Europe watching, waiting

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

The National Hockey League is in serious danger of being declared dead for a season. If it does die, it could be dead forever.

If not, it at least may be dead as we know it. Its days as the world's premier hockey league may be behind it.

In Europe, a few wealthy businessmen have been waiting for this opportunity. They feel that they can succeed where the NHL has failed.

For months, there have been rumours about a Swiss billionaire who wanted to start a European super league should the NHL shut down for a year. They're partially true. But a source close to European hockey says there's more to it than that.

"It's more than one person," he said. "It's a group of people in Central Europe and one of them happens to be in Switzerland."

As long as the NHL and the NHL Players' Association are still negotiating, this European group intends to stay below the horizon.

"I don't think they want to do anything just yet," the source said last week. "What they don't want to do is show their wares before the NHL finally decides that they're not going to play.

"I think they're going to do something then, but until that time, they're just going to feel around and get some sort of impression of whether they can do it and how would they do it and in what way."

The concept of a league with teams in major European cities rather than in just one country is nothing new. But most of the proposed leagues of that nature never got off the ground and the others failed.

Times have changed though. Today, the European market is radically different than its predecessors of a decade or two ago. There are those who feel the new league stands a good chance of success.

Gunnar Nordstrom is a North American correspondent for Expressen, the major Swedish national daily paper. As such, he has to keep a close eye on hockey on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

"I know there is interest from different countries and top teams in Europe to get that going," he said.

Derek Holmes, a player agent who works with Bobby Orr and specializes in placing Canadian players with European teams, agrees.

"I don't know how many people have called me over the years with the Global League and Super League and that sort of thing," Holmes said, "but this time, I think they feel there's a bit of a crack in the armour here."

It should be a serious concern to the NHL owners who locked out their players in September thinking that eventually, the players would be forced to come back. After all, in the other major sports, players who are out of work have to sit and wait for a deal to be done.

But that's not the case in hockey. More than 400 NHL players have gone to Europe and most of them are enjoying the experience.

Furthermore, the Europeans are enjoying having them.

Many of the NHL players were simply going home, and their presence has represented a major boost for the local leagues.

In the Czech Republic, interest for the games never has been higher. Many teams which used to have only lacklustre attendance are drawing sellout crowds as the fans come out to watch the stars who had forsaken their homeland for the NHL.

A similar phenomenon is under way in Sweden.

"I know the Swedish league has had really good attendance this season," said Nordstrom, adding that the attendance is up about 10%. "There has been a hike like never before in the Swedish League with fans, with TV, with the interest around it, with the players coming in from overseas -- both the Swedish players who went back to Sweden, and the players who have come in from NHL, the Canadians and the Americans."

But is this just a novelty or does this surge in interest indicate the kind of grass-roots support for the professional game that does not exist in most of the United States?

And could the Europeans afford to pay the players? It's one thing to have them there on the short term playing to stay in shape and earning a fraction of their NHL salaries. It's another thing altogether to induce them to make a long-term commitment that would preclude a return to the NHL's big salaries should the league get rolling again.

Certainly any Swiss mogul thinking of bankrolling a European super league has a number of factors in his favour.

First, there's the fan base. The numbers are definitely there. Europe has twice the population of North America in half the area. Also, hockey is already an established sport, which is more than can be said for places like Nashville, Carolina, Atlanta and a number of other American cities in which the NHL is based.

Travel costs would be much lower than they are in North America.

You wouldn't have to entice European fans with promotions, or explain to them how icing works. Of the eight countries taking part in last year's World Cup, six were based in Europe. And of those six, five were considered to be competitive.

The sixth was Germany, but that may be the most lucrative market of all for a European league. Hanover, Hamburg, Cologne and Nuremberg all have large new arenas, and German hockey interest is well established.

There would be no problem with regard to the availability of players to stock new league.

Many of the NHL's stars are from Europe and would gladly play there. With regard to the organizers, Holmes said, "I think they see it that maybe some of these boys who come over and play in North America aren't awfully happy. They come here because they like the money. Many of them might prefer, if the money were halfway decent, to stay in central Europe."

