Thursday, January 31, 2008 Updated: February 1, 1:06 PM ET
Should the NHL regular season return to Europe?
By Scott Burnside and Damien Cox ESPN.com
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!This week's topic: Is it really worth it for the NHL to take more regular-season games to Europe?Scott Burnside: Hello, Damien. Did you miss me? I know you were glued to the television, giddy with excitement over the recent All-Star festivities in Atlanta. But you must have been even more excited (if that's possible without spontaneously combusting) when you learned the NHL wasn't going to start out in just one European city next October, but two. How did you contain yourself?
This season's regular-season start in London was deemed a success, but does that mean it's still right for the NHL in the future?
Damien Cox: They played the NHL All-Star Game? And I missed it? Barnacles! What was it? 23-20, the Campbells over the Wales by a field goal? Gotta love that game. Missed seeing the skillz (cool way to spell it, I'm told) competition, too. I must not love the game enough. I am interested, however, in another Euro tour. Even more interested in the fact that the new NHL Players' Association chief, Paul Kelly, said the players might not go along. Are we headed back into another Cold War?
Scott: Kind of funny how that all came about, no? The league is rolling merrily along, Kelly is appearing on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's radio show (Hey, do you ever get a call to come on the show? No? Me neither.), when all of a sudden, the players' association throws a big bucket of lukewarm water on the league's big Euro announcement. Almost like someone in the union offices whispered in Kelly's ear, "Hey, better drag your heels a bit on something or else people will start mistaking you for Ted Saskin." Much ado about nothing, I think -- not that it stopped us media types from jumping all over the story on an All-Star Saturday afternoon.
Damien: Yeah, from afar, it seemed to be a strange story. For a while now, the PA has needed a story to latch on to, something to indicate to its members that it is up for the fight again. Remember when the league suspended Mark Bell in September and the PA suggested it might protest the 15-game ban? Nothing ever happened. Now, Kelly, who has no hockey credentials at this point, needs to, as you say, demonstrate he isn't Saskin. But I doubt this is the issue on which to do it.
By the way, before we go any further on the next Euro tour, here's an idea on how to make your favorite event -- the All-Star "classic" -- more interesting to the players. Put the PA in charge or at least make it a partner, and make it responsible for ensuring the players show up and play hard. Thoughts?
Scott: Deputy commissioner Bill Daly alluded to part of that before the game, saying he and Kelly were talking about the importance of the event and the need for the players to embrace the All-Star Game. And, as you suggest, having them involved in a big way in organizing it, defining the skills competition or establishing some sort of incentive, cash or otherwise, might be a great idea. I understand why guys like Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo stayed away. It happens every year. But more than ever, if the league and players are going to be partners and put the game on as many stages as possible, the players can't just pull the chute. Maybe if the PA were more involved, there would be more pressure on the big names to show up.
So, what's your fancy: Stockholm or Prague? Or will you be boycotting Euro '08 as you did this past fall when the league went bangers and mash to start the season in London?
Damien: Would love to see both cities in the fall. It's interesting that after two Western Conference teams, the Kings and Ducks, took the jet-lag hit last fall, it's four Eastern Conference teams, the Lightning, Rangers, Senators and Penguins, this time around. And it's interesting that they would pick the Bolts, given that Tampa is likely to finish either 29th or 30th this season. The folks in Prague might wonder, "Couldn't you send us two good teams?" And before the Rangers even get to those games, which will be held on Oct. 4 and 5, they will play in Bern, Switzerland, against a Russian team for the Victoria Cup. Who knew they still would be paying tribute to the Queen all these decades later?
Scott: I thought the Victoria Cup was a reference to some new Russian vodka. We chatted with Kelly in Atlanta, and I think he's got a point about the Victoria Cup, which is an International Ice Hockey Federation thing, regarding whether the NHL and its players should be engaging in a "friendly" with a Russian club team when the Russians continue to try to extort money out of the NHL by refusing to sign transfer agreements. As for Prague, wonder how the Czechs will respond to a bad Tampa team and a Rangers team that may well be minus a guy named Jaromir Jagr?
