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Europe prepares for biggest NHL invasion to date

by Bill Meltzer
Compuware NHL Premiere has been become a tradition, with the regular season kicking off in various prominent locales around Europe. The 2010-11 edition will mark the fourth installment of the event, with two games apiece planned for Stockholm, Helsinki and Prague.

Meanwhile, in the week leading up to Premiere, the participating NHL clubs will conduct the most ambitious slate of preseason games -- dubbed Compuware NHL Premiere Challenge -- around Europe to date. Games will be held in St. Petersburg, Russia; Riga, Latvia; Mannheim, Germany and, for the first time, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

At Helsinki's Hartwall Areena, the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild will meet on Oct. 7 and 8. The San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets will face-off at Stockholm's Ericsson Globe Arena on Oct. 8 and 9. Over the weekend, the Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes will square off at O2 Arena in Prague on Oct. 9 and 10.

Before Premiere, all six NHL clubs will take on European club opponents in exhibition games held in various locales around the continent. On Monday, Oct. 4, the Hurricanes will become the first NHL team since 1990 to play a game in Russia, meeting Kontinental Hockey League club SKA St. Petersburg at the host team's Ice Palace. Two days later, there will be another NHL vs. KHL matchup when the Coyotes travel to Riga for a game against Dinamo Riga at the Arena Riga.

Back in September 1990, the Montreal Canadiens and Minnesota North Stars traveled to the former Soviet Union for the Friendship Tour '90. The storied Habs, who held part of their preseason training camp in Sweden, were the star attraction of the tour. The matches were held in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Voskresensk, Riga and Kiev with eight games against CSKA Moscow (Red Army), Krylya Sovetov (Soviet Wings), SKA Leningrad/Torpedo Yaroslavl, Sokol Kiev, Spartak Moscow, Dynamo Riga, Dynamo Moscow and Khimik Voskresensk. The Soviet teams won five of the eight games. One year earlier, the Calgary Flames and Washington Capitals conducted a similar tour, with the NHL clubs winning six of the eight matches.

The upcoming Hurricanes and Coyotes games will mark just the second meeting between NHL and Russian league teams since the Friendship Tours. On Jan. 15, 1991, Dynamo Moscow came to Canada and defeated the Quebec Nordiques, 4-1. In 2008, the New York Rangers downed Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-3 in the inaugural Victoria Cup in Berne, Switzerland.

While the Carolina and Phoenix games will mark a continuation of a long history of NHL cooperation and rivalry with the clubs of the top Russian-based leagues, there will be two firsts in the preseason games held elsewhere in Europe.

There has never previously been an NHL team to visit Belfast. The Boston Bruins will be the first, taking on either a team representing the UK's Elite Ice Hockey League or a team from Germany's DEL at the Odyssey Arena. Hockey in Northern Ireland and Ireland has shown signs of growth in the last decade, and the Belfast Giants won the 2010 EIHL playoff championships. In 2007-08, the NHL regular season kicked off in London with a game between the then-defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.

Although NHL teams have played in Germany before, the city of Mannheim has not played host to a game involving an NHL club. However, Mannheim was recently one of the three German host sites of the enormously successful 2010 IIHF World Championships, which drew some 548,768 spectators to its 56 games over two weeks.

In Germany's DEL, the city of Mannheim is represented by Adler (Eagles) Mannheim, which plays at the 13,600 seat SAP Arena. The club has won the German championship six times, most recently in 2006-07.

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