Last week, Craig Custance at ESPN published an article about the NHL’s plans to expand its global brand. Most of the article discussed further expanding outdoor games, the resurrection of the World Cup of Hockey, and the finalization of an agreement that would send NHL players to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Olympics. There was one more idea condensed to one little blurb in the text:
He’s also intrigued by the idea of a Champions League, featuring games between the NHL’s and Europe’s best teams.”We love the idea of the power of the team competition,” he said. “Maybe we bring NHL teams over to play the best teams in Europe. How do we stage stage that? That’s definitely something we’re looking at.”
For those unfamiliar with European professional football, the concept is pretty simple: there are various high quality professional football leagues throughout Europe, let’s play a tournament to crown a champion of them all.
The format is quite complicated for qualification, but one you get past that, its quite elegant. There are 8 groups of 4 teams. No teams from the same league can be in a group together and no league can send more than 4 teams to participate. Seeding determines the composition of the group. During this group stage, each of the 4 teams play home and home round robins against one another. After the 6 game group stage, the top two teams in each group advance to the tournament proper.
For the round of 16, the rule keeping teams from the same league from drawing each other is kept in tact. However, once the quarter finals are drawn, the matchups are unregulated. Each matchup is an aggregate score across two games, one at each team’s home stadium. Think of it as one really long game. This is the format until the Final, which is one single game. The winner is the Champion of Europe. Got it?
Applying this concept to the NHL is 1.) awesome, and 2.) extremely tricky. There are several major differences between hockey and soccer league formats. Let’s use the English (Barclay’s) Premier League as a point of reference, because it is the closest comparable to the NHL.
In the Premier League, the group stage matches (and other tournament games) are interspersed throughout the regular season. But since there are no playoffs in the Premier League (the team at the top of the table is crowned champion when the second place team is mathematically eliminated), it lends itself much better to working in tournament games.
The NHL, as we know, is comprised of an 82 game regular season and a possible 28 game postseason. After the grind that is the NHL playoffs, do these guys really want to spend the first month of their offseason traveling through Europe playing for the “World Champion” moniker?
This is really the first major hurdle the league would have to address.
Then we move on to participation. There are dozens of professional football leagues throughout Europe, with varying degrees of quality. There are far less high quality hockey leagues. The big boys, NHL, KHL, SEL, and SM-Liiga would have representation. Then we get into the Czech and Slovakian leagues, the German and Swiss leagues and various other central European formats. Do we let the Calder Cup winner from the AHL play? Are major junior teams allowed to qualify?
I think preliminarily, the 4 top leagues would make the most sense. It keeps the quality level extremely high, while keeping the number of teams, and by extension, the number of games, down.
Once it’s determined who will be playing, whose rules do we use? In football, the tournament is governed by the Union of European Football Associations, or UEFA. Would the IIHF govern? Would an independent regulatory body be created? Would the determination to play on North American or Olympic sized rinks be determined by location of the home team?
The final major hurdle in this exercise would be travel. Just for example, if the LA Kings were matched up against Metallurg Novokuznetsk in the quarterfinals, the home and home would require over 12,000 miles of travel per team, assuming they left one location and headed to the next. Not exactly ideal.
So, how could this feasibly work? Well, one option would be for the NHL to completely forgo the group stage used in football, and only allow the winner of each of the four major leagues qualification. It would act as almost a weird “frozen four” style mini-tournament. It could be played over the course of two weeks at the end of the NHL playoffs. The tournament could choose to forego the aggregate leg system of football and employ a more familiar “best-of-3 concept” and use a neutral site chosen each year, as they do in the World Championships, World Junior Championships, and the Olympics.
The long haul of the playoffs throws a major wrench in a simple model adaptation of European football, and it remains to be seen if the Stanley Cup Champion would be enthusiastic about playing potentially 6 more games against the top European clubs. I do think, however, that the concept is one that could work for hockey, it would just take some significant tinkering to make it work within our system, specifically. But the idea of a world champion club for hockey is incredibly cool, would presumable drive massive amounts of revenue, and enhance the sport’s global brand. All while bringing the second tier pro leagues into the consciousness of North American hockey fans. I think that definitely deserves some consideration.
The future of this concept is obviously up in the air right now, but given the NHL’s desire to increase awareness of the sport and cultivate a global fan base, at least exploring this idea makes a ton of sense. This is one story I will definitely be following closely.
What do you guys think? Any better format suggestions? Ways around some of the difficulties? We would love to hear your feedback.