Damien: In all of this, I continue to wonder what the point is. Or more specifically, what's the strategy? It seems like throwing darts at a board, hoping one will strike a geyser of untapped hockey revenue. But let's assume the games are sold out in Prague and Stockholm and Bern. Then what? Does it mean anything?
Scott: I disagree. I was a bit put off by the London thing in the sense that it was all about putting people in a building owned by the owners of the L.A. Kings in a country that has only a passing interest in the sport. And it sold out, which was nice. I think this year tells the tale of this experiment. Do fans in Prague and Stockholm, where there is a rich tradition of club and national support for the game, turn out for the NHL? If they do, good for the NHL, and let's do it some more. If they stay away, I think that should send another message to the NHL. If 30 percent of the NHL's players come from outside North America, I think it's a good thing to bring the game to their countrymen, as long as the people want the game to come to them. I guess we'll find out.
Damien: Man, you will embrace any gimmick this league dreams up, won't you? So what if one or two games in various European cities bring in a few extra bucks? Essentially, what you are saying is, anything that fills the NHL's coffers even a little bit is fine by you. Not me. Unless there's a compelling reason or a cohesive longterm strategy, all these Euro one-offs seem pointless.
Scott: You know me; Dr. Gimmick they call me. But I'm not sure how you can call this a one-off, given it's now a two- and three-off. And what's not compelling about sharing the NHL experience with some folks who give a darn about the game and rarely get to see their heroes except in the Olympics and World Championships? I can guarantee you the games in Stockholm and Prague will be more warmly embraced than any game will ever be embraced in Nashville or South Florida. Why shouldn't the NHL go there for a few days and share some love? If people thumb their noses at it, fine, stay home. But they won't. They'll love it to death.
Damien: Here's an idea. Let's play the entire NHL schedule next season outdoors, in European cities or with judges deciding a winner and a loser. Forget trying to build a stronger North American league. Even better, how about games in New Delhi and Shanghai, and a regular-season game on roller blades on the San Diego freeway? That's what I call sharing the love!
Scott: Whoa. I know playing in New Delhi makes about as much sense as positioning an NHL franchise in Nashville, but come on. Dan Craig, the NHL's ice man, would have a nervous breakdown if he had to build ice in New Delhi. I don't understand why the concept of playing a couple of games in other countries riles you so much. I know, take care of your own house first. But nothing is going to fix the situations in South Florida and Nashville and other places until those owners get tired of losing money and decide to cash in on their rising franchise values. So why not do some things that ultimately don't do the game any harm?
Damien: I understand your '60s, whatever-feels-good, groove-on mentality. But the league's fans, the vast majority of them, are in North America. What does playing games in Prague do for them? How does it help the Red Wings refill a building that used to be full every night? If you can articulate how this Euro-strategy delivers benefits to North American fans, I'm all ears.
Scott: Well, it's a good thing the Red Wings aren't invited to Europe this time around, and they should be punished until they can fill the aging Joe Louis Arena every night. I understand your reasoning. But one doesn't necessarily lead to another. You can do things like play a couple of games -- four games out of the 1,230 played every season is a grain of sand in the NHL beach -- and it doesn't mean you have abdicated your responsibilities back home. So, will you be going? I know a great little place outside Prague called the Charles IV, and they serve a drink called "The Spider's Kiss" or something like that.
Damien: Still no grand strategy to toss my way, huh? OK. Well, you never know, but I suspect you'll have to do Prague without me. Unfortunately, there's probably a little too much going on over here in the colonies that my editors find more important.
Scott: Well, I'll have a cherny pivo for you. That's a black beer, regardless of how it's spelled. I feel like a dog that's chased it's tail for an hour or so. Until next week?
Damien: We'll resume the chase then.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."