Bill Daly wouldn't call London a test European market for the NHL, but the rousing success of two games played there last season by the Los Angeles Kings
and Anaheim Ducks
in front of sellout crowds was just what the League needed.
"Coming out of the lockout it was kind of our first foray back into the international scene and it proved successful," Daly, the League's Deputy Commissioner, told NHL.com. "Certainly it gave us justification to ramp it up."
So that's exactly what the NHL has done.
Fans in Stockholm and Prague, two hockey-centric cities in the hockey-mad countries of Sweden and the Czech Republic, are brimming with anticipation because the NHL Premiere is only one page on the calendar away.
The Ottawa Senators
and Pittsburgh Penguins
will play a pair of games in Stockholm's Globe Arena on Oct. 4 and 5, while the New York Rangers
and Tampa Bay Lightning
will do the same in Prague's O2 Arena on the same days.
"I don't think there is much advertising for it right now because all the tickets sold when they released the tickets," Rangers defenseman Michal Rozsival
, who lives in Prague during the offseason, told NHL.com. "They don't really need to do any advertising now. Just overall, from talking to friends and people outside of hockey, everybody is asking about it and everybody is really excited to see the NHL in the Czech Republic."
Even better, fans in the Czech Republic remain excited despite knowing Jaromir Jagr, the best-known Czech player and the biggest draw for Czech fans now is a former Rangers captain, playing in Russia.
"Knowing at the time we were arranging the Prague games that (Jagr leaving) was a possibility, I can't suggest it wasn't a concern, but what is gratifying is since Jagr signed in Russia there hasn't been any drop-off in interest or excitement about these games," Daly said. "They continue to be a hot ticket and there is great anticipation and excitement to see NHL hockey in Prague regardless of the fact that the team that had six or seven Czechs just two years ago will be bringing over only one or two."
Added Rozsival, who along with Petr Prucha are the Czech players on the Rangers' roster: "I think they were a little disappointed, but they realize there are good quality players like Lecavalier, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, and they still want to come and see the games. They are real excited about it. That's the feeling I get."
Daly said now is the perfect time for the NHL to expand its product into Europe because the League is experiencing a boom in exposure thanks to a slew of young, marketable players dominating the game.
"I think it's symptomatic of the connection that European fans feel to our League, the game itself and the fact that so many European players play starring roles in the League at this point," Daly said. "There has always been a respect and recognition of NHL hockey, and the fans are more willing to embrace it now than ever before.
"Clearly as we move forward from the lockout the NHL has a real interest in continuing to increase its presence on the global map."
The League's stability through the collective bargaining agreement, plus stars such as Sidney Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos, who will be making his NHL debut in Prague, has allowed it to spread its wings overseas.
"Five years ago or 10 years ago we were under enormous stress internally from the financial issues that were being caused by the collective bargaining agreement and certainly we didn't have the resources to devote and grow the brand internationally," Daly said. "Now that we have stabilized the conditions internally we have come full circle. We're in a growth mode now and we are very interested in growing the brand internationally. We have the resources to do it and we are devoting the resources to do it. New media is helping those efforts. We're in a different phase now."
The International Ice Hockey Federation is 100-percent behind the NHL's efforts.
"Our basic standpoint is wherever and whenever we can promote hockey, it's a great thing," Szymon Szemberg, the IIHF's communications director, told NHL.com. "Especially last year, when the NHL went to a city which is one of the major capitals of the world but by no means is a hockey place, it was really great to expose our game in a city like London. This year, the big difference is these are two real hockey cities so the fans will be more demanding. This will be a different thing the NHL is staging the now. It's a wonderful thing, and the best proof of this is the games (in Stockholm and Prague) sold out in no time. That means the fans want it."
Gunnar Nordstrom, a Swedish sports and entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles, told NHL.com the big draw, at least in Stockholm, is not limited to the players and teams coming over.
While it will be fantastic for Swedish fans to see Crosby in living color and to root for Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who is one of their own, the fact that these games actually count for two points in the standings gives Swedish fans, who keep regular tabs on the NHL, something to really sink their teeth into.
"[London] was kind of our first foray back into the international scene and it proved successful. [It] Certainly it gave us justification to ramp it up."
-- NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly
"There have been exhibition games, but this is the real thing and people acknowledge that," Nordstrom said. "It's not only that the NHL is coming over with two games in the standings that count, but these are two really good teams, exciting teams with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on one side and Daniel Alfredsson with Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza on the other. You can't ask for more. People are aware of that."
Rozsival and Nordstrom commented on how the games not only will help the NHL globalize itself, but will help sell the game to youngsters in Sweden and the Czech Republic.
"Lots of young people will pay attention to it," Rozsival said.
Nordstrom recalled a column he wrote in his newspaper, the Swedish tabloid Expressen, saying how the games will help recruit more young hockey players in the country.
"This is good for Swedish hockey because it gets a lot of attention," Nordstrom said. "It's good for the recruitment of young players. Some will go to Globe Arena and see the games live and the others will see them on TV or hear them on the radio. It's a big kick for Swedish hockey in general and it's good for hockey in Europe to have the games in Prague and Stockholm."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.