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NHL eyes games outside European stronghold, primed for China return

BEIJING, CHINA - Vancouver Canucks face the Los Angeles Kings at Wukesong Arena on September 2017 in Beijing, China (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images )

The National Hockey League is looking to schedule international games in European growth markets in addition to the continent’s traditionally strong ice hockey markets and is planning to return to stage games in China once again.

NHL vice-president of international operations Mark Black told SportBusiness that “traditionally strong” European countries such as Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic, which have all staged games since the NHL Global Series return in 2017, would continue to play host to games.

However, looking forward to 2020 and beyond, the league is looking to stage games in a mixture of established hockey markets, plus emerging and growth markets.

Speaking just days before the third edition of the NHL Global Series, Black said: “We’ll continue on the path we’re on of playing in countries that have a strong hockey background, but at the same time also supporting ones we see as real emerging markets.

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“The traditionally strong countries are those such as Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, which have a strong history of the game. The emerging ones are Switzerland and Germany, especially if you look at performance in the World Championships. There’s a very promising group of young players coming up through their programmes now who are stars in the league so we’ll continue to be active in those markets, while looking for locations that make sense.

“So, I’d envision in the next year or two that we’d continue playing games in those countries we’re currently present in, but certainly we’ll have an eye on which countries would be a good fit to go to in the future because the game’s only growing for us internationally.”

NHL teams have staged exhibition games in Europe since the mid-1970s in an effort to engage with fans in established ice hockey-playing nations and to boost their commercial prospects internationally. This initiative was built on as the formation of NHL Premiere in 2007 saw the league commence its regular season in Europe for the first time.

While NHL Premiere continued until 2011, the league’s difficulties surrounding Collective Bargaining Agreement talks, and subsequent 2012-13 season lockout, saw European travels put on ice until 2017.

Two regular-season games in Stockholm formed the inaugural Global Series, before it expanded last year to take in three regular-season fixtures in Gothenburg, Sweden and Helsinki, Finland along with two exhibition games in Bern, Switzerland and Cologne, Germany.

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This season, the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers will face off in their 2019-20 season-opening game in Prague, Czech Republic on October 4. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning will compete in a pair of regular-season games at Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden on November 8-9. In addition, the Flyers and Blackhawks will play exhibition games in Lausanne, Switzerland and Berlin, Germany, respectively, part of the 2019 Global Series Challenge.

This year’s Global Series will include five games for the second consecutive year and is being staged by the NHL and National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) in conjunction with promoter, Live Nation Sweden. The 2019-20 campaign will mark the eighth season overall that the NHL has travelled to Europe to play regular-season games, of which there will have been 28 in total by the end of the year.

The league has been seeking to step up its engagement with its European audience and in 2018-19 scheduled nearly 50 matches in primetime for the continent.

However, Europe is not the league’s sole international focus and a return to China is expected to be announced soon by the NHL.

The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing in 2017, with the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames following suit in Shenzhen and Beijing last year. No games will be played in China this year, but the world’s most populous country remains a “priority market” for the league, according to Black.

Black said: “We’ve made it known we’d like to make commitments to that market. We’ve made a lot of effort in that market to date in terms of growing the game and being supportive of the hockey community in China, both from a fan side of things and development side.

“In fact, we recently took one of the biggest superstars of all time, [Washington Capitals captain] Alex Ovechkin, to China for a week-long tour and he did a variety of things whilst he was there.

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NHL players were a high-profile omission from the 2018 winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, and there has yet to be an official decision made on the 2022 Games in Beijing.

Black continued: “Absolutely, China remains a priority market for us as to how we can support and grow the game there. We’re really trying to support the infrastructure. I can’t speak specifically about the plans for next year, but certainly as far as I know it’s certainly on the agenda to be back there next year and playing games again.”

Earlier this month, the league entered into a multi-year rights agreement with Russian internet company Yandex to exclusively broadcast games in Russia via its streaming platform. A major ice hockey nation with its own thriving Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), NHL teams have periodically taken to Russia in the past, most recently when St. Petersburg hosted a game between SKA Saint Petersburg and the Carolina Hurricanes at the 2010 NHL Premiere event.

Asked about a return to Russia, Black replied: “With the Yandex deal, and obviously the great hockey history in Russia, that’s always something that’s on the radar and is being evaluated. Absolutely that’s going to be open for consideration and discussions as to the possibility of playing there in future because with the great history of hockey in Russia, it’s always of interest.”