NHL International Expansion - Can the NHL Ever Truly Create a Worldwide Brand?

(Image courtesy of sportingnews.com)

Manchester United. Los Angeles Lakers. New York Yankees. When you think about those three teams in the same context, it’s really not hard to see what makes them so similar. All three teams have had incredible success in their domestic leagues – including winning countless championships respectively. The real similarity that sets these teams apart, however, is the fact that they’ve all transformed their respective clubs into brands so big, that their gear can be found in stores all across the globe. In relation to all of that, that’s what I’m really here to talk about.

Now that the NHL preseason has started, a bunch of young kids and older players on professional tryout contracts (or PTOs) will be looking to fight for a roster spot come opening night in another 14 days.

That constant will always remain the same.

The difference this time around is that some games will be played in Germany, Sweden, and of course, China. There have been many controversial opinions on NHL players going overseas to play hockey, since the game has always been played almost exclusively in North America (I’m talking NHL, not hockey in general, so hold your horses all you Finns, Swedes, and Russians), however, with so many other sports growing so big, many believe it’s time to start growing the game of hockey as well.

Alluding to my earlier point, teams in other sports (like the Yankees and United) have grown brands so large, that people of all races and cultures have now begun playing and growing up with basketball, soccer, baseball, etc. as a main part of their lives. This begs the question: Why then, is there no hockey team like that across the world? Can we ever expect to transform hockey into some kind of worldwide brand the way other sports already have? To even begin to answer that question, we have to break things down into two parts: a) Hockey is expensive, and b) It is so much more difficult to play at a beginner level than the other four major sports.

Hockey is one of those games that costs a bucket load of money to play. You need a sheet of ice with two goals on either side of it and large plexiglass walls covering the perimeter. Besides those basic arena necessities, you also need skates – and you need to know how to use them. Then, even if you’ve got all of that stuff available to you, you still need protective equipment to make sure you don’t break yourself when 6’2, 240 lbs, Sven crashes into you at 20km/h because he can’t stop. Once you’ve figured out all your equipment AND your arena situation, you now need to buy a big ‘ole wooden pole to smack a little rubber disc around to try and get it into your opponent’s goal. Now, don’t get me wrong, in my opinion hockey is the greatest sport to ever grace this planet, but I TOTALLY understand how most cultures (especially ones that don’t grow up in cold, icy areas) would prefer to choose an alternative.

Beyond all of that, if you somehow manage to secure everything you need in order to play and you’re still willing to go through with learning the game of hockey overseas, you’ll have to learn how to skate. Even just learning how to play takes much longer than learning to play any of the other four major sports. You’re playing on a cold (literally), unforgiving surface when it comes to hockey; I’m talking about ice of course. Learning to skate alone takes loads of time and commitment, so you’re already at a disadvantage before you even pick up a stick (looking at you Jalen Ramsey). Once you’ve mastered the basics of skating, you’ve got to develop the ability to shoot the puck using a held object rather than a body part (like in other sports with your arms, feet, or hands) to propel your object. Talk about a steep learning curve – speaking of curves, you should ask Marty McSorley how he felt about them back in ’93. I’m sure he’s not over it yet.

At any rate, I could go on and on (and I’m sure some readers think I already have) about why hockey is so different when compared with the other major sports, which brings us back to our original question: Why then, is there no hockey team like that across the world? Can we ever expect to transform hockey into some kind of worldwide brand the way other sports already have?

My final answer is this: There is no hockey team like that because the game simply isn’t big enough around the globe yet. I don’t know if it ever will be given all the conditions that must be filled in order to play the game, but I really do hope that one day, we’ll see hockey grow to be even half as big as soccer has gotten.

Going back to that, I do believe that one day a team like the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, or Toronto Maple Leafs could eventually become a worldwide brand… I just think it’s more likely that my Leafs will win a cup before something like that ever happens.