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NHL likely to return to Europe, but not with permanent franchises @NHL

LONDON (AP) -Europeans can expect to see more of the NHL in the future - just not on a permanent basis.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said Friday that staging regular-season games overseas could become a recurring feature in coming years - but that it's premature to start talking about establishing franchises in Europe.

"Obviously if this works well, we're going to want to use this as a stepping stone," Bettman said on the eve of the regular-season opener between the defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings at London's O2 Arena.

It is the first time the NHL has played a regular-season game in Europe, and it has led to widespread talk about the possibility of European-based teams making up part of the league in the future.

Bettman, however, said the logistics of overseas travel and the ongoing challenge of strengthening the brands of existing North American teams make such plans a distant dream at best.

"I'll never say never to anything, but that's not anything that we're currently contemplating," Bettman said. "Our first goal is to be as strong as possible in North America, and have 30 franchises that are doing great."

Still, as the Kings and Ducks have spent part of the week sightseeing in London, a European branch of the NHL has been a frequent conversation topic, said Los Angeles veteran defender Rob Blake.

"It's something we've talked about," Blake said. "Maybe at one time it becomes the norm - a kid grows up in Canada and wants to play in the NHL but has to go to Europe to do it. But I can't see it in my future."

It's a scenario that seems to appeal more to the European players than the North Americans.

"If they figured it all out, it would be really good," said Ducks center Samuel Pahlsson, a Swede who will miss this weekend's games because of injury. "I hope they will at least continue playing a couple of games a year here."

Kings center Anze Kopitar, the first Slovenian-born player in the NHL, also said he thought European cities would be able to support new franchises.

"It would probably work, but all the traveling would be the biggest issue," Kopitar said.

Ducks captain Chris Pronger, however, was skeptical.

"For most Canadian kids growing up, the league has always been in Canada and North America," Pronger said. "I don't know if too many guys would want to come over to Europe to play and travel back. But you never know."

There's no question, though, that the NHL is popular abroad. Bettman said nearly one-third of the visitors to the NHL's official Web site live overseas, and the demand for internationally televised games is growing.

"The world is shrinking," Bettman said. "We're trying to be good citizens in the hockey world, in terms of being responsive to fan interest and trying to grow the game."

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