A modest experiment by the NHL has turned into a full-fledged European success story in just four years time. In the fall of 2007, the League decided to send the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks
and the Los Angeles Kings
to London for a pair of regular-season games as part of a bold NHL Premiere game initiative.
Today, the Compuware NHL Premiere initiative is bigger than ever before.
This fall, six NHL teams will head to Europe to open the season with regular-season games. The Boston Bruins
and Phoenix Coyotes
will play in Prague, the Columbus Blue Jackets
and San Jose Sharks
tangle in Stockholm and the Carolina Hurricanes
and Minnesota Wild
will battle in Helsinki.
Plus, each of those six teams has an ambitious European exhibition schedule before starting the regular season. Boston plays a United Kingdom Elite League all-star team in Belfast, Northern Ireland and also plays an exhibition against Czech club, Liberec. Phoenix plays Dynamo Riga of the Kontinental Hockey League in Latvia, while Carolina plays legendary KHL club SKA St. Petersburg.
"Who would have thought it was possible to play NHL games in your home country? For the players, it's great because they're going to be treated like gold over there. For some of the players it's their first time in Europe. They're going to like it over there."
-- Calgary Flames center Olli Jokinen
San Jose will not only train for several days in Manheim, Germany, but also will play an exhibition against local club Adler Manheim. Columbus will play Swedish club Malmo and Minnesota will travel to Tampere, Finland to play Ilves.
It has been quite the trip from the humble beginnings forged in London four years ago. Sure, NHL teams had played numerous exhibition games across the European continent during the past half century, but the groundbreaking 2007 meeting between the Kings and Ducks was the first time games involving regular-season points were contested outside North America. And the packed houses in London's majestic O2 Arena showed the NHL it was on to something.
Since that beginning, the NHL Premiere series has grown by leaps and bounds. In 2008, Stockholm and Prague hosted regular-season games. Last season, it was Stockholm and Finland. This October, all three of those cities will host games as a record number of teams go abroad to kick off the 2010-11 regular season.
The stated goal of bringing the NHL brand of hockey to the European fan base has certainly been fulfilled. Stockholm was in a hockey frenzy when Swedish hero Daniel Alfredsson
brought his Ottawa Senators
to Sweden to play Sidney Crosby
and the Pittsburgh Penguins
in 2008. Amazingly, there was even more excitement the following year when a Detroit team laden with Swedish-born players -- including national icon Nick Lidstrom -- came calling.
Sell-out crowds in Prague greeted the New York Rangers
during their foray to the Czech Republic three years ago to play the Tampa Bay Lightning
Helsinki hosted the star-studded Penguins in 2008, playing an exhibition against club team Jokerit in what was one of the biggest moments in that club's proud history. It proved the perfect dress rehearsal for the 2009 visit of the Chicago Blackhawks
and Finnish goalie Antti Niemi
against the Florida Panthers
In a screenplay straight out of Hollywood, Niemi, a rookie, earned his first NHL start during the Helsinki weekend and cast a spell over the Hartwall Arena crowd by registering a shutout. It is on-ice moments like those that have made these season-opening games in Europe a can't-miss event for NHL fans across the pond.
It has become a coveted assignment for European-born players, as well. Calgary Flames
center Olli Jokinen
has yet to take part in the Premiere Game series, but he knows a number of European players have enjoyed their homecoming in Helsinki, Stockholm and Prague.
"I think it's great for the fans back home in Finland," Jokinen told NHL.com. "They can see a couple NHL games and some Finnish players play. The players' side; it's a great experience for all those Finnish guys to go over there.
"Who would have thought it was possible to play NHL games in your home country? For the players, it's great because they're going to be treated like gold over there. For some of the players it's their first time in Europe. They're going to like it over there. They'll see how much Finnish people care about hockey players and the sport. It's a big thing over there."
For the NHL and its teams, the European experiment has always been about more than just playing regular-season games abroad. It has been about embracing a large and passionate segment of the League's fan base and exposing the League's players to hockey cultures outside of North America.
And despite the hardships associated with travel and time changes, it has been warmly embraced by the teams involved.
The first year, then Anaheim GM Brian Burke
was a passionate proponent of the venture and nobody there will ever forget the double-decker bus tour through London his players took with the Stanley Cup. The reactions were priceless, to say the least.
The next year, Pittsburgh went to Stockholm and engaged in a scavenger hunt through the city that began a team-bonding process that culminated that spring with the Penguins lifting the Stanley Cup.
Last season, Chicago went to Switzerland and Finland in a whirlwind eight-day trip. Nine months later, they emerged from the 2009-10 season as Stanley Cup champions.
While clearly good fortune played a part in those titles, Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby
also said that the team bonding that goes on during a European tour can pay some pretty serious dividends.
"You look at thinks like Europe or the Winter Classic, all those type of things are always good for teams as far as building and going through experiences," Crosby told NHL.com.
"It would be tough to do it every year with the schedule, but I think if teams have the opportunity to play in Europe, the people are excited to have the teams there and the players are excited to see a new place and like I said, to be with your team is a great thing and teams try to make the most of it when they do it."