For Josi, the Predators captain, playing an NHL game in Switzerland, even if an exhibition, would be a career highlight and a way to give back to his home country. Josi had seen the success of the New Jersey Devils preseason game in Switzerland featuring Nico Hischier and wanted a similar experience.
While it was a personal thing for Josi, it was a savvy business meeting for the Predators, who are attempting and hoping to become recognized as a global brand.
This isn’t new.
Pro sports franchises have evolved past wins and losses, and while on the ice or field of play championships are viewed as the ultimate goal, becoming a global brand is frankly more important to the long-term health and growth of a franchise.
It’s why NHL teams line up and aggressively pursue opportunities to play internationally, like the Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets, San Jose Sharks and Predators will next season. The Avalanche and Blue Jackets will play in Tampere, Finland, while the Sharks and Predators will play a pair of regular-season games in Prague, Czechia after holding preseason games in Germany and Switzerland, respectively.
“As much as the benefit is talked about for players and teams on the ice, there is an equally or even more important impact of getting selected for these games for the business,” said Jonathan Becher, the president of Sharks Sports & Entertainment. “And I mean that in a good way.”
While Sharks players will be using a preseason tour of Germany and Czechia as a team-building activity and a chance to open the season with a pair of wins in Prague, Becher and his staff will be boosting the Sharks’ business efforts in Europe.
Some of the Sharks’ largest and closest corporate partners, a group called the Teal Inner Circle, will be making the trip to Europe. The Sharks are also an extension of owner Hasso Plattner’s larger technology business — he’s the chairman of SAP — and a hockey game turns into an entry point into Silicon Valley.
“A lot of companies are not based here and would love to have relationships with firms and some of the most iconic technology companies headquarter within a few miles of our building,” Becher said. “So this is an opportunity for us to reconnect or detect for the first time with international brands that know about the valley and embrace technology, but don’t have those relationships. So you should expect us to be the matchmaker if you will.”
It’s also a match with the Sharks’ large swath of international fans, many of whom are members of the 1991 Club, which the Sharks set up for fans outside of their immediate geographic area.
San Jose last played in Europe in 2010, in Stockholm, and has been pushing to get back into an international event since, according to Becher. The same has been the case for the Sharks’ opponent in Prague, the Predators, who played in Japan back in 2000 and have recently been well-represented in league marquee events as a visitor in the 2020 Winter Classic and a host to the Stadium Series earlier this season.
“It’s been really important for us to stay center stage and involved in these tentpole events,” said Sean Henry, the Predators CEO. “We’ve done that recently and I’ve always believed you want to be invited to the party, and then do your best to make it the best possible party.”
Josi’s pitch certainly helped land that invitation. He was happy with the concept of playing in Prague if it meant there was an opportunity to hold a short training camp in Switzerland and play an exhibition game against SC Bern before going to Czechia to open the season.
“We listened to the Predators, we also listened to Roman,” said David Proper, the NHL’s senior executive vice president of media and international strategy. “He was passionate about playing the game and doing something in Switzerland — when a marquee player is pushing for that, you find a way to listen and make it work if you can.”
While this slate of teams was announced on Wednesday, the matchups for which teams would go to Prague and Tampere have been in the works since 2018 and have been finalized for months. And scheduling regular-season games in Europe is a return to pre-pandemic normalcy for the NHL. The league regularly scheduled games in Europe to start the season between 2007 and 2011, and then re-introduced the annual concept in 2017 with the NHL Global Series.
Finland and Czechia have been regular locales. Helsinki hosted the Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers in 2018, while the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers played in Prague to open the 2019-20 season.
Those games, like these games coming in 2022, are more about growing NHL and team brands than growing the sport as a whole. While the NHL does the majority of its business in North America, television rights and sponsorship dollars are considerable for the league in Finland, Sweden and Czechia. Russia was part of that equation, and there were plans for an international series there before the league paused all financial ties with Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.
NHL teams in general have a keen interest in being selected for international games — no one has told the league they wouldn’t accept an invite — but there are countries and locales that certain teams envy more than others. Multiple teams also told the NHL that the 2022-23 season was too early for them to consider a trip to Europe after the pandemic and that they wanted to delay any applications.
Getting a game in Finland has been a priority for Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekäläinen, who is the only European GM in the NHL and has campaigned for a selection in the NHL Global Series since 2017. Having a marquee name to sell in the international market can help push a team’s application to the top, and Patrik Laine being from Tampere is a natural sell for the league.
“I haven’t been shy about being able to participate in this kind of trip and, in particular, Finland,” Kekäläinen said. “So it’s been a work in progress for a few years. And finally, finally, we’ll get this opportunity and hopefully, COVID will not get in the way of this one as in the last two years.”
Colorado has played more recently in Europe — in Sweden in 2017 — and is usually high on the NHL’s list of teams for international competition because of a larger European fan base that was cultivated and has grown since the heyday of Peter Forsberg and a pair of Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001. Mikko Rantanen is from Turku, about a two-hour drive from Tampere, and would naturally be marketing similarly to Laine in Finland for the game.
While the NHL Global Series is Europe-based now, the league is working on and considering expanding it to other continents.
The league is actively looking at potential games in Mexico and Australia, according to Proper, while Becher also indicated the Sharks have made it known to the NHL that they would be interested in an international game in South America.
Games in Mexico appear to be more of a “when” rather than “if” situation, with a grouping of the Dallas Stars, Arizona Coyotes, Sharks and Los Angeles Kings all in the early running for an appearance. The games in Australia, according to Proper, could pose challenges in terms of travel and making it work with the schedule, but he also said the NHL is pretty confident it wouldn’t have any issue filling a building with Australian hockey fans.
(Photo of Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov at the 2019 NHL Global Series in Stockholm, Sweden: Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images)