QUEBEC CITY – NHLers Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov, and Ilya Kovalchuk were battling for Russia, while Andrei Kostitsyn, his brother Sergei, Ruslan Salei and Mikhail Grabovsky were defending the Belarus colors. Russia outshot Belarus 56-23, but had to settle for getting an extra point in a penalty shootout.
The NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was one of the spectators on the edge of their seats, enjoying a good hockey game at Colisée Pepsi, the former home of the Quebec Nordiques, long ago relocated in Colorado.
The number of non-North American players in the NHL has grown steadily since the 1980s, and the league is now just as international as, well, the World Championships. Each of the 16 teams in the tournament have been represented in the NHL – even if, for example, Denmark was missing its first NHL player, Frans Nielsen, in the tournament.
The international development of hockey pleases the commissioner as well.
“It’s great that hockey continues to grow around the world, and it’s important for the National Hockey League to be involved with that,” he told IIHF.com after the game.
“That’s why the NHL cooperates with international bodies like the International Ice Hockey Federation, and that’s why our players go to the Olympics,” he added.
In recent years, one of the nagging issues in the relationship between the NHL and the IIHF has been the transfer agreement that regulates the transfers between Europe and the NHL, and how the European teams are compensated for the players. The Russian federation opted not to sign the new agreement a year ago, and recently the Czech Republic did the same, leaving the playing field wide open.
“The status of the transfer agreement is that there is none,” Mr. Bettman said. “It’s up in the air.”
But the NHL and Europe are getting close. In the autumn, four NHL teams will open their NHL regular season in Europe. The Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins will open there regular season in Stockholm, Sweden, while the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning play their first two games of the season in Prague in the Czech Republic, in October.
Whatever plans the NHL has for Europe, Mr. Bettman keeps his cards close to the vest.
“Yes, we have plans, and they’ll be unveiled as we go,” he said, smiling.
For the Rangers, the trip to Europe will be a busy one as they will also play in the first Victoria Cup, an annual challenge between an NHL team and the European club champion. The New York team is the NHL representative in the inaugural battle for the Victoria Cup, meeting Russia's Magnitogorsk Metallurg in Berne, Switzerland, in October.
“The Victoria Cup is a part of our plan, and yet another way of increasing our international contacts, besides having more regular season games played in Europe,” Mr. Bettman said.
While the commissioner of the NHL understandably may be hard pressed to give away his favourite NHL team, watching an international tournament is different. Does Mr. Bettman have a favourite team in the tournament, and if so, which team might that be?
He smiles again, then says: “Let’s just say that I come to the international games to enjoy the aesthetics of the game.”