Leafs likely not part of European games

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:52 PM ET

LOS ANGELES — The National Hockey League is in the process of picking teams to play in its season opening games in Europe and despite five years out of the playoffs, there will be a call from both sides of the Atlantic to see the Maple Leafs go across.

But at this stage, it seems that fans are the only ones beating the drum. The NHL seems to prefer its American teams, or at least those with players of nationalities that would be an easy sell in hockey capitals such as Stockholm, Helsinki and Prague. Toronto used to be Sweden’s sentimental favourite club with the Borje Salming-Mats Sundin connection and other countrymen on board, but that visit was done and now the top Euro-Leafs are Mikhail Grabovski from Belarus, Nikolai Kulemin from Russia and an aging Tomas Kaberle from the Czech Republic.

A source familiar with the economics of last year’s Compuware NHL Premiere Games in Europe says hosting such an event requires the organizers to purchase the equivalent of a live regular-season NHL home gate. With the Leafs making hundreds of thousands of dollars a night at the ACC when pricey tickets, food, drinks and other revenue streams are thrown in, let’s just say it’s not the same gate as the Carolina Hurricanes, who hosted Minnesota in Helsinki .

Six games involving eight teams were played in early October and some clubs don’t like the fuss of travelling overseas and re-adjusting body clocks when points are at stake. But the NHL, anxious to keep a European profile with the KHL still alive and kicking, intends on returning.

“It’s something that we’re working on, something that we have to bring to a head in the next few weeks,” commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters between periods at Monday’s Leafs-Kings game. “There are a lot of moving pieces, we have to decide how many games, where and which teams. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s (also) something we have to discuss with the players association.”

Bettman also touched on other items, such as a question of trying the Winter Classic in a Sun Belt City — namely Las Vegas. The glitzy town is already home of the NHL awards show and some think it has expansion team possibilities.

The NHL last played in Vegas in September 1991 when the Kings and Rangers battled each other and many insects in front of 13,000 in the parking lot at Caeser’s Palace. The league’s $1 million US refrigeration equipment used at todays’ outdoor games would be a huge improvement on 20 years ago, but any risk of less than ideal conditions seemed to spook the commissioner.

“Vegas was a pre-season game,” Bettman said. “Points matter in the regular season and we have to make sure we are doing everything possible to be as predictable as we can be with respect to the outdoor game. I don’t think it’s fair to compare regular season to a pre-season game in Vegas, under conditions where the consequences of the game aren’t as important.”

There is little appetite among the board of governors for any kind of conference realignment or change in the schedule matrix. Detroit remains an Eastern time zone city, playing in a Western Conference where all road games start at least an hour later.

“People seem pretty comfortable with the way we are structured,” Bettman countered. “If Detroit wanted to go East, somebody would have to go West and last time I checked, there were no volunteers.”

Bettman also said he didn’t mind the concussed Sidney Crosby’s recent public comments on the head shot issue, when the Pittsburgh captain urged a more concise rule interpretation.

“We probably talk to the players more than you would imagine, to get a clear picture of what they’re thinking and why,” Bettman said. “They know they have good access to all of us, particularly hockey operations. Players stop by on a regular basis when they’re in New York and we like to exchange dialogue. If a player has a good idea, has a complaint about something, we encourage the communication. Whether or not they choose to do it publicly is an individual choice.”


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