Pronger has advice for Bettman

DAVID W. UNKLE -- For SLAM! Sports

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

PHILADELPHIA -- When it comes to playing NHL games in Europe, Anaheim's Chris Pronger has a definite feeling on how games should be scheduled to maximize the impact that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman so desires while minimizing its impact on the teams involved and the competitive balance of the regular season.

"Personally would I like to do it again, no," said Pronger who also played games in Nagano and Turin. "Do I think it's good for the NHL? I think it is but personally would I want to do it again? It's a long way to go for a couple of games...for us this year it probably wasn't the right move with the short summer...we weren't the right team."

Agreeing with Pronger is Vancouver's Henrik Sedin.

"If you look at Anaheim and the struggles they went through when they came back home, you have to do it a different way," said Sedin, who feels that the NHL should give teams more than a few days to acclimate to the time change.

Was the time difference a major player in the Ducks' early-season struggles?

"Probably...but you don't want to admit it...you just try and push through things like that and make the best of the situation," said Pronger. "I'm not going to sit here and say that I felt great coming back (from Europe). You're going to have jet lag...it's a 10-hour time difference for us."

For that reason alone, Pronger and Sedin are among the many players who feel that Eastern Conference teams should be the ones packing their bags. Sedin, however, added a different twist.

"Maybe you could take the Western Conference games to Asia like they did when Vancouver went there a few years ago," said Sedin.

"If you look at the growing number of European players in our league I think the NHL needs to grow that market over in Europe as well as (in the United States) and you do that by staging games there," Pronger said. He also felt that having the games count in the standings would eliminate the "exhibition feel" and result in the players "putting a little more into it."

Florida's Tomas Vokoun also favors growing the product in Europe where there is an increasing trend of televising NHL games.

"It's an open market," said Vokoun. "I don't think BMW is concerned about upsetting General Motors because they're selling cars in the United States. As a business you want a worldwide game."

Critics of the NHL games in Europe are quick to point out that hockey is still a distant fifth in most U.S. markets behind Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and NASCAR. If you're one of the many zealots who now consider poker a sport, hockey ranks sixth. As such, Bettman and the NHL would be better served focusing on their own backyard before taking the game to Prague and Sweden, places where hockey and the NHL are known entities.

"It's tough to grow hockey in the U.S.," Sedin said. "It's going to take a lot--you're going to have to start at an earlier age, you have to get the younger kids playing." Echoing those sentiments was Florida netminder Tomas Vokoun. "The NHL has to be more aggressive in marketing hockey in the United States."

Agreeing is Pittsburgh Penguins forward Georges Laraque who feels there is still much work to be done in the U.S. to grow the sport before the NHL can take the sport on the road.

"The NHL doesn't have to go to Europe to be more popular, there are enough stars in the NHL that come from Sweden like Peter Forsberg," Laraque said in pointing out that local fans already follow their homegrown players in the NHL.

"(Pittsburgh) playing in Sweden isn't going to make the NHL any bigger. I've played there and Stockholm is a beautiful city," said Laraque. "I love it there and the hockey fans are awesome but that's not going to address the issues in the NHL."

One issue for Laraque is the apparent lack of fan interest in many U.S. markets.

"We're going to be playing New Jersey tonight and the building's going to be half-empty, it's a brand new building," Laraque said prior to Monday night's game between the Penguins and the Devils. The announced attendance was a record-low, 13, 012 fans.

"That's sad. They've recently won the Cup and the building's half-empty. Those are the markets that we need to work on in the NHL."

Forget about the Devils for a minute.

How many sellouts have the Detroit Red Wings had at home this season despite owning the NHL's best record? Surely the NFL Lions and NBA Pistons aren't the reason.

But the NHL seems content that attendance in NHL barns averages to 92% of capacity and the cynic in me quickly points out that attendance in the NHL equals tickets sold plus free tickets given away by the team. Therefore, attendance means you're counted as being there if you've bought the ticket but decide to stay home and watch the game on TV.

I wouldn't have had so many notes sent home to my parents if our principal counted attendance the way the NHL does.

Laraque says the European games hamper the team's ability to market to their North American fan base.

"I'm sure the fans aren't happy about it because it's going to take a game away from the Pittsburgh fans and the Ottawa fans. The players because of the travel aren't happy about it, the trainers aren't happy about it. So the only people that are happy about it are the people in the NHL front office," said Laraque.

"So when we go and play in New Jersey next season and the building's half-empty what are we going to say, 'Oh, we got to play in Sweden so it doesn't matter?'"

"There is so much work that needs to be done in the United States why are we looking to make the game more popular in Europe," asks Laraque, who thinks the NHL hit the mark with the New Year's Day game in Buffalo.

"Look at the Outdoor Classic, that's how you make the game more popular," said Laraque. "It was a great idea that the NHL had. Europe is not. We should look at other venues (in North America) rather than going to Europe. Once (the NHL) conquers the U.S. markets then we can look at playing in Europe."

That's solid advice amidst rumours that the next two NHL installations will be in Kansas City and Las Vegas.

"You can't just put a team in a market and think that fans are going to love it," said Sedin.

"Everybody talks about growing the game in the U.S. and we've done some work with the Diversity Task Force but we're not doing enough," added Laraque. "We need to get more minorities to play hockey in order to sell the game."

Laraque, along with a number of other players, are upset with the lack of player input on the decision.

"What the NHL did is wrong," said Laraque. "You can't just (schedule games) without involving the players. I haven't heard from one player who wants to play there."

And lastly, when the Commissioner says that, "It is a delight to bring our game to more of our great international fans," why not focus on getting the NHL an international television contract so that more games can be viewed overseas?

Or for that matter, make the game visible on a network the U.S. fans know about.

David Unkle can be reached at: topcatsports@canoemail.com


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