While the NHL continues it’s tug-of-war with the IOC and IIHF over Olympic participation, they’ve side stepped both to have a regular season game in Sweden, and pre-season game in China.
The NHL has announced a pair of regular season games to be played in the Swedish capital of Stockholm next season, featuring the Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators. On the heels of that news, there are also reports (Sportsnet’s John Shannon being the first I saw) that China will get pre-season games, possibly featuring Vancouver and Los Angeles.
This is all very fun news. And from my perspective, it’s also very savvy of the NHL and NHLPA.
It’s impossible not to remember that the NHL has been locked in a media battle with the IIHF over participation in the next Olympics, which is being hosted by South Korea. I’ve written before about the International Olympic Committee and how long a pole the NHL should hold if it wants to touch them, so for me, these plans for Sweden and China are strong. IIHF president Rene Fasel can bark all he wants, but he can’t interfere with NHL business abroad when they sidestep him and the IOC like this.
China is clearly an important market for the NHL’s future and the outreach has already started. Boston’s Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak have made trips to the mega-power nation and sponsors have repaid the Bruins and the NHL in kind. There is excitement at high levels over there and that’s an important first step.
Now, Fasel has recently claimed that if the NHL doesn’t go to Korea, it can forget about the Olympics after that, hosted by Beijing in 2022. I don’t believe that for a second. China is one of the only countries on Earth that still likes to host the Olympics and you’re telling me that if the NHL wants to go in 2022 (because it’s a bigger and better market for hockey than Korea, so at that point who cares about time zones) and China wants NHL players there, it’s not going to happen? Sure, buddy.
But before we even get to that, the NHL has this fantastic opportunity to showcase its sport. And I believe these pre-season games, while not as high profile as the Olympics, will have a great effect for other reasons. First off, you’re showing off your specific product – you’re going to have star players in Vancouver and Los Angeles jerseys, not national sweaters. That’s a branding win. And, you’re showing off an NHL product that mixes physicality, speed and skill. Since it’s the pre-season, we may even see a fight. Is that a positive or a negative? Honestly, I don’t know. But if you’re getting a country to fall in love with your sport, you might as well be honest from the outset. Not every hockey game is going to be a gold-medal Olympic classic and not every Olympic game has been good hockey anyway.
Moving over to Sweden, this is a nice bit of outreach to Europe and kind of funny since Senators owner Eugene Melnyk just said he doesn’t like the idea of captain Erik Karlsson going to the next Olympics to beat Canada. Well, the NHL has stepped up and Karlsson will get to play a pair of games in his home nation now.
Business-wise, the NHL knows it has to pay attention to Europe. The league’s official website has branched off into several different languages in recent times and though I don’t see the KHL as much of a threat to enter Sweden (especially since Finland’s Jokerit has really struggled financially in the Russian-based syndicate), it never hurts to reward a country that has given the NHL some excellent stars over the years. The only awkward situation we have here is that the Colorado Avalanche could very well trade away their Swedish captain, Gabriel Landeskog, at the draft in Chicago this summer. The Avs would still have Carl Soderberg to show off, but…ya know.
I suppose the Avs, in desperate need of a roster shakeup, could just deal Matt Duchene and hope that a lottery pick in the draft (potentially Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier) helps the rebuild while Landeskog remains with the squad, but clearly Colorado can’t be making roster decisions based off of special away games. If ‘Landy’ is a Bruin or a Shark by then, well, you just deal with it (hey, maybe they’ll trade him to Ottawa!). Either way, the Nov. 10-11 games at the Ericsson Globe will be packed and the NHL will get a nice little bump of PR in the process.
Like the China move, this is win-win for the league and its players.
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