Thanks to the money involved and the way in which young players are brought into the league, North America’s NHL has stood as the most elite-level of ice hockey in the world for a long time now.
This isn’t to say that the many domestic leagues in Europe, as well as the continental competitions, aren’t also incredibly entertaining and rife with talent, it’s just that the NHL has been able to snag the majority of the top ice hockey prospects from the two continents for decades, thanks to the money on offer, the draft system, and the prestige built by the league.
So, would bringing the NHL into a transatlantic ice hockey league with teams from Great Britain’s top division, the EIHL, help to improve teams on this side of the Atlantic, and would the league work?
This would need to be implemented as another tournament during the season, something that the USA major league sports are not accustomed. While many of the big sports in Europe compete in a domestic league, a domestic cup, and then possibly in a continental competition, the top divisions in the USA only tend to compete in their domestic league.
Looking at the NHL schedule, even though bye weeks have recently been implemented, it would be very difficult to find time for teams to travel across continents to compete in a transatlantic competition, or even at home for that matter. With 82 games crammed into seven months, and then a further three months of playoffs, the NHL would either need to reduce the number of regular season games, or the transatlantic league would need to take place during the summer when fewer teams are competing – meaning that the very best would not be in attendance.
Even if all of the logistics could be ironed out, it would take quite some time before the added revenue built up to enable the EIHL clubs to compete at the standard of the NHL teams. Just to take a look at this season, the NHL is as competitive as ever with so many top teams standing as legitimate contenders to win the Stanley Cup. The Tampa Bay Lightning stand as the favourites at 7/1 when betting online to go all the way, but Toronto at 10/1, St. Louis at 11/1, and the reigning champions Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Columbus all at 14/1, and yet the worst standing team in the league at 9999/1 odds to win the cup, Arizona, have a team that would find a lot of success against current EIHL clubs – they even have the only British-born player in the NHL on their team, Brendan Perlini.
It’s this competition in the league and depth of talent on each of the 31 NHL teams that keep the clubs performing at the highest level. Unfortunately, right now, the EIHL teams simply can’t compare. They may boast many ex-NHLers and some of the best players in Europe, but the British league is seen more as a stepping stone to bigger things elsewhere in Europe, though the league is ever-improving while playing a similar style to the North American game.
The EIHL is on the rise, however, with the 2016/17 season seeing a 12% growth in attendance on the season prior, with more than 940,000 coming to watch the EIHL to host the seventh-highest average league attendance in Europe and Asia. This increase in popularity can only be good for the top division of ice hockey in Great Britain, and a theoretical transatlantic would only help to bolster that popularity. The issue is the player base.
Unfortunately for ice hockey fans outside of North America, the NHL snaps up a good 90% of the best young players in the world. But, with more money and a yearly competition against NHL teams, Great Britain could well see more of the European players earmarked for the NHL play in the EIHL.
Per Quant Hockey, 593 players, or 71.7% of the NHL’s player base this season are either Canadian or from the USA, meaning that a good 28.3% of this elite league is made up of European players. If given a chance to earn high wages, play against the biggest clubs in the NHL, and also be based much closer to home, we could see some of Europe’s elite make the EIHL their home.
Naturally, this is all speculation, and despite other USA major sports leagues like the NFL and NBA, the NHL doesn’t even come to Great Britain anymore, so a transatlantic competition is very much a long shot. But in theoretical terms, after a few years of getting beaten up while stacking some serious cash, the EIHL could develop into a stronger league thanks to competing against the NHL in a legitimate competition.