PRAGUE, Czech Republic - The NHL is giving two more countries a first look at regular-season games this weekend, and it's a sight Europeans should be getting used to.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Thursday that the season-opening doubleheaders in the Czech and Swedish capitals Saturday and Sunday "are hopefully ushering an era of a more permanent presence for the league (in Europe)."
While the NHL is still far away from establishing franchises in Europe, it is creating "a program where we're coming back on a regular basis to satisfy and address the interest that we know is in our game here," Bettman said before this weekend's games in Prague between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are also playing the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm, Sweden, as the NHL decided to double its overseas schedule from the two games played by the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings in London to open last season.
"Because this is such a sophisticated hockey market and because the fans here know the game so well we felt the only way that we could do justice to bringing NHL players and teams here was to put on games that counted," Bettman said.
The NHL has no intention to slow down its expansion into the European market, with Germany seen as a likely destination for teams next year. Even Russian cities have expressed an interest in hosting games, said Paul Kelly, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association.
However, Bettman said the NHL may be hesitant to stage games in Russia because of a dispute with Russia's new Continental Hockey League (KHL) over respecting players' contracts.
"If you're going to do a game or a series of games like we're doing, you have to do it in an environment where everybody's working together and there's a joint co-operation," he said. "So I don't know that we'd go to a place where we weren't comfortable."
Kelly said he hoped a new agreement on transfers that would be "mutually agreeable" could be reached early next year.
"I don't think we would reject those cities simply because they happen to be in Russia or connected to the KHL," Kelly said.
Despite pre-season complications and tiring overseas flights, the players and coaches seem to like playing Europe.
"I think it's great to represent the NHL, it's great to be here, the people have been great," New York Rangers forward Scott Gomez said. "I think the NHL can play more games here because it's been a great experience for all of us."
Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival - one of more than 250 Czechs to have played in the NHL - said he was thrilled to have the chance to play before a home crowd.
"It certainly makes sense," Rozsival said. "The European fans for sure deserve to see the NHL in Europe."
Tampa Bay coach Barry Melrose said the travel had been tough, with the team also playing exhibition matches in Berlin on Sunday and Bratislava, Slovakia, on Tuesday.
"We've had nothing but very positive experiences," he said. "I would think that the games will be very, very well perceived."
The teams have already had a taste of the enthusiastic Czech fans, with Thursday's training sessions drawing more than 8,000 spectators.
"It was fun," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. "It was little weird to have people in the stands for a practice but it shows they are big fans of hockey in the Czech Republic."
His coach, Tom Renney, agreed.
"The enthusiasm is certainly there," Renney said. "I'm not surprised that there was that much interest in our skates and Tampa's as well. We're in for a pretty good weekend."