Many, many moons ago, the MSM would often toss the idea of European expansion for the League into the ring. And time after time, it would get shot down with a list of travel and economic logistics. But the powers that be have humored us and teased the idea of the NHL on foreign soil with the a handful of regular season games to kick off the year in Western Europe.
The history of NHL exhibition games in Europe first began in 1938 with the Canadiens and Wings leading off, and that wouldn't get followed up until over 20years later when the Bruins played the Rangers in 1959. The next international game wouldn't happen until 1976 when it circled around the globe to Japan. Sweden would host the next few games, but the idea really didn't get hot until the 90s, when exhibition games between NHL teams would be played almost every year.
After a four year layoff, the trend was picked up again, this time at the O2 Arena in London with cross-town rivals the Kings and Ducks facing off in 2007, and for the first time counting in the standings as a regular season matchup. The next year followed up with tilts between the New York Rangers and the Tampa Bay Lightning in Prague, Czech Republic, while the Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators played in Stockholm, Sweden. However, before the Rangers were to face the Bolts, they played European Club Champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk from the KHL for the Victoria Cup. This year we started off with games pitting the Chicago Blackhawks against the Florida Panthers in Helsinki, Finland, and the Detroit Red Wings against the St. Louis Blues in Stockholm, Sweden. The League hit us with tacky slogans like 'When Helsinki Freezes Over,' and 'How Swede It Is' in order to (make us gag) promote the Premiere Games.
Why all the background on these seemingly meaningless games?
Because today, the Swedish club team, Stockholm AIK signed a letter of intent to join the Kontinental Hockey League starting in the 2010-2011 season. Dirk Hoag, at On the Forecheck was the first to break the news (at least on my radar), so he gets the credit. This is a major step in terms of swagger and the amount of respect that we should throw in the KHL's direction.
Granted the KHL is already an international league with the majority of teams hailing from Russia, but also individual teams coming from Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Latvia. I know what you're saying, 'does that really count since those countries are all former Soviet Republics of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics?' Or maybe you're not saying that, maybe I'm giving you too much credit. In any case, the USSR broke up in 1991, so you're either kidding yourself, or you feel really old and/or dumb. Those are legitimate self-governing countries and even if they weren't, adding a team from Sweden certainly makes it international, and a League that's now ventured into Western Europe. So what was I saying? Fuck, you little 'ignants' made me lose my point.
My point is that the KHL has inched that much closer to being a legitimate hockey league and on an even broader scale by becoming more international. The NHL can no longer hide behind the guise that it maintains the top pro hockey players in the world as we see disgruntled foreign born player after player leave for a very lucrative, and viable league.
People love international play, there's no disputing that, its very easy to get behind your very countrymen and boast about your nationalism. Easy because everyone gets represented, at least everyone who gives a damn. The lines of America and Canada are blurred by the similarities of our cultures, so to call the NHL an international league is a bit of a stretch. But there's leagues set up in every corner of the hockey-loving world. Its only a matter of time before the Champions Hockey League gets off the ground with their stable of national leagues from 22 different countries. Again, they all aspire to be like the NHL but the more cooperative it gets, the bigger it gets, and the more competition it creates between the two.
Bottom line, there's two ways to approach the KHL. Embrace it as an up-and-coming competitor and establish some type of an agreement with regards to player transfer and possible tournament play between one another. Or attack it by acting indifferent towards it as if it doesn't exist, and continually questioning its worth, existence and ability to compete with our League, essentially the status quo.
Its like the Cold War (bad pun intended) all over again, when we as children pit the United States (or Canada) against those commie bastards in whatever type of imaginary battle we were fighting.