The Champions League…. of Hockey?

There was a time where international games between NHL teams and European club teams were a regular occurrence, and were highly anticipated by fans on both sides of the Atlantic. Canadian hockey fans, both young and old, have all heard about the famous encounter between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow (or the Red Army team) held on New Year’s Eve 1975.

23a-Canadiens_vs_CSKA

The game was highly anticipated, and pitted the two best teams on each continent. Like the Summit Series before it, there was palpable tension in the air, and a sense that our hold on hockey supremacy was on the line. The night did not disappoint, as the two teams skated to a highly entertaining, and masterfully played 3-3 tie. The Canadiens displayed the skillful, fast paced hockey that eventually won them four straight Stanley Cups, and peppered the CSKA goal, but Vladislav Tretiak was equal to the task, and endeared himself to the Forum crowd. It was a magical night, and a glimpse of the exciting potential that international hockey held.

Time has since passed, and the NHL’s enthusiasm for international club competition has fizzled. The last Super Series, a competition between NHL teams and Soviet teams during the holiday season was held in 1990/91. Living in Edmonton at that time, as a 7 year old, I remember watching a game on television on a cold Sunday afternoon between the Oilers and a foreign team named CSKA Moscow.  It was the first time that I witnessed such an event, and there was such decorum and pageantry.  It was an extremely exotic sight, and to this day, I remember how cool and novel it was.  I was never an Oiler fan, but on that day, I wanted them to beat those foreigners with funny helmets.  However, it was around that time that the world was changing. Communism fell, Soviet players crossed the Atlantic alongside their Western European counterparts, and the best players in the world were all playing NHL hockey anyways. When Gary Bettman took over as league commissioner in 1993, the NHL’s business agenda changed to that of American expansion to the sunbelt and the strengthening of the league’s presence on American television. Europe did not seem to matter as much.

Over the years, the league has sent some NHL teams to Europe during the preseason to play a smattering of preseason games, which were seen as inconsequential and mere tune-ups by North American fans.  The league has even opened up different seasons overseas, in Japan, England, Germany, Sweden, Czech Republic and Finland.  These efforts were seen as an inconvenience for most owners, and of little financial or sporting benefit.  For it’s 100th anniversary in 2008, the IIHF commissioned the Victoria Cup, which they sought to be a de-facto World Club Championship. It featured an NHL team, seemingly selected at random, versus the winners of the IIHF European Champions Cup. The competition was held only twice. In 2008, the New York Rangers defeated Russian side Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The NHL returned in 2009, with the Chicago Blackhawks (who would go on to win the Stanley Cup the following spring) falling to the Zurich Lions. After that effort, the competition was put on hold, despite the IIHF’s willingness to continue. Several factors likely accounted for this; the NHL’s blasé attitude and commitment towards international hockey, and the disbandment of the European Champions League competition, largely due to disinterest from the European leagues and their supporters, the added costs associated with travel, and the emergence of the KHL as a strong European league.

Yet, in spite of the demise of the Victoria Cup, Chris Botta’s piece on the NHL’s marketing plan over the next three seasons has re-ignited the conversation regarding the NHL’s interest in an international club competition. He mentions the possibility of a Champions League style competition featuring NHL and European sides, much akin to the UEFA Champions League competition in football, which is prestigious and is often considered the pinnacle competition in the sport. What the NHL’s plan actually is remains anybody’s guess at this point. It could be continued preseason/training games, which are not taken seriously by NHL sides. However, it could be much, much more. The KHL sees itself as a veritable competition to the NHL, and with a bubbling, rising hostility between the United States and Russia politically, the mood might be right for a competition that matters. Could the recent move from New Jersey to SKA St. Petersburg by Ilya Kovalchuk embolden other Russian club owners to build their teams to challenge NHL teams, on the ice? It would be an incredibly interesting proposition, and if those games took place during the season, at a time where players from both sides were at peak physical performance, it would matter to both North American and European supporters.

Personally, I am skeptical of the NHL’s intentions however. The NHL owners have proven repeatedly in the past that their sole interest is the NHL, and that the only way to maximize revenues is by having games in their own rink. This is why sending players to the Olympics becomes a quadrennial debate, and a likely reason for why NHL players will not attend the Olympics in Korea in 2018. Owners would argue that playing European competition likely does not appeal to their fans, that the quality of European hockey could not possibly rival the NHL, and that these games are a waste of time. Furthermore, playing more games, particularly ones that do not matter, would put their players at peril for injury, and injury in ultimately inconsequential games is not worth it.  As an ardent fan of an NHL team, I can definitely understand these arguments, but I hope that some league owners have a bigger view of the potential of hockey. The game exists beyond the borders of North America, and a competition to highlight and celebrate that could help the sport become more relevant on the world stage.

– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada

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