Building on the success of this season’s debut in London, the NHL will open the 2008-09 season with a pair of games in Europe.
On Oct. 4-5, 2008, the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will play a pair of games at Sazka Arena in Prague, Czech Republic, while the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will play two games on the same days at Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden.
“It is a delight to bring our game to more of our great international fans,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “We will start next season with doubleheaders in two outstanding venues, and we're very excited about that.”
The Rangers, with threed key Czech players in their lineup – Jaromir Jagr, Michael Rozsival and Petr Prucha - were the ideal choice to play in Prague.
“I’ve always had the mindset that it’s an adventure to be able to play some place you haven’t experienced playing before,” said Rangers President/General Manager Glen Sather. “I’ve been to the Czech Republic a few times, I’ve been to Europe a few times with teams in Edmonton, and I think it’s a learning process. We’re getting more and more young guys on our team and it’s a chance to expose them to a different culture and a different way of life, and it’s something they might not get a chance to do again. To take a whole team there, I think it’s a bonding experience for them.”
The Rangers’ trip also includes a stop in Berne, Switzerland, where they will participate in the first Victoria Cup – an International Ice Hockey Federation event featuring the winner of the European Champions Cup and an NHL team. Earlier this month, Russian team Metallurg Magnitogorsk beat Sparta Prague, 5-2, to earn the European championship.
Sather said all his players – not just the Czech natives – were excited at the opportunity to spread the NHL’s influence overseas.
“I think for the most part it was (favorably received),” said Sather. “I didn’t have anyone say; ‘I didn’t want to go.’ Everyone was pretty excited about the idea.”
Vincent Lecavalier, who will captain the Eastern Conference team at Sunday’s All-Star Game, said he and his Lightning teammates also were looking forward to the trip.
“It’s something new, something different,” he said. “Going to Europe, I’m always up to do that. It’s another great experience for life, too, and it’s going to be great for the game. It’s going to be good.”
“We often ask our clubs whether they have an interest in doing things like this, and these four clubs had an interest,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. “We wanted to be geographically diverse; the Senators give us geographic diversity with a Canadian club. Bringing the Rangers over, bringing an Original 6 club over. And having Sidney Crosby and Vinny Lecavalier made it work really well. We put a lot of different pieces together and different scenarios together as to who goes to Prague and who goes to Stockholm. It had a little bit to do with some of the exhibition games they wanted to play. Ultimately, all the pieces came together.”
Bettman said the League would use examples from the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings starting the 2007-08 season in London as an example of how things could and should work.
“It gave us a dry run of what it takes in terms of scheduling and everything else, and logistics to bring teams over for games that matter,” said Bettman. “We’re now comfortable that this is something we can replicate and do it in a way that makes the teams comfortable. With the tightness of the races, these points count and these points matter.”
Part of the learning process for the League and the clubs had to do with the post-opening scheduling for the teams.
“The key is, how do you make sure you get off to a great start with the season,” said Lightning President Ron Campbell. “That’s one of the things we worked on. We found out we can go to (training) camp three days earlier. And one of the things we asked was when we come back, that we start on the next weekend, so we’ll have the players well-rested.”
The Penguins, who were part of the Jan. 1 NHL Winter Classic, once again will be part of a League extravaganza, something that comes hand-in-hand with having the League’s marquee player, Sidney Crosby.
“We’re the best draw in the League, in North America, so I’m sure we’d be a big draw over there,” said Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer. “The League drove this process. We were willing and ready to help the League to market itself worldwide. Whether it’s Prague or Stockholm isn’t a big deal to us.”
As part of their trip, the Senators will play an exhibition team against the Frolunda Indians in Gothenburg, Sweden. Frolunda was the Swedish team Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson started his career with.
Alfredsson is the only Swede currently on the Senators’ roster, but team president/CEO Roy Mlakar said the locker room reaction was “unanimous” in favor of the trip.
“We think it’s great for the League, and quite a privilege for us,” he added.
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