For the fifth straight year, the National Hockey League took its game to Europe to showcase some of their best hockey talent in the world to unfamiliar territory.
The league has several teams that will play meaningful games overseas, which started on Friday with the Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres facing off in Helsinki, Finland, and the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings playing in Stockholm, Sweden. The Sabres and Kings will played the following day in Berlin, while the Rangers will take on the Ducks in Stockholm.
Hockey is the number one sport in Finland, and the NHL couldn’t have done a better job with some of the best Finnish players of all time returning to play in front of their home country. The most notable Finnish player on the Sabres’ roster is newly acquired forward Ville Leino, but their most prominent Finnish figure is Assistant Coach Teppo Numminen, who at one time held the record for most games played by a European player with 1,372 games.
The Ducks have three Finnish players on their roster in Toni Lydman, Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne. The name who stands out the most from that list is Selanne, who at 41-years old is still one of the top scorers in the league and a legend of “Michael Jordan status” in his home country. To make Selanne’s homecoming even more special, the “Finnish Flash” got an opportunity to play against his former team Jokerit, which is one of the premier teams in SM Liiga, the professional hockey league in Finland. The Ducks prevailed in the exhibition, when Ryan Getzlaf netted the overtime goal to give the Ducks a 4-3 win.
The Kings and Rangers will play their first NHL regular season game in Stockholm. It’s no surprise that Sweden is a hockey-first country, as the NHL has had a long list of potential hall of fame players come from Sweden including: Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Niklas Lidstrom and the Sedin twins. Sweden also won the Gold Medal in the 2006 Winter Olympics, which is the highest goal to accomplish in professional hockey world-wide. Rangers’ netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who backstopped Sweden to the Gold Medal in 2006, will get the opportunity to play on his home ice on two nights against the Kings and the Ducks.
On the next day, the Kings will meet the Sabres in Berlin, which is the first time a NHL regular season game will be played in Germany. The Kings played in Germany in an exhibition game earlier in the week against the Hamburg Freezers, where they won by a score of 5-4.
Buffalo also played in an exhibition game in Germany, where they defeated Adler Mannheim 8-3. The game was extra special for Sabres forward Jochen Hecht, as he returned to face his former club in his hometown. Although Hecht wasn’t able to suit up due to injury, Coach Lindy Ruff allowed him to participate in the pre-skate, where he was welcomed with plenty of applause from his home crowd.
The Sabres have another German native on their roster in Christian Ehrhoff, who the team acquired this past off-season. When the defenseman met with the media prior to the exhibition, he said he didn’t even know the team was going to play in his home country until after he signed with the club, which was a nice bonus after he signed on with the team for 10 years. He also said that soccer is still the number one sport in Germany, while ice hockey, handball, rugby and cycling compete to be the runner-up. One can imagine that ice hockey took a big step forward as the number two sport with the NHL’s first trip to Germany.
The NHL’s goal is to nationalize the sport, and they are doing it the right way. Since hockey is already huge in the Scandinavian countries, it makes sense for them to branch out to the other countries slowly and effectively. It is a very cool experience for the European players, who can demonstrate their skills to their home country with the best in the world.
Overall, I think it is a step in the right direction for the NHL, and I think that building their relationship with other European leagues can only improve the sport on a national level. Now all that the league needs to do is work out an agreement with the Kontinental Hockey League out of Russia. Since it is the biggest league overseas, wouldn’t it be a blast to see the champions from each league battle for the “World Championship” prior to the start of the season? Heck, I think that would be more fun than the All-Star game, what about if we replaced the break with that game? Perhaps I’m thinking a little ahead, but bringing the NHL to Europe creates limitless opportunity.
Michael Jafari is a producer and contributor for WGR Sports Radio 550 in Buffalo, NY. He also served as the Web Content Coordinator Graduate Assistant for the Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo Bandits and the IIHF World Junior Championship. You can follow him on twitter: @mikejafari.
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