COLD WAR IS OVER

And that's the central issue. Cold-war Europe was a forbidding place, and even in the more democratic countries, the creature comforts routinely enjoyed in North America were not prevalent.

But today, there's no great hardship attached to working in Europe. Quite the contrary. The world is a global community and the sense of disorientation that used to discourage North Americans has long since disappeared.

The houses are well heated, with amenities like showers and indoor plumbing. Cable or satellite television offers CNN, CNBC and other American networks. Internet access there is the same as it is here. American fast-food restaurants are easily accessible.

But could the European league pay enough to convince players that they should forsake the NHL?

"If we go back a bit and think about the Global League," said Holmes, "there were really no buildings in Europe and no commercial television. Well those two things have changed. Now they've got buildings in Europe and they've got commercial television."

Without big TV revenues, the Europeans relied heavily on ticket sales and sponsorships.

Granted, sponsorship in Europe is much more advanced than it is here, as anyone who has seen a European club sweater knows. But with the smaller buildings and minimal television revenues, earlier leagues were doomed to failure.

"Now they've got major-league arenas," said Holmes, "and commercial television is around now. So that's another barrier that has been overcome."

It would appear, then, that the success of the league would depend upon the quality of play.

If the TV networks find that ratings are good for the games, they will increase the amount they pay for the rights.

Similarly, if the ratings are poor, TV revenues drop. The state of the NHL proves that point. Had the NHL been able to stage games that the Americans found entertaining, it could have brought in so much TV revenue that the rising player costs wouldn't have been a concern. The owners wouldn't have had to lock out the players.

But because the game became so boring, Americans turned it off. The TV revenues disappeared and the many NHL teams found it less expensive to shut down than to play.

So essentially, the success of a European league depends on the merit of the performance. The start-up money is there; the grass-roots interest is there; the major-league facilities are there.

If the new league makes the most of those attributes, then produces the kind of game that will not only keep the established fans coming back, but also create new fans, then it should do well.

And unfortunately for the NHL, there is every reason to believe that the European game would be highly entertaining.

The inevitable NHL influence would mean that there would be a significant amount of checking, but at the same time, the stars who have been denied a chance to display their talent over here would get a chance to exhibit it on the larger European surfaces.

This is one of the reasons that so many NHL players are enjoying their time in Europe at the moment. They're getting to play the kind of hockey they grew up with, not the pro-football-on-ice variation that has been inflicted upon the NHL in the last few years.

Said Holmes, "Many of the guys are finding that it's rather fun playing this kind of game on a larger ice surface. It's not as stressful as the NHL. There's a lot of plusses on that side of the ocean."

TV CONTRACTS

European sports networks are fighting for content and because hockey is so similar to soccer, it would probably do well if the stars were allowed to truly exhibit their skills.

And the league would probably get the cream of the young crop as well. Under the NHL's most recent proposal to end the lockout, every entry-level player would have to sign a four-year, two-way contract and could not earn more than $850,000 US annually inclusive of bonuses.

You can bet that players like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin can get a better deal than that in Europe right now, let alone if a new, fully financed league were to come into being.

So if you create a league in which the likes of Peter Forsberg, Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla and all the NHL stars can shine, then toss in the best and the brightest of the next generation, isn't it highly likely that the league will succeed?

From an esthetic point of view, it has to. But can it be sufficiently financially lucrative to hold on to the top players?

It can if there's no NHL. But if the NHL should get a new collective bargaining agreement, then the Europeans would have to jack up the salary level and to do that, they'd need to create television revenues and increase ticket prices.

All of which brings us back to the point we started from. If the quality of play is high, then a European league will work. If the spectacle is no better than what fans get from the NHL, then it won't.

But if the prospect of someone trying to make it work doesn't ring alarm bells in the NHL's New York headquarters, then the platoons of lawyers up there should be taking a closer look at what is meant by the term "due diligence."


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