Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New European Professional Hockey League

Put me down as a supporter of the European professional hockey league being proposed by Russian billionaire Alex Medvedev.

Competition is always good. It's great to see NHL brass squirm at the thought of losing total dominance over being able to offer the world's best hockey players the only viable league in which to ply their trade.

Bettman BurgersI don't buy the fear mongering about further erosion of the talent pool. I like to use the restaurant analogy.

A hamburger joint is the only eatery on a busy street. It builds up a good reputation and develops a large customer base. Many people in the area eat there because the food is decent. Others do it out of convenience and because there are no other options nearby.

After a while they start taking their success for granted. They let things slide here and there, try saving money with lower quality ingredients and begin showing the first signs of arrogance.

Then, almost simultaneously, two more restaurants open their doors within close vicinity of what has long since become a local institution. The owners panic, convinced they will lose customers. They may not even be conscious of their slumping standards but at least have a gnawing sense that they are in for a well deserved hit.

But the irony is that they probably don't have much to worry about. They may see a drop at first because of the novelty factor but traffic in the area will increase and in the end they'll probably be busier than ever. The competition will force them to pull their heads out of their asses as well, which will end up benefiting everyone involved.

Admittedly, the analogy is a bit weak. There is an endless supply of ground beef that can be cut with sawdust and fashioned into burgers for obese slobs to plug their guts with. On the other hand, world class hockey players are in relatively short supply. Still, the comparison has some merit.

In any new European league, there is going to be a reasonable amount of money available, at least for whichever teams are directly associated with Medvedev. Perhaps some marquee players can be enticed away from the NHL. That in turn may draw some other Europeans and North Americans into the yet to be established association of teams. Increased interest generated in Europe and on a worldwide basis is going to be good for the general health of the game.

Though it would be at least a dozen or more years in coming, a higher profile in Europe will bring more youngsters into the game. That can only improve the overall level of talent down the road.

Maybe it will force some well needed retraction within the NHL. Or, if there are to be franchises relocated, at least the realization that it's completely asinine to leave the most feasible market in North America untapped.

The NHL isn't likely to validate such a new endeavor with anything like exhibition match-ups or discussions on inter-league play. The only way any agreements or partnerships will result for both leagues is if the upstart demonstrates through some reasonable success that it's in for the long term.

Instead of seeing Medvedev and his plan as something to be feared, the NHL should be happy that someone else is doing the heavy lifting in the early going of expanding the popularity of hockey on a global level.

The current Russian Super League could possibly provide some teams for the new entity. Here's hoping they do some things differently than the Super League, which have drawn a lot of attention for their development of players and ability to lure some talent from the NHL but have been lacking in their marketing of the league outside of Russia.

There are many obstacles, assuming all the details get hammered out and things go beyond the planning stage. One of the biggest will be the local markets and the relative lack of revenue that can be tapped.

The talk from Medvedev and others is that a major television contract is important in attaining any kind of real success. There is a huge audience in Europe and some broadcasters with massive clout, such as Sky Sports, could do wonders for the popularity of the sport.

Hopefully the newcomers try to distinguish themselves from the NHL in some important areas to show that there really are other ways of doing things. At the same time, they will undoubtedly steal some plays from the most popular and successful league in the world.

In an attempt to broaden the appeal of the game, perhaps they could emulate the NHL geniuses and go into non-traditional areas.

I'm sure the Napoli Neptunes could turn on a whole new generation of football-weary southern Italians to the joys of hockey.

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