If you’re a European fan of the NHL, the 2000s will be a decade that you look back on with fondness. We witnessed the first European born and trained Captain lift the Stanley Cup (Nicklas Lidstrom) and we also had the pleasure of welcoming regular season hockey to the “other side of the pond” for the first time. The O2 Arena in London was the venue for two games between the Stanley Cup Champion Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings in late September 2007. This signaled the start of the “NHL Premiere Series” which ran until 2011.
The NHL Premiere Series saw teams open their NHL campaigns in cities across Europe and gave European fans chance to experience true NHL competition – something that wasn’t normally possible unless you made the trip to North America. It was also a chance for the NHL to showcase itself and build up a bigger fan base – how successful it was is up for debate. For the most part, the games were played in cities where hockey is already big.
It has now been over five years since the last game in Europe. Other than a whisper reported by ESPN.com back in October, it’s been very quiet in terms of the situation changing. European fans deserve some NHL action, and here’s why.
European fans are some of the most dedicated people you could ever meet. The time difference between Europe and North America can mean the difference between a night of hockey or a night of sleep. It’s the difference between a productive day at work and a day of coffee-driven survival. When you make that choice, to sit up through the night to watch your team, you know it could have repercussions – but there will be very few fans tell you that they regret it, and they’ll be doing it all over again in a few days time. To truly understand the dedication, check out Eurolanche – the Colorado Avalanche European Fan Club. I’ll declare it right now, I’m a Wings fan so promoting anything Avalanche related is painful, but these guys deserve it. Not only do they follow their team through thick and thin (or thin and thinner as it has been of late), they make a regular trip over to see them in Denver. No matter who you are, no matter who your team is – that is pretty impressive.
I was lucky enough during my young, free and single days to be able to follow the Red Wings on a very regular basis. I’d be sat up well in to the early hours cheering the team on, but one game will always stick in my memory. Game 5 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals. With a win, the Wings would be Champions and of course I was desperate to see that. It was around 6am when Petr Sykora scored the game winner for the Penguins, mid way through a third OT period. An hour later my alarm was bleeping – letting me know that another work day was ready to begin. I didn’t get much done that day, safe to say, but just a couple of nights later I was sat up again ready for Game 6. The rest, as they say, is history. These days I have a lot more on my plate, but would I do it all again? Of course I would. Hockey is like a drug, once you’re hooked that’s it. I’ve done the trip to North America too. An experience I would love to do again, but in the absence of that I’d take any NHL action – and I’d wager that there are thousands of NHL fans who feel exactly the same.
Speaking as a native of the United Kingdom, I can tell you that hockey will never be the top sport here. Football (or soccer if you wish) has that sewn up and always will – but there’s a definite market for not just the sport, but the NHL. In 1997 the Manchester Storm set the record attendance for an Ice Hockey league game in the UK when 17,245 watched the team take on the Sheffield Steelers. At the time, this was also a European record. This was only beaten when the NHL came to London and a crowd of 17,551 saw the second game between the Ducks and the Kings. Again, I was lucky enough to be at one of those games and the atmosphere was incredible. You had fans from every NHL team and fans clad in the colours of teams from all over Europe – a real celebration of hockey.
The NFL has proved what can happen if you successfully market a product in a new area. They’re having several sellout games in the UK each season and are now looking in to the possibility of establishing a franchise in London. Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that there could be a European based NHL team – that would be a logistical nightmare, but it sure would be good to see more of the sport that so many of us love and dedicate so much time to. The message to Mr Bettman and those at the top of the sport is a simple one. Don’t forget us. European players make up about a quarter of NHL rosters, there’s a big fan base to exploit. Don’t miss such a wonderful opportunity to not only give back to the fans, but also to grow the game and the brand.
Image Source: Getty Images Bob Martin