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NHL hoping to return to Sweden

Commissioner Bettman eager to plan more overseas events following success of 2017 SAP Global Series

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TORONTO -- The NHL has preliminary plans to play overseas next season and is trying to finalize them with the NHL Players' Association. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the sooner the NHL makes commitments and arrangements, the better the events.

"So we're anxious to get going," Commissioner Bettman said at the PrimeTime Sports Management Conference and Trade Show on Monday. "But I know the Players' Association has a responsibility to the players and has some work to do, and we respect that process."

The Colorado Avalanche and Ottawa Senators played in Stockholm, Sweden, on Friday and Saturday, after the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played preseason games in Shanghai on Sept. 21 and Beijing on Sept. 23, the NHL's first games in China.

"I thought the response of the Swedish marketplace generally was off the charts," Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said during a panel discussion at the conference. "It was the best we've had there. … It marked kind of the return of what we hope will be a more aggressive international growth strategy."

Video: Watch the time-lapse of Game 2 of the Global Series

The NHL played 26 regular-season games outside North America from 1997-2011 in Tokyo; Saitama, Japan; London; Prague; Helsinki; and Berlin. This was the NHL's first visit to Stockholm since 2011. Each game drew a sellout crowd of 13,396.

"We didn't have tickets to give out," Daly said. "It was a lot of excitement, clearly a difference palpably in the city in terms of the attention the games got vs. games we've played there previously, even with teams that had Swedish stars."

One difference this time: There have been 320 Sweden-born players to get into an NHL game to this point, including 81 this season, "far and away the most we've had from a country outside North America," Daly said. That includes Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog and Senators captain Erik Karlsson.

"So I think the connectivity for the Swedish fans with the NHL is kind of at an all-time high, and clearly six years since we've been there last, it's a big difference," Daly said.

Another difference this time: The games were later in the schedule. All previous regular-season games outside North America were at the start of the season.

"The guys were in in-season shape and the games reflected it," Commissioner Bettman said during a panel discussion. "It was a lot of fun."

Commissioner Bettman said the NHL would have to evaluate in 7-10 days, after the Avalanche and Senators had time to readjust, but "we think we have focused on a formula that may work better than what we've done." He said he envisioned returning to Sweden next season or in 2019-20.

"We worked hard at building a really good schedule for both clubs in terms of when they'd travel, the rest they'd get when they're there, the rest they'd get when they get back to kind of re-assimilate," Daly said. "Obviously we'll have to debrief like we do every other event, but I expect the reviews will be positive."

And China?

"We are told some of the players felt like it was a long trip and want to be assured that it's part of a bigger, longer-term strategy that is worthwhile for them to buy into," Daly said. "The feedback we got from the clubs about the players' reaction was a little bit different than the feedback that we got from the Players' Association about the players' reaction, and so I can't really gauge it beyond that, other than to suggest there seems to be a little bit of a disconnect in terms of how people looked at that."

Commissioner Bettman said the NHL wants to stage the World Cup of Hockey regularly after reviving it in 2016 but does not have an agreement with the NHLPA. Why is the World Cup more conducive to the NHL's business than the Olympics?

"It's the element of control," he said. "It's our event, and as it relates to our players playing and the conditions and the scheduling and the promotion, those are all the things that are within our control."

The NHL is not participating in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics after going to the previous five Winter Games. What about Beijing in 2022?

"We haven't had that discussion," Commissioner Bettman said. "We're not even focused on it. It's not on the agenda, although the IOC [International Olympic Committee] did say at one point if you don't go to PyeongChang, you can't go to Beijing. Whether or not they mean it, I don't know. But that's 4 1/2 years away, so it's not anything we're focused on."

The NHL is focused on its own events.

"The events we do jointly with the Players' Association, and so they have to agree with what we do, and we're in discussions," Commissioner Bettman said. "But my hope and expectation is we'll see more next season as well, and we'd like to have a regular footprint.

"We're not looking to put franchises in Europe. We're not looking for world domination. We're looking to continue to encourage the growth of the game worldwide, giving fans an opportunity to see the world's best hockey players in the most talented hockey league, so we want to have a regular presence to go along with television and everything else we're doing."

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