Wednesday December 19th, 2007

It was a brief note inside a Christmas card.

"We're moving back home after New Year's," it read. "We love it in Dallas, but we want to raise the kids closer to our family and friends back in Nebraska."

My friend had a good job, a nice home and a great future in Texas, but he couldn't resist an all-too human calling: the lure of home.

I bring up my friend, an ankle-skating, beer league defenseman, because his story hints at one of several factors that make the news of a possible new European super league something to take seriously. The considerable practical concerns, and the protestations of my senior colleague Michael Farber aside, this isn't a development the NHL can afford to brush off.

In fact, if they're smart -- an assumption that requires a great leap of faith, I'll admit -- the old guard should recognize this as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The Toronto Star broke the story over the weekend that Alex Medvedev, director general of Russian energy monolith GazProm, is pushing for a new super European circuit that could compete directly with the NHL. In the story, Medevedev said the league would feature clubs in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Riga, Kiev and Helsinki.

If that sounds like a modest beginning, don't mistake that modesty for a lack of ambition. Like the men behind the World Hockey Association more than 30 years ago, Medvedev recognizes there's an opportunity born out of vulnerability. And he's not just bringing in the staggering financial clout of GazProm, a state-owned company with a history of promoting Russian sport. He also has some high power associates, like former NHLPA head Bob Goodenow and Igor Larionov, to help exploit those weaknesses.

Where are they? First, there's the breakdown of the transfer system between the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation. The Russians and Swedes already are out. The Finns and Czechs could follow. The sticking point is an antiquated approach to player transfers that gives European federations the shaft with a top-end payment of $200,000 for even the most elite prospects. Talks are on the horizon to address this, but don't expect a quick and amicable resolution. The NHL actually believes it pays too much for these players. No agreement means there could be more players looking for high-paying jobs outside the NHL.

Second, there's the growth in North American-caliber venues. Where there are buildings to fill, there's demand for seat-filling events like an elite pro league. Philip Anschutz, whose AEG conglomerate owns the Los Angeles Kings and is behind the construction of an NHL-ready rink in Las Vegas, has the O2 rink in London that hosted the season opening series between the Kings and Ducks. He has another that soon will open in Berlin. Other NHL-caliber buildings are operating in Bern, Prague and Koln.

Most of the other major cities lack the quality of facility that can generate the kind of income necessary to support a major league team. But calling that an impediment is like saying Paris Hilton was limited by being flat-chested. Where there's money and opportunity, improvements can be made.

Then there's the salary cap. Whatever its merits, the cap opened the league to a frontal assault from a competitor that could operate without such restraint. And while salaries in Europe traditionally are much lower than in the NHL, that can change quickly under Medvedev. Remember, there is some silly money involved already, and that negates concerns about the underlying economies. GazProm made more than $20 billion in profits last year. You don't just stuff cash like that under the mattress. You look for ways to spend it. And one of those ways is the sponsorship of this Euro-league.

So these teams will be operated by the Slavic version of Mark Cuban, not cash-strapped 30-man ownership groups like the Oilers. Do you think Cuban spends a moment worrying about whether his Dallas Mavericks are turning a profit? No, he's in it for the sport. He's in it for the prestige. And that's the approach that throws wads of cash at the players he wants.

That's where the home factor comes into play. Are North American-born superstars like Sidney Crosby or Vincent Lecavalier going to pack up for Kiev or Omsk for a few million more rubles? Highly unlikely. It's hard enough to convince guys to go to Edmonton.

But this league won't be targeting those players. They'll focus on re-patriating their own stars, like Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Nabokov. Now, maybe these players are driven to win a Stanley Cup and create a lasting legacy in the world's most established league. Or maybe not. Maybe they'd be happier making more money (who wouldn't?). Or maybe it would be enough just to be closer to home, where they have family and friends, where the coaches and media speak their language, and the food and culture is familiar. You can't rule it out.

And neither should the NHL -- or the NHLPA -- which is why both organizations need to sit down with Medvedev's group and try to find some common ground. The NHL has talked about the European market for years, but there isn't the political will to actually place a division there. Most of the powers-that-be would be satisfied with more effective marketing of the game overseas.

That's shortsighted. By brokering some degree of partnership with this group, the NHL can get a piece of the European action and limit its own exposure. And while they might lose some players -- maybe even a couple of stars -- it's better to have a hand on the talent tap than let the Russian group dictate the market, as the WHA did back in 1972.

For its part, the NHLPA would see more jobs created, with salaries rising as a result of increased demand for talent. Hey, everybody wins.

We're already seeing the benefits of cooperation between the NHL and NHLPA. Extending that cooperation to the Medvedev group would prove that growing the sport overseas is a priority, rather than just another talking point.

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