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Sean Leahy

Opening in Europe: Ensuring the NHL's irrelevancy in the U.S

Sean Leahy
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For the fifth time in its history, the NHL played regular season games outside of North America as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators opened in Stockholm while the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning kicked things off in Prague.

Like last year, when the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings played in London, the arenas were sold out, furthering speculation about the NHL's grand European expansion plan.

During Saturday's opening day live blog, many believe next year's destinations could be Helsinki, Berlin and maybe even Dublin if the league continues their NHL Premiere campaign.

The League was only looking to grow its brand in Stockholm and Prague. The game is already popular throughout Europe among individual leagues. The NHL should scrap heading to Europe focus on growing the game in North America.

Maybe it didn't translate well through television, but the crowds at all four games this past weekend were quieter than a library. As much as the League desires to be the first one to expand into Europe, there's plenty of need to grow the brand in North America.

Of course, after Sunday's press conference with NHLPA head Paul Kelly, Gary Bettman is very fond of the NHL Premiere games. So fond that we may see more next season:

"Our hope would be to do at least as many games, if not more," he said. "But we're also going to have to look at the logistics. And we're also going to have to look at the timing because our schedule may be impacted by the break we take next year by going to the Olympics.

"But my hope is, if we can put it together, to do at least what we did this year, if not more."

While it's nice to have exhibition games in places like Winnipeg, Hamilton, Las Vegas and Kansas City, why not have games that are worth two points and have meaning to the teams involved?

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Not only would it help increase the League's exposure, such sites would be test venues for possible (ugh, I know) expansion or relocation. Why else would AEG head Phil Anschutz have his team, the Kings, play in Kansas City a few weeks ago? He wanted to show the League that the area could support a franchise.

The NHL could even create a worthy opening night event, similar to what we see with the NFL. It's hard to create a buzz when you open your season on another continent, during the afternoon crunched in between college and professional football games, along with playoff baseball.

Wouldn't it be nice to see the Detroit Red Wings raise their Stanley Cup banner at home on Wednesday or Thursday night against the Penguins? Let the game stand-alone by itself and allow the various subplots to create the buzz in the media and television ratings similar to those we saw in June.

Oh, sorry. You want a kick-off party? I forgot about the Def Leppard concert before Thursday night's Red Wings-Maple Leafs tilt. So you'll get a band that hasn't been relevant this decade and a game between the defending champions and the likely holders of the top draft pick next June.

Yep, that'll create you buzz.

Instead of a worthy kickoff to the season, we get four games in Europe followed by three dark days (unless you want to count the two preseason games) before the League gets going again. Talk about killing a flow.

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