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Sean Leahy

Over and out: Time to leave the NHL Premiere Games behind

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

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NHL Premiere began in 2007 with the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks in London, England. It has expanded over the past three years to six teams across three different European cities, in order to promote the NHL brand and help increase the league's presence overseas.

Six games played in Stockholm, Helsinki and Prague -- with the Minnesota Wild, Carolina Hurricanes San Jose Sharks, Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes, and Boston Bruins -- featured a two-game series sweep, two splits, Tyler Seguin's(notes) first NHL goal ... and plenty of empty seats.

The league's fourth straight year of venturing into for NHL Premiere is now complete and should be the last time regular season games are played in Europe.

One of the NHL's reasons for opening the season in Europe is for growth and keeping a presence for their brand overseas. But as we saw all weekend, the novelty of meaningful NHL games in these cities has worn off. Empty seats were noticeable on television, especially in Prague and Stockholm, and those that did attend reacted to the play on the ice by doing the wave ... when they weren't busy sitting on their hands.

How did the official attendance numbers look? Good in Helsinki. Not so good in Prague and Stockholm, which is one reason why it's time to pull out of NHL Premiere.

The Hurricanes-Wild games at Hartwall Arena in Helsinki saw attendances of 12,355 and 13,465, good for an arena that states capacity for hockey at 13,349. That's a pretty decent homecoming for Mikko Koivu(notes), Antti Miettinen(notes), Tuomo Ruutu(notes), Joni Pitkanen(notes) and Jussi Jokinen(notes).

O2 Arena in Prague can fit 17,360 spectators for hockey, but the Bruins and Coyotes only were able to draw 15,299 and 12,990 for their two games in the Czech Republic. I guess the drawing power of David Krejci(notes), Martin Hanzal(notes), Radim Vrbata(notes) and Petr Prucha(notes) wasn't as good as originally thought.

In Stockholm, Globe Arena played to crowds of 11,324 and 9,357 for Sharks-Blue Jackets, well short of the listed capacity of 13,850. If Anton Stralman(notes), Kristian Huselius(notes), Sammy Pahlsson, Douglas Murray(notes), and Niclas Wallin(notes) can't sell out a building in Sweden, who can? (Should've had The Hives as the pre- and postgame entertainment.)

So this means only one of the six games, promoted well in advance and featuring a number of NHLers returning to play in their homelands, played to a sellout crowd; and the entire series played to 84 percent capacity. That's not encouraging for a unique, once-a-year event such as NHL Premiere. Maybe next time lowering the ticket prices a bit to something the locals are used to paying?

Obviously pleased with the numbers in Finland, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said at a press conference before the Premiere Games began last week that heading back to Europe is likely, pending approval of the NHLPA:

"I would anticipate we'll have games in Europe next year," Daly said."That's something we have to decide with the players association. They have some views on what we should be doing, so when they have their full leadership in place I'm sure we'll sit down with them and discuss the experience, throw it around and decide what we'll do. I think the extent that it's been an experiment, I think we've been very pleased."

If the NHL Premiere is here to stay, it might be time to venture to some new European countries with hockey ties such as Slovakia, Germany, Norway and even Russia. KHL president Alexander Medvedev told ESPN's Pierre LeBrun that he'd be open to the idea of the Premiere games in Russia; but then again, he'd agree to anything that could potentially help the marketing of the KHL, especially with help from the NHL. A KHL-NHL exhibition seems out of the question now, but bringing Alex Ovechkin(notes) and the Washington Capitals to Moscow to face, say, Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) and the New Jersey Devils would sure get some buzz.

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But like the current set of Premiere games, eventually interest will wain and the NHL will run out of cities to market their brand in. Can't really see the NHL rockin' in Budapest, can you? You also won't be able bring teams like Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings every year, ensuring a strong marketing of the games and the international star power that's required to hook Europeans into buying tickets.

The League's goal here of using these games to grow the game and spreading the NHL brand is silly. Isn't the fact that the makeup of every single NHL roster features numerous Europeans a sign of the growing game? The Swedes are always interested in the exploits of their heroes like Daniel Alfredsson(notes) and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes). Just like the Czechs and Finns keep an eye on the progress of guys like Martin Havlat(notes) and Mikko Koivu.

The accomplishments of their countrymen across the globe are news in these European cities. If the NHL wants to use Europe as a place for teams to hold training camp and exhibition games, great -- it's been done in the past. But to taking away from the fans of the franchises that travel over is another slight to the same people plunking money down for rising tickets to support rising player salaries.

And to further the growing the game point, I understand you need to look forward to grow as a business, but what about helping the issues at home? Phoenix and Columbus, two organizations who've recently had ticket-selling issues, lose one home game because of NHL Premiere. The teams are compensated to make up for the lost home gate, but the season ticket buyers lose a game from their purchase.

One game may not mean a lot to many, but in some markets it's an early way to begin promoting the season. According to the Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline who spoke with the Blue Jackets' vice president of business operations, the team expects to only break even from their trip to Stockholm, banking on the long-term international exposure that could benefit the franchise from their participation.

If there are issues from the NHL's end about shutting the League down for two weeks and having players participate in the Olympics every four years, what's the benefit from NHL Premiere?

It's time to leave Europe behind and have every team kick off the NHL season in style ... at home.

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