) on the waiting line to host a “Winter Classic” type event, the concept can and should be expanded to capture new audiences and further expose the NHL brand. Therefore, isn’t it obvious? Get across the Atlantic and partner a great idea with the fans that haven’t yet been jaded by it.
Hockey’s popularity in some regions of Europe is well documented and the NHL has tried to explore it before, mainly with the NHL Premiere events, which from 2007 to 2011 brought several of the league’s premier franchises and players to dispute regular season matches on the continent at the beginning of the season. But with the next two Winter Olympic Games set to be held in Asia (Pyeongchang, 2018, Beijing/Astana, 2022) and the newly reborn World Cup scheduled for Toronto in 2016, the best players in the world won’t set foot in Europe for a long period of time.
To remedy this less than ideal situation, it’s time for the NHL to reward the dedicated fans that keep sacrificing hours of sleep day after day through 9 months to follow his favourite teams, and the return should be made in style, with a bunch of outdoors games held in the middle of the season, preferably in January or February…of 2018 or 2019.
Why this timing? The 2016-17 season is already going to start later due to World Cup and the NHL is definitely prepared to pull out of the 2018 Olympics, a decision that would certainly incite criticism and disappoint audiences worldwide. Then, is there a better way to apologize to its international fans than provide a taste of authentic, up-and-running NHL hockey (not “we’re still in pre-season hockey”) just weeks before the Olympic tournament, or, in alternative, a year later? If there is, I haven’t grasped it yet.
So, I’ve come up with five European countries to host the games, with the practical aspects sketched along these lines:
– All teams selected should leave North America, at most, mid –week in order to arrive in time to fight off jet-lag and play either Saturday or Sunday.
– The games would not coincide, with three of them scheduled for Saturday, starting at 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00 (GMT), and two more on Sunday (16:00, 19:00), thus managing to begin late enough to viewers back in North America, especially on the East Coast.
– In the case of conference matchups, the “home team” should be the one that hosted less matches between the pair in the previous season, getting the game back on the following year, and in intra-conference matchups the home side would be the Western outfit, with this team receiving both encounters on the following season.
How would the countries, hosting cities and stadiums be selected? Well, outdoor games only make sense, particularly in this scenario, if you significantly improve the number of tickets available in relation to a regular indoor game, thus facilities with a capacity for at least 30.000 were designated. That narrowed the list down in a hurry, since several relevant countries couldn’t comply with this, the most important being the Czech Republic. Also, ideally, you would like to get away from the capital cities, where the entertainment competition is enormous on the weekend, and focus on towns with a strongly built ice hockey interest, places that can properly announce the festivities and gather the local attention necessary to avoid empty seats.
Moreover, to increase the stadium experience and engage the audiences, some native talent or highly popular team/rivalry needs to be involved, with this being a decisive ingredient towards determining the teams clashing in each event. However, cautions need to be taken in order to avoid the appointment of unreasonable matchups, since some games, namely rivalries and traditional battles between division and conference foes, are too important on an economical and competitive level to believe the visited teams would support its relocation.
Preamble closed, let’s speculate.
Sweden (Ullevi, Gothenburg)
One of the most important European markets can’t possibly stay out of this hockey smorgasbord. Since the NHL sent the Washington Capitals and the late Minnesota North Stars to participate in the NHL-Sweden tournament of 1980, the country has welcomed NHL teams regularly, at first for friendly matches and tournaments against local teams, and after 2008 to face counterparts in regular season games. All of the latter matches took place at Stockholm’s Globe Arena, and the Swedish capital certainly has a new state-of-the-art facility, the Friends Arena, ready to receive outdoor games. The 50,000 seats would be tough to fill, but this isn’t the reason why I selected another venue for the Swedish classic.
History has shown that if we add another layer of intrigue to these events, mainly an iconic, beloved, antique facility, there’s an extra component added and because of this I would nudge towards the 43,000 Ullevi in Gothenburg, which incidentally will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2018. In addition, the stadium has already hosted an event of this nature in 2009, when hometown Frölunda beat Färjestad at the inaugural edition of the Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic, in front of more than 31.000. Need another reason? The proximity to a pair of rapidly improving neighbours, Denmark and Norway.
