NHL Season Opens In Europe

The National Hockey League opens its season this weekend in Europe with games in Stockholm, Sweden, and Prague, Czech Republic. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis says it makes some sense for the NHL to look to expand its audience beyond U.S. borders.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. The National Hockey League season begins tomorrow and it begins in Europe. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators will play two games over the weekend in Stockholm, and the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning will face off in Prague. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins us now to explain hockey's transatlantic efforts. And Stefan, should we expect big crowds of Swedish and Czech hockey fans?

STEFAN FATSIS: Absolutely, more than 14,000 fans at the Globe Arena in Stockholm which, thanks to Wikipedia, I just learned is the world's largest spherical building and the sun in Sweden's scale model of the Solar System, so there you go. And 18,000 fans are expected at the O2 Arena in Prague. This caps a week in which these four teams had played exhibitions around Europe, Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia, Germany. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in Prague yesterday that this is part of a gradual build to a more permanent presence in Europe.

SIEGEL: Now, football, baseball and basketball have all tried to cultivate interest in Europe and also in some cases, in Asia. Is Bettman actually talking about placing franchises in Europe though?

FATSIS: Now that is the long-term thought, five to 10 years maybe, but it is the thought. Europe's going to need more American-style arenas. It's going to need to cultivate potential team owners and European TV networks. They've got to make sure that you've got the revenue streams because it is a very different sports culture in Europe. European fans are not used to U.S. style ticket prices, 80 or a hundred bucks a pop, over the course of long seasons. But I think it does make some sense for the NHL. Thirty percent of NHL players come from outside of North America and you have these areas of historic natural passion for hockey, more than in Nashville or Atlanta.

SIEGEL: We've talked though in the past about how the National Hockey League over-expanded in the 1990s. Is it reasonable for them to be talking about adding more teams?

FATSIS: I don't think they can just add more teams, but I do think that a dramatic step would be to admit that they made mistakes and shift the weakest franchises to Europe. You've got Prague, Stockholm, Moscow, Berlin, Helsinki, Zürich or London. It sounds like a pretty good division to me, better than some of the weaker southern markets that you've got now. And the NHL has made some nice strides since the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. You've got new stars like Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh. They've been playing an annual outdoor game that's been great. This year it's going to be the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks playing on January 1st in Wrigley Field. And if these trends continue and it makes business sense, I can see the NHL being the first to pull the trigger on going to Europe.

SIEGEL: But one complicating factor could be competition from Russian hockey.

FATSIS: Or it could be a reason to go to Europe. There's a new league in Russia, the Continental Hockey League. It's signed several NHL free agents, including the great but aging Jaromir Jagr, and it's tried to lure other players who are under contract to NHL teams now. The league offered $12.5 million a year to the Russian player Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh, who finished second in the NHL in scoring last year. Malkin decided not to jump, but another Russian player from Nashville did, and that's triggered an international incident. The Russian league says the NHL has refused to recognize its contracts in the past so they shouldn't have to. Meetings in Europe now are trying to resolve this conflict.

SIEGEL: Now, hearing you talk about hockey, I'm thinking about Paul Newman who died last week. It occurs to me that Paul Newman made the great hockey movie, made "Slap Shot."

FATSIS: One of the great cult sports movies of all time. Newman played Reg Dunlop, a down on his luck, leather pants-wearing player-coach for a renegade minor league hockey team. And now there is talk of remaking this movie and, you know, remaking these kinds of movies seems like a good idea at least to some people in Hollywood, but then you get a mildly tweaked watered-down version of the original, like with "The Longest Yard" or "The Bad News Bears." "Slap Shot" was made in 1977. It was set in a dying steel town. It addressed issues of the time, a disastrous economy, women's liberation, a more reckless sports culture. You know, maybe the remake will prove me wrong, but I'd let "Slap Shot" and Paul Newman rest in peace.

SIEGEL: Maybe the economy will prove you wrong yet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FATSIS: And it makes sense to remake it. You're right.

SIEGEL: Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis who talks with us on most Fridays about sports and also the business of sports. Thanks a lot, Stefan.

FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

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