The NHL's next expansion goal isn't out of this world -- but it's close
The NHL's manifest destiny had long been the United States, as they successfully grew the game in locations most thought impossible. Tampa Bay, Las Vegas, Nashville and even Arizona have become beacons of the game, with Gary Bettman's final act being the creation of the Seattle Kraken. Bill Daly is ready to do his part, taking the sport far beyond its predictable borders.
The NHL, as we know it, has gained all the popularity it can from North American exposure. Hockey is the national sport in Canada and a staple in the United States. So what's next? The answer to that isn't to look at the NHL's brand, but rather the sport of hockey as a whole. Where else is using a wooden stick to slap a rubber puck down a slab of ice deemed of national significance?
As deputy commissioner, Daly considered expansion to Europe "inevitable" given the sport's popularity, especially in the East. Now with a few years in the head seat and all that accumulated power, he's making that dream a reality -- and it actually makes some sense. In a recent, wide-ranging interview with ESPN’s Mary Clarke, Daly tabbed Stockholm and Prague as prime candidates for expansion. And both make sense for several reasons.
“Through our expanded efforts -- in both training camp or preseason games -- it’s become obvious that there’s a thirst for NHL action outside of our North American borders,” Daily said. “These two locations weren’t picked out of a hat. We’ve studied the fanbases. The love for hockey at the highest level is there. We just have to supply the product.”
In Sweden, the Swedish Hockey League and HockeyAllsvenskan duel it out for supremacy and fan interest on a yearly basis. Stockholm is home to Djurgårdens IF and AIK IF, but Daly evidently believes there's room in the market for a third team to pull from both fanbases. Prague, meanwhile, features the popular Czech hockey team Sparta Praha.
Both cities have NHL-ready arenas and have hosted NHL training camps in the past. The NHL has played host to many great Czech and Swedish players, with the likes of Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek hailing from the Czech Republic, and Niklas Lidstrom, Henrik Lundqvist and Peter Forsberg from Sweden. Despite the location, very little of this process would be foreign to the NHL's elite.
So much of modern hockey and the NHL's popularity comes outside of league play. The Olympics, IIHF World Championships and the World Cup of Hockey has allowed the best players in the league to build a name for themselves on a world stage rather than becoming reliant on the NHL to market them. Daly's approach of steering into the skid and embracing overseas expansion will allow the NHL to benefit in a growing market.
Thus far in expansion games played in Europe, the NHL has averaged upwards of 15,000 fans per game. The average NHL team averages around 15,000-18,000 fans per game. Domestic teams in both Stockholm and Prague are slightly lower, but given the allure of a new franchise and the increase in talent on the ice, the NHL can assume positive returns as European fans adjust to a new, better style of hockey.
It's a bold strategy by Daly, but one he believes will pay off quite literally, padding the wallets of NHL owners and players over time.