Teams: The Detroit Red Wings, that have had strong Swedish connections since Nicklas Lidström debuted in the NHL at the 1990´s, and the New York Rangers of Henrik Lundqvist, which started his professional career at Frölunda, are probably the most popular NHL teams on the country, but both franchises would be too reluctant to sacrifice an home date against a fellow “Original 6” opponent to make it work. So, why not go with the Rangers and the home fans against Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators? Both teams have already played ”real games” in Sweden, the Rangers against the Kings and Ducks in 2011, and the Senators in 2009 against the Penguins, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most.
Other options to consider include the Vancouver Canucks, that have always maintained a little Swedish colony since the Sedin twins joined Mats Naslund in the early 2000’s, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former stronghold of Mats Sundin and a team which by 2018-19 should already be under the William Nylander mania.
Switzerland (Stade de Suisse, Bern)
The first professional ice hockey game held outside in Europe, on the new century, happened in Switzerland in 2007, the 100th edition of the Bern derby played at the Stade de Suisse in front of 30,000. Since that time, the NLA, the Swiss top tier hockey league, has continued to grow hand in hand with the emergence of the national team, becoming over the last few years the most attended league in Europe. Actually, SC Bern leads all Europe in average attendance, with more than 16,000 fans flocking to the arena per game, and during the last NHL lockout, several stars (John Tavares, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron…) kept in shape playing in the league, leaving a trail of admirers eager to watch more from them. Despite of this, even if teams like the New York Rangers have visited local clubs for a number of times, the NHL has never hosted a regular-season game in the country, and such mistake should be quickly corrected.
Hence, from the three 30,000-plus stadiums existent in Switzerland, it’s a matter of deciding between Bern and Geneva, two of the three cities with the highest attendance rates. The previous experience with this type of events, the location inside the German part of the country, more hockey-appreciative, and the proven existing fan base lean the decision toward the Swiss capital and the Stade de Suisse.
Teams: The Nashville Predators of Roman Josi, probably the best player ever produced in the nation, are an obvious choice to appear in this event, and that turns into a complete slam-dunk if we add that the defenseman is an SC Bern home-grown- talent and a native of the Swiss capital. Plus, the Predators have already waiting on the wings another promising Swiss prospect, forward Kevin Fiala, the 11th pick of the 2014 NHL draft who might be an explosive scorer for the team by this time. On the other side of the ice, what about the San Jose Sharks, a team which is just starting to explore the defensive acumen of Mirco Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL draft, and the franchise that employs Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, both former NLA performers.
Germany (RheinEnergieStadion, Cologne)
It took some time and a lot of testing in preseason games from its constituents, but the NHL finally embraced Germany as a hockey market in 2011, holding the first regular–season game in Berlin to close the last NHL Premiere. Since then, the game has continued to make strides in the most populous nation in Eastern Europe and the Deustche Eishockey Liga is today one of the main receivers of North-American players who decide to emigrate. Moreover, to attest its recent prosperity, the German League has already organized two outdoor games and those were resounding successes.
First, on the 5th of January, 2013, the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg welcomed a crowd of 50,000, a number that would be surpassed two years later, at Düsseldorf, when the North-Rhine-Westphalia derby between Düsseldorfer EG and Kölner Haie was watched by 51,125 enthusiastic fans. In fact, most of League’s 14 squads are located on the south and eastern part of the country, so those are really the regions where an event of this magnitude should take place.
The Bavarian region is represented by four teams but hosting a game at the 75,000-seats Allianz Arena in Munich seems a bit too optimistic, consequently we must change sights for the backup plan, the highly industrialized and densely populated Rhine region, which contributes with 4 DEL teams. The Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen would be a place to contemplate, since it held the inaugural match of the 2010 World Championships in front of an European-record 77,803 fans, but we should probably set our hopes on one of the big cities with DEL teams, either Dusseldorf or Cologne. Since the former has had his chance nationally, we’ll settle for the RheinEnergyStadion, located in the fourth largest city in Germany and capable of holding 50,000 since it was renovated for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Teams: Can Leon Draisaitl, the highest drafted German player of all-time, make a name for himself in the NHL until 2018? The Edmonton Oilers certainly aren’t one of the premier franchises in the NHL and their name won’t wow the German fans poised to attend such event, but if the big, skilled center can be a recognizable figure by then, a possible match on his hometown can be a money-maker. To balance the international-appeal, I would throw in as opponents the Boston Bruins, current team of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and the franchise where Marco Sturm, the top-German scorer in NHL history, played the longest.
