BARCELONA – NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr spoke to the Hockey Forum crowd this afternoon and sounded nothing but enthusiastic about the possibility to grow the game in Europe and around the world – and he indicated NHL players have every desire to be a part of such a plan.
“The first reason I took this job,” Fehr began, “was that, because of some restructuring in the NHLPA, players asked me to help them with various projects. I did that for a year.
“I really liked the players but there was another reason. There is an enormous opportunity in this sport internationally that doesn’t exist in other sports. The NFL is primarily watched in the U.S. Basketball has made tremendous inroads abroad but is still primarily U.S. Major League Baseball is American except for some presence in Japan.
“Hockey is different. It has an audience in North America and across Europe. There is an opportunity to create cross-Atlantic events of various sorts that could create audiences on both sides. I don’t know of another sport that can do that. That’s pretty exciting to me.
“All things being equal, the players tell me that they want to play the best in the world,” Fehr said, starting to bring the NHL players into the discussion.
“Between now and September 15, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is going to be my priority. What role do the international issues play? It is likely to be an issue that will take up a meaningful amount of time. The hope is to get an agreement between the NHLPA and NHL which will then allow us to plan things in the future.”
Fehr admitted to a lack of knowledge about a European club champion set-up, but he certainly admitted a willingness to add his name to the discussion. “It’s up for the Europeans to figure out. What works in Montreal or New York doesn’t necessarily work in Stockholm or Fribourg,” he started, before adding, “In North America, it’s better if the players are part of the process.”
Fehr then elaborated on a possible master plan that moves well beyond just a club champion event and gives a nod to Horst Lichtner’s suggestion about developing a long-term calendar.
“This is just my personal opinion and isn’t based on any talks I’ve had with the players or the NHL, but I think it’s better to think about events that are bigger than just Europe,” Fehr began. “Let me give you a notion, a purely hypothetical idea. One thing I’ve talked to the players about is to do a rolling four-year schedule, following the Olympic cycle.
“Say you play the Olympics in Year One, and Year Three you have a World Cup. Maybe in the other year you do a club championship across the Atlantic, and in the other year you do a special event. This year, for instance, is the 40th anniversary of the Canada-Russia series which has no equal in those countries. It’s like the Ryder Cup in golf, which was just made up, and went on to have enormous success. You are trying to build something the fans can identify with, associate with a club or team or country.”
Fehr offered a bit of advice for the European stakeholders listening to his brave new world that is the game’s future.
“I do think in order to do anything, you, we have to develop a plan, and it has to be a long-term plan,” Fehr said.
“Hopefully, after we get our CBA done, we will be in a position to have a discussion to see what we can figure out. But one thing is, if you want to have a large event that captures a larger audience, you need to have the best of the players, and so you’re going to want to have the NHL players involved somehow.”