European expansion on the horizon, Daly says

From Friday's Globe and Mail

The NHL is aiming to have teams based in Europe within the next 10 years, the league's deputy commissioner said yesterday.

"As time goes on, you'll see us making increasing movement into Europe," Bill Daly said in an interview. "Certainly, it's a possibility that within 10 years time we will be playing games there."

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Asked whether he viewed European expansion within 10 years as a good possibility, he said: "I hope so. But again, I think it's a long way between here and there. And I think all the pieces have to continue to line up in order for that to happen.

"So, certainly, we would hope that would be the case. But I can't say with any degree of certainty at this point."

A move to Europe by the NHL has been talked about for years. Toronto-based hockey agent Anton Thun and others have been proponents. But at the NHL level, Daly's statements are by far the strongest made by an executive in favour of European expansion.

"It's a priority for us," he said. "It is focused on as one of our primary growth opportunities."

Carolina Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford is not against expansion to Europe as long as the cities in question can support teams financially. But first, though, he would like to see the NHL put a couple of more teams in Canada - in Winnipeg and Southern Ontario.

"[European]cities do a good job for international hockey tournaments, but can those cities afford NHL prices for 42 regular-season games plus playoffs?" Rutherford said. "I don't know the answer, but if they can, then at some point there will be expansion in Europe.

"But first we have to expand a couple more teams back into Canada, get back into Winnipeg and put another team in Ontario before we see expansion to Europe."

The Toronto Maple Leafs have long opposed further expansion into their territory. But Rutherford, a native of Beeton, Ont., near Toronto, said "the Leafs have nothing to worry about."

Paul Kelly, the executive director of the National Hockey League Players' Association, said he was open to the idea of European expansion, but only after struggling North American franchises were stabilized.

"Once we reach that point, I do think we should at least explore the process of perhaps one day having a division of NHL teams based in Europe," he said.

Daly was not specific about how expansion would be achieved, but it is believed the NHL would place a division of six teams in cities where the sport sells.

The potential markets could include Stockholm, Helsinki, Prague, St. Petersburg, Russia, and Moscow, as well as cities in Germany and Switzerland.

The NHL, which will play games in Stockholm and Prague next month to start its regular season, views Europe as a "dynamic landscape," Daly said.

But it's also a prime target for other hockey associations.

The Russian-based Continental Hockey League is scheduled to start in 2008-09 and has plans for expansion to Western Europe. Next month, a Champions Hockey League based on the European club soccer model will begin.

"We are obviously monitoring and watching with great interest how they succeed," Daly said.

Challenges confronting NHL expansion to Europe include taxation laws that would impact on player salaries, the distance of travel between Europe and North America and the time difference between the two continents for television broadcasts.

The big question, Daly says, is the ability of European NHL clubs to generate enough revenue to compete with North American counterparts.

"The North American economy has a certain demand for North American sports content," he said. "I'm not sure that, in the short term, most European economies match that level of demand in terms of types of prices you could charge, etc.

"So, in dealing with a sports-league concept, you want markets that are at least within the same universe to at least support and charge for tickets and support player payrolls."

Daly said sponsorship initiatives could mitigate lost income from ticket prices that would be lower than those in the United States and Canada.

"Certainly, sponsorship opportunities in European cities may, in some cases, especially if the team is embraced as kind of a national team, present better financial options than for some of our clubs," he said.

Pierre McGuire, a hockey analyst for TSN and NBC, said he believes the time is right for expansion partly because so many Europeans are in the NHL.

About 30 per cent of league rosters are now made up of European players, compared with less than 10 per cent 20 years ago.

In terms of hockey interest, 25 to 35 per cent of unique traffic on NHL.com comes from Europe.

"In the history of the NHL, we've never had so many people coming from so many different places to play," McGuire said. "So the interest levels are not as provincial as they were. They're broad-based."

A European division would play a heavily unbalanced schedule in which teams would make one or two trips to North America. Some, but not all North American teams, would travel to Europe each season.

One unanswered question is how a European division would be integrated into the NHL's playoff structure. McGuire said that to promote the league in Europe, the European division winner might have to play for the Stanley Cup for a few years, similar to the way the winner of the NHL's six-team expansion division in 1967 played for the championship for several years. With a report from David Shoalts

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