Great Britain (London Olympic Stadium, London)
The first visit by NHL teams to the British Islands dates back to April 1959, as part of a European exhibition tour for the NY Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and since then the League has visited London three more times, the last one in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks and the LA Kings played the first two NHL regular-season games ever held in Europe. However, the sport’s growth on the United Kingdom has been slow, with the chronic problems experienced by the local league (Elite Ice Hockey League) exemplifying that perfectly (disbandment and rebuilds, failed expansions, franchises folding).
An average attendance of less than 2,000 spectators coupled with the lack of presence on the largest English cities (London, Manchester, Newcastle) has penalized the championship and the sport at the national level, but those kind of problems weren’t impediments for recent successful ventures by the NBA and the NFL on a British sports landscape that is in constant evolution as the population changes.
Even if most of the EIHL teams are situated on the centre of England and in Scotland, the attraction of London is too much to consider any other town suitable to host this event. Matching the more than 80,000 fans that every year congregate at Wembley to watch NFL games it’s a lot to ask, but the NHL would certainly be happy if the locals and the several thousand expats living and working on the metropolitan area can fill the 54,000 seats available at the London Olympic Stadium, scheduled to re-open in 2016.
Teams: There are no clear-cut picks here, so the league would probably have to go with star power and/or tradition. If you select the first, wouldn’t this be a great way of introducing Connor McDavid to international stardom? Make it the “McDavid team” versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, a battle of the most recent “Next Great One’s”. If you prefer tradition, may I suggest reuniting a “lost rivalry”? London would certainly appreciate a Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings matchup.
Austria (Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)
With the Helsinki Olympic Stadium set to close for renovations from 2016 to 2019, and few quality options available in more traditional countries like Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria stumbles on this list as a hub for central Europe capable of attracting fans from various neighbouring countries.
Even though the sport takes a backseat nationally for other winter activities like skiing, the Austrian ice hockey League has a history that dates back to 1923, and, since 2005, the competition innovated towards providing access to clubs from nearby nations. In fact, teams from Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic compete today in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), making it kind of a poor parented KHL. Likewise, during the first few decades, the sport was dominated in Austria by the teams from Vienna and Klagenfurt, but steadily the landscape has changed, emerging new powers from cities like Linz and Salzburg.
However, it is still on the capital of the Carinthia region that the record-holder for most championships is located and the city of Klagenfurt hasn’t left their credits in other hands, taking on the task of organizing the only two outdoor ice hockey games ever held in Austria. The modern Wörthersee Stadion received 30,000 spectators for the 2010 and 2015 Winter Classics, gathering hometown EC KAC and rivals Villacher SC, and its geographical location, right at the border with Italy and Slovenia – and close to Hungary and Slovakia- makes it ideal to host an event of this kind and benefit from the influx of visiting fans. Thus, the town of Klagenfurt trumps the sexier and riskier option, Vienna, which would host the event at the 50,000-seats Ernst-Happel Stadium.
Teams: Well, there’s a superstar center from nearby Slovenia excelling for the twice champions LA Kings, and that would be a good place to start. Moreover, Anze Kopitar deserves the recognition, his compatriots would flock to the city, and an event like these provides an international exposure that would further set his profile has a model of perseverance for aspiring youngsters from no-traditional ice hockey nations. However, for all his qualities, he’s not an Austrian, and the country lacks a true poster-boy now that Thomas Vanek has taken a step back as he enters his 30’s. Yet, not banking upon a new Austrian face emerging, Vanek’s Minnesota Wild wouldn’t be a bad opponent, especially since the lack of an event in Finland would take the team from the State of Hockey out of its favoured destination.
After the first five, could the NHL get even bolder? What about a game at the Rome Coliseum (…)? A battle between the NHL and KHL Champions at Moscow’s Red Square? Shifting gears, can Rio de Janeiro and Copacabana beach be more than a pipe dream? Will the league turn its efforts to Asia first (Japan, South Korea, China)?
An NHL European Division may be a scenario never achievable, but there’s so much to explore and to experiment in order to grow the game at other latitudes that the powerful NHL needs to lead the pack towards innovation.