NHL to open season in Prague, Stockholm

ATLANTA – This season is barely half over, but we already know the New York Rangers will be playing for the cup next season.

Guaranteed.

How's that for going out on a limb?

OK, so maybe it's not that cup. The league announced during its All-Star weekend festivities Saturday that three teams will join New York – Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay – in opening the 2008-09 regular season in Prague, Czech Republic, and Stockholm, Sweden.

And before the Oct. 4-5 pair of games that count in the NHL standings, the Rangers will square off against European club champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia for the inaugural awarding of the Victoria Cup on Oct. 1, in the Swiss capital of Bern.

My goodness isn't the NHL getting chummy with Europe.

"It's a delight to bring our game to more of our great international fans," commissioner Gary Bettman said on the eve of Sunday's 56th NHL All-Star Game.

Why Victoria Cup? It's named after the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal where the first organized hockey game was played March 3, 1875. This will be the second of two European exhibitions for the Rangers, who have a preseason game scheduled the night before (Sept. 30) against host SC Bern, which will also be played on the bigger Euro-sized rink of Post Finance-Arena (16,789 seating capacity).

"This is a milestone for international hockey and for the relationship between the IIHF and the National Hockey League," said International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel.

The Metallurg-Rangers game will be the first pitting a Russian team against an NHL representative since Jan. 15, 1991, when Dynamo Moscow beat the Quebec Nordiques 4-1. The '91 contest concluded a 21-game, two-month series Dynamo had facing NHL teams.

Meanwhile, the league is starting abroad for the second straight year. Following up on the Anaheim-Los Angeles pair of games in London this season, the NHL will feature two games on European ice the same day for the first time. The Rangers and Lightning play on consecutive days in Prague at Sazka Arena while the Senators and Penguins do likewise in Stockholm at Globe Arena.

The second venture into the European market in as many seasons matches the league's travels to Japan in opening the 1997-98 and '98-99 regular seasons. The league went back to Japan in 2000 for an opener, too.

While Bettman was forthcoming with next season's opening-night plans, he wasn't as specific on other front-burner topics, including the possibility of an 84-game schedule, future outdoor games and league expansion.

The league's Board of Governors were briefed on all of those topics, including an update on the potential sales of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Minnesota Wild, both of which are not final.

The idea of going to 84 games to accommodate at least one visit by and to every NHL city by every team was broached during the Board of Governors meeting in Pebble Beach, Calif., a couple months ago by new NHL players' association executive director Paul Kelly. The sentiment he's getting as Kelly visits each team is the players want to see every city in every season, something that most fans seem to want as well.

The compromise is a shorter preseason &ndash the players appear ready to propose a maximum of five exhibitions instead of the current nine (although most teams play seven). Either way, the regular season would probably need to start sooner, or at least expanded in terms of days in order to accommodate the extra games.

The NHL featured an 84-game schedule in 1992-93 when it had 24 teams, and again in '93-94 when 26 teams were present. The current 82-game schedule that followed the 48-game format during the lockout-shortened 1995 campaign has been in effect for 12 years. Next season, while the schedule will remain at 82 games each for the 30 teams, the format has been changed so every team plays each other at least once, home or away.

"The issue is way too embryonic to be considered by the board yet," Bettman said. "Whether or not it's right (and) whether or not it works is premature."

With regards to more outdoor games, Bettman said the league learned a lot from the successful Winter Classic in which more than 70,000 fans filled Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., on New Year's Day to watch the Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres in a shootout, 2-1. He said he doesn't want to tempt fate again by having such a small window of time to construct a rink as in suburban Buffalo, where workers had one week to complete the job once the NFL's Buffalo Bills were done playing their home schedule.

"This is a terrific event for us," Bettman said. "The elements cooperated, a little bit of snow was nice, it created an aura about the game. It's not something we want to overdo. We want it to remain special."

Bettman said many clubs have expressed interest in being part of such an event, but the league has not made any decisions.

"My anticipation is we'll do another one, I can't tell you where and when, but I assure you we're not going to overdo it because we want to keep it special," Bettman added.

The rather scary notion of adding more teams came up and while Bettman said there are no plans on the horizon to entertain feelers forwarded by Las Vegas, Seattle and Winnipeg, he didn't shoot down those possibilities either.

"The board hasn't decided to do anything yet, so there is no timeline," Bettman said. "I suppose at some point in time that could change. We are talking to people about their interest, but nothing more formal than that."