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Roll over Europe

It’s the NHL week in Europe, that time of the year when the National Hockey League big machine rolls into Europe and gives hockey fans a taste of the big league/s.

This year, the NHL Premiere, and the training camps that precede the regular season openers, sees NHL teams play in Helsinki, Hamburg, Mannheim, Berlin, Bratislava, Gothenburg, Stockholm, Zug, and Prague. That’s four teams playing 11 games in Finland, Germany, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.

And with the flags waving, and the people cheering, the obvious question is: could it be done all the time? Is there room for the Helsinki Fins or the Stockholm Swede? Or, more importantly, would the marketplace support an NHL team?

Looking at the existing clubs, the answer would seem to be a fairly straightforward “no”, or if you’d like be optimistic about, “umm, I don’t know.”

The Swedish Elitserien, with its 12 clubs and the league office generate 200 million dollars of income annually. It’s not chump change, it’s about the value of an NHL franchise, according to the Forbes magazine’s estimates. For example, Forbes had the New Jersey Devils valued at 218 million last year.

In Finland, where the Ducks and the Sabres will open their regular season on Friday, the top clubs’ net sales are in the ten-million-dollar range. Last season, Helsinki IFK, the SM-liiga champion, turned a nice profit of about a million dollars on 11.5 million dollars worth of sales. At the same time, half the clubs have trouble hitting five million euro - seven-million-dollars.

HIFK’s 11.5 million US dollar income equals the total value of watches the NHLers wear.

On Tuesday, the Ducks will play against the Helsinki Jokerit - Teemu Selänne’s Finnish club - in front of 14 000 Finnish fans in Finland’s biggest arena. They will have paid about double what a regular Finnish season tickets cost. The best seats in the house go - went - for 80 dollars. The same seat goes for 40 if you want to see Jokerit play against Saku Koivu’s alma mater, TPS. Jokerit averaged about 8500 spectators last season.

The fans who come to see the regular season opener on Friday, will have to pay 135 dollars – to get to the cheapest seats. The best ones cost 270 dollars, or six times what the SM-liiga tickets cost.

That’s a lot of money, and even with a population of over a million in the metropolitan area, a team in Helsinki would have to draw people from all over Finland, population a little over five million.

When I was 15, I lived in Joensuu, a town in Eastern Finland, and a five-hour drive from Helsinki. For me and my Dad to come down to Helsinki for a hockey game, would have meant taking time off work and school, and driving home all night to get him back to work and me back to school for the next day. And oh, we’ve done that, too, for Team Finland games.

But we not for every game.

What about corporate support then? The suits have taken over hockey anyway, right?

There is room for growth in the corporate partnerships in both Finland and Sweden, but looking at the ice surface and jerseys in both leagues, it seems obvious that it’s difficult to find one big sponsor. I once counted over 200 “partners” listed on a big wall outside the Kinnarps Arena in Jönköping, the home of HV71 in the Elitserien, and then gave up because the list just went on for another couple of hundred corporate names.

So, maybe the business model is simply to find a hockey-loving billionaire, and sell him or her on the idea of having a team here. The Helsinki Angry Birds? Sure. The Stockholm IKEA with the Coach’s couch corner? Maybe.

But who would they play? First a ten-game road trip to North America, then ten at home, then another road trip? Or would there be a European division? We’re going to need more billionaires.

Last year, there were plenty of empty seats in the Stockholm Globe Arena when the Sharks and the Columbus Blue Jackets started their seasons in Europe, with two games. The Swedes had been spoiled byt the Detroit Red Wings visit the year before. Sure, NHL hockey is neat, but what they really wanted to see was their own superstars: Lidström, Zetterberg, Holmström.

Huselius, Strålman, and Murray didn’t get them off their IKEA couches.

The Finnish fans are getting their treat this year, with Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu - arguably the two most popular players in Finnish history - returning to Helsinki.

Next year, if the NHL will be back, is the true challenge for the league. Ducks with Teemu and Saku will be a tough act to follow.

Even my father is making the trek. Then again, he doesn’t have to get back to work in the morning anymore.

Risto Pakarinen wrote this in Helsinki, Finland, where he once, a long time ago, hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head and will, therefore, never actually win it. You can follow him on Twitter as @puckarinen.

Filed in: | Puckarinen Hits A Post | Permalink
  Tags: columbus+blue+jackets, detroit+red+wings, ducks, elitserien, sabres, saku+koivu, sm-liiga, teemu+selanne


Hank1974's avatar

I think that’s the only way the NHL could be popular in Europe; if the European teams consisted mainly of homegrown talent.

If Team Finland had Selanne, Koivu, Filpulla, etc, then you could get fans out there.
But they’re not going to pay $150 to watch a bunch of guys from Saskatoon or Boston.

I think the simpler solution is this;
Force the European leagues to have 82 games (this includes the DEL, SEL, FIN, KHL, Swiss, etc).
They have playoffs to determine their winner and then they play the last team standing from the NHL.

It’s a pipe-dream and some fans might not like it at first, but I could see this being a huge money grab. And it would grab international attention.

I don’t follow soccer, but I know about the champions league and from what I’ve read it’s a huge success commercially and critically.

Posted by Hank1974 on 10/03/11 at 01:33 PM ET

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About Puckarinen Hits A Post

Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden.

That's right, he's deep behind the enemy lines. He's also a regular contributor to IIHF.com, NHL.com, The Hockey News, and several publications in Finland and Sweden. He's also covered four World Championships and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics for the IIHF.

And since he foolishly hoisted the Stanley Cup in his twenties, he wakes up every morning knowing he will never be able to win it.