Hockey Champions League Not Worthwhile for NHL

There have been renewed rumblings about a hockey Champions League tournament in the vein of UEFA’s soccer Champions League. The idea is not new, having been discussed many times in the past, including as part of a marketing partnership back in 2008. While on the face of it the concept seems interesting and would provide a definitive answer as to who is the best club team in the world, it is also fraught with danger for the world’s premier club competition, the National Hockey League.

NHL’s European Plans Not A Secret

The NHL has been unabashed in its desire to break into the lucrative European market and hockey is undoubtedly in an arms race with the NFL and NBA to make ‘the pond’ into more of a puddle by expanding there full-time. It is business (specifically the goal of an additional $1b in revenue in the next 3 years) not hockey that is driving that desire.  Already with the world’s superior hockey product, Gary Bettman and co. are intent on continued expansion through additional big events such as a World Cup, media and sponsorship.

Any Champions League competition is met with immediate intrigue because it helps address our seemingly never-ending thirst for answers on who is the best in the world. Particularly in today’s day and age we are obsessed with what have become throw away terms like ‘best ever’ or ‘World Champions’. It’s not good enough for us to just have Miss World, we need to have Miss Universe. We have constant access to lists of best dressed, highest earners and (insert anything here). We rank NFL quarterbacks not amongst their peers, but how they compare against the greatest of all time. In hockey’s off-season, bored journalists continue the tiresome debate whether Gretzky or Lemieux was the best to have ever played. The hope for a Champions League is that it would provide finality.

Soccer’s Champions League Makes Sense

Many see the success of the UEFA Champions League as a reason for attempting the tournament. Those pundits are short-sited on soccer’s Champions League and selectively forget that Europe’s club championship has a history of greed and elitism (surprising for soccer, I know) that is unrivalled. The reason the UEFA Champions League exists in its current format is Europe’s biggest clubs held the governing body to ransom, threatening to break away and create their own club competition if there wasn’t more meaningful European games. At that point, the European Cup (as it was previously known) was simply a knock-out tournament available to the league champion of each country. Twenty years later, there are discussions to expand it to a sixty-four team group tournament.

The gulf between hockey and soccer as professional sports is undeniable. Soccer has distribution of wealth, power and talent across Europe, and the Champions League is seen as the pinnacle of all competitions. The interest among the players is driven by the opportunity for those who ply their trade outside of Spain to play against Messi and Ronaldo; those outside of England to play against Rooney and Aguero. Hockey on the other hand has power and talent isolated in North America, with Russia providing the only real alternative in terms of wealth. The Stanley Cup remains the hockey world’s most desirable trophy, it is only accessible by playing in the NHL and players need to be undeniably elite to crack the big league.

Patrik Kane
Marty McSorley questions how much Toews and Kane would play in a Champions League (Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports)

As a player, if you’ve just toiled through 82 regular season games and up to 28 post-season games, what is your motivation to butter up again against what will be guaranteed to be inferior opposition? Hockey Central analyst Marty McSorley adds  “Let’s say you have Chicago playing the best team from Russia. Joel Quenneville will play (Jonathan) Toews two shifts and (Patrick) Kane two shifts and then play his third goaltender. As a player, you’re looking it as a glorified scrimmage”. That game, using last year’s results pit Chicago against Dynamo Moscow, which unless it is the Final, would make the whole tournament a disappointment.

Player Engagement Not Guaranteed

There are peripheral issues also standing in the way of such a tournament including player insurance, player overload, tournament dates, and ice size. The NHLPA will have plenty to say about all of these subjects, not to mention the compensation. All of these are dwarfed by the issue that can’t be negotiated in Bill Daly’s office on a Tuesday afternoon; player engagement. While player participation can be bought, player engagement cannot. Truthfully, NHL players already play against the best of the best and with the recent division re-alignment every club sees both Crosby and Ovechkin twice a year. There is little to no advantage to playing a Champions League tournament for the NHL players, other than financial gain, which should increase as part of their current collective bargaining agreement.

To make matters worse, any Stanley Cup winning team hell-bent on building a dynasty is going to ‘rest’ any player that has the first sign of a sniffle, having the potential to turn the tournament into something to rival the NFL Pro Bowl for most ridiculous professional sporting contest. Unlike soccer which has no salary cap, the financial gain available to NHL clubs cannot be rolled into financing new player acquisitions, meaning nothing more than an dusty old North America vs. Russia rivalry for the clubs to battle for. For the Swedish, Finnish, Russian, German, Czech and Swiss teams on the other hand, the chance to play and potentially beat an NHL opponent is a worthy outing.

I’ve written previously about part of hockey’s strength being in seeing diverse match-ups and new line combinations. A Champions League would create that environment and despite my thoughts on it being a bad idea for the NHL, if it does come to fruition I would watch. The European market is undoubtedly a gold mine for the NHL in terms of attracting new sponsorship and a fan-base that could result in a lucrative new TV deal. A Champions League would add ‘meaningful’ games for fans that could be a precursor to an expansion team. Regardless, a Champions League tournament is a lose-lose situation for the NHL, which is already the pinnacle of club competitions and it can never provide the level of advanced competition above and beyond what they already have.