The NHL has announced its latest slate of games in Europe and it’s important to realize just how valued these matches are for both the countries and franchises involved. As North American-centric as the league is, no one can deny that growing the game globally has tremendous benefits all around.
The 2019-20 schedule will kick off with the Philadelphia Flyers in Switzerland and the Chicago Blackhawks in Germany for the end of training camp. The Flyers will play an exhibition game against Lausanne HC on Sept. 30, while the Blackhawks will have a tune-up against Eisbaren Berlin on Sept. 29. After that, the two NHL squads will begin their regular season in the Czech Republic, facing off against each other in Prague on Oct. 4.
Later on, the Buffalo Sabres take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Stockholm, Sweden for two regular season games on Nov. 8 and 9.
For the NHL, the 2019-20 schedule offers a nice dose of star power (Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov, Rasmus Dahlin, Gritty…) for the fans over in Europe, but it’s also great for the franchises themselves.
This season, the New Jersey Devils were part of the NHL Global Series, playing an exhibition game against SC Bern in Switzerland, followed by a regular-season tilt against the Edmonton Oilers. The Devils, of course, had young Swiss star Nico Hischier in their lineup (not to mention countryman Mirco Mueller) and the European sojourn was a big win for an organization that has become very progressive on the business and branding side since owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer purchased the team in 2013 (their group is called Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment or HBSE).
I spoke with Hugh Weber, president of the Devils, HBSE and the Prudential Center, at All-Star weekend in San Jose and he noted that one of the moves made by the Devils was to lobby for more afternoon games on their 2018-19 schedule. The logic was that fans in Europe wouldn’t have to stay up into the middle of the night to watch a hockey game – a Devils game at 1 p.m. New Jersey time would still be a reasonable 6 p.m. start in Zurich or Stockholm.
To that end, eight out of 10 Saturday home games this season started at 1 p.m. The Devils also led the NHL with 11 guaranteed Games of the Week on European TV. And the ratings in Switzerland for the Devils-SC Bern contest were on par with Champions League soccer in the bucolic nation.
Last year’s Global Series was announced by commissioner Gary Bettman at the Board of Governors meeting in March and the Devils games in Sweden and Switzerland sold out in hours – no doubt the NHL is banking on much the same happening this time around, too.
Because as important as it is to have a strong grassroots game in North America, the NHL and its owners know that Europe and, even more so China, are key markets to focus on when it comes to growth. More fans are good of course, but more corporate money too.
In an upcoming issue of The Hockey News, I take a look at the hockey scene in Germany and part of the story is the amount of big businesses involved in the DEL, from Red Bull and SAP to the Anshutz Entertainment Group, which owns Eisbaren Berlin, but also the Los Angeles Kings.
For the fans of Europe, the chance to see Rasmus Dahlin take on Victor Hedman in Sweden is pretty awesome. For the franchises involved in the series, it’s a big-time opportunity to grow their brand and their international fan bases.