The NHL chose a huge media gathering at one of its glitzier events, the all-star weekend, to officially announce plans to open with four regular-season games in Stockholm and Prague next season.
Only one problem: the NHL Players' Association says it still hasn't approved the games. Especially not the Victoria Cup exhibition game Oct. 1 between Metallurg Magnitogorsk and the New York Rangers in Switzerland.
"The CBA says these events can't happen unless the Players' Association approves it," NHLPA executive director Paul Kelly told a small group of reporters Saturday, about an hour after the NHL had ended its news conference. "And the reality is, while we approved conceptually with playing international games, we have not approved Stockholm, Prague or Bern. And there's still a lot of details to work out.
"And the problem with rushing to announce these things, it places an unfair pressure on the Players' Association and the players to now go along because it's already been publicly announced. Because otherwise you look like a schmuck by derailing this enterprise."
The NHL announced Saturday that the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins would play Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 in Stockholm while the Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning would play the same two weekend days in Prague.
"Players broadly favour playing international events and bringing the game to a new audience - particularly in Europe," Kelly said. "From that standpoint, players are in favour. But until we see the details of these particular events, and what they're planning, and when they're planning to bringing the teams over there, what kind of monetary considerations are involved, promotional and sponsorship arrangements, what role they have for the families of the players - we can't approve.
"Is there a possibility that we may say this isn't good enough and it undermines those events? Yes, there's a possibility," added Kelly. "We're not going to just be a rubber stamp. Once we're presented with details for these events we'll study them carefully, we'll talk to the players. If the players approve, then there'll be no problem. But it won't be a mere formality."
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said it wasn't the league's intent to undermine the players' union.
"There seems to have been a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line," Daly said. "We felt the PA had specifically authorized today's announcement. We'll address it directly with Paul and try to make sure it doesn't happen again."
While it would appear that the NHLPA will in all likelihood end up approving the games in Prague and Stockholm, the IIHF's first-ever Victoria Cup could be jeopardy. Kelly had been under the impression that given the player transfer agreement issues with the IIHF - both the NHL and IIHF have opted out of the current player transfer agreement - that the Victoria Cup was in trouble.
"The Victoria Cup was very much in the air just days ago," Kelly said. "Until I read about it in their press release, I was unaware of the fact they had done a 180 as to the Victoria Cup and frankly, given the open transfer issues that are still pending with the IIHF and the Russians, I'm not so sure why we would so readily agree to the Victoria Cup. Because I think quite frankly the two of them are linked. Bill (Daly) said just that last week. If I sound a little bit more miffed about that one, it's because I am."
The four teams involved for the games in Prague and Stockholm informally polled their players about participating and apparently got a green light. But Kelly said that's not good enough.
"Until we talk to the Rangers players, it's not good enough for (GM) Glen Sather to say, 'My guys are on board.' That doesn't cut it," Kelly said. "That's not approval under the CBA."
Kelly's controversial comments are really the first case of the new executive director flexing his muscles as he develops his relationship with the NHL.
"This kind of falls into the general category of: if they want the Players' Association to be a true business partner, then they have to include us in discussions about these matters at the earliest stages," said Kelly. "We shouldn't read about it in the press and we shouldn't find about it after the fact.
"Last night for example, we were asked if it was ok for them to announce Prague and Stockholm. The response was, 'Look guys, you know we have a lot of details to work out. Travel, promotional issues, NHLPA involvement, accommodations, the schedule, etc. So there's still lots of details to work out but if you want to announce it generally, that's fine.'
"And I think the announcement (for Prague and Stockholm) fell along those lines. The Victoria Cup? That was a bit of a surprise. Frankly the last I know, Bill Daly had said the NHL hasn't committed to playing in the Victoria Cup because we're still dealing international transfer issues and the like. So that one was a surprise."
Kelly's comments came during a busy all-star Saturday, which was capped by the skills competition at night and began with a Board of Governors meeting in the morning. The game itself goes Sunday evening.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the Stockholm and Prague games to his owners at Saturday morning's board of governors meeting.
Other items on the agenda Saturday included:
-talk of an 84-game schedule, an idea Kelly and the NHLPA is pushing for. The idea would be to play fewer pre-season games and more inter-conference games. The earliest this new format could come into effect is the 2009-10 season.
-an update on where talks stand with the IIHF regarding a new player transfer agreement. There was word overnight from Sweden that the Swedes have already rejected the latest proposal that was hatched at a Jan. 16 meeting in New York between the IIHF, European federations and the NHL and NHLPA.
-talk of possible future outdoor games. Bettman said the league won't overdo it with the outdoor games but will almost surely do it again at some point in time.
"This is a terrific event for us," Bettman said. "... (But) it's not something we want to overdo. If we're going to do it in the future, we want it to remain special. Lots and lots of clubs and places and stadiums have approached us and we have not yet made any decisions. That's probably something we'll do over the next couple of months, taking into account a whole variety of factors. My anticipation is we will do another one. I can't tell you where or when. But I assure you we're not going to do too many. We want to keep them special because it was a very special day."
-an update on the sale of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which still isn't completed yet, as well as an update on Daryl Katz' attempted purchase of the Edmonton Oilers.
But the headliner Saturday was the announcement about Prague and Stockholm. The league played its first-ever regular-season games in Europe to open this season when Anaheim and Los Angeles split a two-game set in London, England.
Tampa star Vincent Lecavalier welcomed the news.
"It will be a great life experience not to mention a great thing for the game," Lecavalier said Saturday. "I'm really looking forward to it."
If the Victoria Cup is indeed staged with union approval, the Rangers would play against European club champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Russia) in Bern on Oct. 1. New York will also play SC Bern on Sept. 30.
"This is a milestone for international hockey and for the relationship between the IIHF and the National Hockey League," said IIHF president Rene Fasel. "Ever since the historic game between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow on New Year's Eve 1975, hockey fans around the world have been longing for games between NHL clubs and European teams.
"There have been several games since then, but this is the first time we will have a summit meeting, a one-off final, for a trophy which we hope will be part of the annual international calendar for years to come."