May 23, 2010
The NHL had a lot of different kinds of hockey going on this year.
The season started with four games in Europe - in Finland and in Sweden. Then, there were the Olympics, where a bunch of NHLers played. Right now, there's the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships, which are being played in Germany.
Oh yeah. And there's also the NHL playoffs.
It's a lot for players to keep up with. Some guys, like Evgeni Malkin(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penugins and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin(notes), are going from the NHL season to the Olympics to the postseason to the Worlds.
That's a lot of hockey in a relatively small amount of time.
"It's too much hockey ... It's too much for our players and I don't think it has the luster that the tournament normally has because everyone was focused on Vancouver. NHL teams don't get anything out of this. The players don't get paid."
Burke is right. The World Championships are too much to deal with in an Olympic year. And the NHL can't prevent players from participating, meaning a significant player, like an Ovechkin or Malkin, could be hurt, and their teams would have nothing to show for it.
Of course, one could say the same thing about the Olympics, where players also participate for free, risking injury, with some potential marketing upside for the NHL, but no tangible benefit for an NHL team losing a player in a game that doesn't even count in the standings.
According to Burke, the IIHF has a $20 million television contract, which is why they didn't want to skip the tournament for a year. And so we have the IIHF making money and the NHL possibly losing some important players and seeing nothing for the potential loss.
Looking at the interest in Olympic hockey, in the World Championships, and, as we've seen at the start of the past few seasons, NHL interest in Europe in general, isn't it time for the NHL to take a leadership role in an international tournament of some kind?
How can the NHL let its greatest asset, the players, go to work in tournaments and competitions where the NHL has no authority or control? Why is it letting the IIHF make $20 million on the backs of NHL players (although there are plenty of non-NHL players in the tournament)?
The NHL needs to take some initiative and organize its own international tournament. It couldn't force NHL players to participate, but it sure could make it convenient for them. For instance, the tournament could take place in September, well after the playoffs are over. It would mean shorter and earlier training camps, but it could create a real buzz to start the NHL season. It would also have players in great shape to start the NHL season.
(And if the league wanted to be extra nice, it could even shorten the regular season to make up for the new tournament, sharing some of the tournament money with all of the owners who would lose some income from a few less home games.)
Rather than just playing a few regular season games in Europe to start the season, the NHL could be showcasing some of its best players (as well as some of the world's best non-NHL players) in some sort of tournament before an international audience. And perhaps that showcase could then lead into the start of the regular season on European soil.
One of the limitations of the NHL's salary cap is that it prevents teams from being weighed down with too many superstar players. International hockey has no such limitations, as we saw in the Olympics, so why not give NHL fans in North America, but also overseas, the chance to see superstars playing together? The NHL could have star-laden teams that don't cost any additional salary. Isn't that the league's dream?
Organizing its own international tournament would also give the NHL the option of either canceling their own tournament in an Olympic year (as Burke suggested), or leaving the Olympics altogether, keeping players better rested for the playoffs, but also giving the league a way to showcase the game in the off-season.
The NHL has threads all over the international stage. Rather than letting those threads continue to unfurl, it's time for the league to take a leadership role and really manage the NHL's international presence. An NHL-sponsored international tournament would allow the league to maintain visibility on the international stage while ensuring the best interest of the players is always maintained.
And if the league makes a little extra money from the whole thing, that's just icing on the cake.
But also kind of necessary, because the Coyotes seem just a few weeks away from becoming the first NHL team to travel around North America in a giant moving van playing in parking lots for spare change.