SUNRISE – The Florida Panthers are going global.
Helsinki, Finland, to be exact.
The NHL announced Thursday the Panthers will join three other NHL teams overseas next fall and open their 2009-10 regular-seasons with games in Finland and Sweden.
The Panthers, the Cinderella team of the NHL this season having gone from 30th to 10th in the standings, will open the season by playing a home-and home series against the Chicago Blackhawks in Helsinki, Finland on October 2nd and 3rd. On those same days, the Red Wings and Blues will play in Sweden.
“Great country, beautiful city, and very passionate hockey fans,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer, who attended the 1998 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in Helsinki. “I think it’s going to be very exciting.”
Said Panther forward Ville Peltonen, a native of Helsinki and Finland’s star when winning their only World Championship in 1995; “The fans are really excited.”
“They will pack the stadium and there will be a buzz around the city,” Peltonen said. “They’ve been waiting for a game, a regular-season game, to be played where there are points on the line. It will be totally different than just playing an exhibition game. Fans will appreciate what the NHL is doing.”
The game will mark the first time the Panthers play outside North America. The Blackhawks only previous trip to Europe was 17 years ago when they played two preseason games against the Canadiens in London’s Wembley Arena in September of 1992.
“The NHL Premiere games are a signature event for the League, our players and our fans,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “Playing regular-season games overseas is an exceptional way to further engage the passionate NHL fan base in Europe and to grow the game of hockey.”
Panther GM Jacques Martin said the Premiere games will be “great for our franchise to have the opportunity to spend some time in Finland and promote the Panthers and NHL hockey.”
Martin and DeBoer said the trip would be beneficial for the players.
“It’s a great opportunity to do some team building, to get away as a team,” DeBoer said. “We have a great opponent to start the season with Chicago. I think it’s exciting being a young coach to have the opportunity. I think it’s a great opportunity for our young players and our veterans. It’s something new, and I think new is always good from an excitement standpoint and getting your team energized.”
Forward Radek Dvorak, a native of the Czech Republic, believes the games will be well received.
“I know when Tampa played the Rangers in Prague (this season), the people back home enjoyed it. They don’t get to see NHL players so it’s something nice for them. It’s a great experience, playing in a different country, different city. It will be fun for the fans, fun for the players and fun for management and people all over the world.”
Forward Gregory Campbell, who’s never played in Europe, was excited about the trip.
“I know there’s a lot of NHL players from Finland, a lot of European players in the league right now,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest over there with our league and I think it’s a good thing for teams to continue to go over there and grow our game and spike interest.”
Finland, host of the 1952 Winter Olympics, is passionate about its hockey. Their national team played its first World Championship in 1939, and earned its first medal (silver) in the Olympic Games in Calgary in 1988.
Finland’s population is approximately 5.3 million. The population of Helsinki is approximately 570,000. Neighboring cities Vantaa and Espoo make up the capital region along with Helsinki, and more than a million people.
The Panthers-Blackhawks game will be played at Hartwall Areena
, which opened in 1997 with a concert by the Beach Boys. It later hosted that year the World Championships. The building, which recently hosted Tina Turner and Eagles – two acts who recently played at BankAtlantic Center – has a capacity for hockey of 13,464.
More information on NHL Premiere 2009 will be released at a later date, including ticket information, broadcast information, training camp schedules and preseason schedules.