Monday, September 15, 2008

Koivu Got It Right: Team Should Start in Europe

As a Habs and NHL fan you are surely aware of the up-coming 100th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens. You may have missed the other important hockey centennial celebration, however – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).

This landmark date passed us by in May. The celebrations took place just down the road at the IIHF World Championships in Quebec City and Halifax. May 15th to be precise. Or the 16th, to be less so (it was a 2-day meeting in Paris, who knows when they worked and when they drank).

More importantly, you may also have missed the IIHF’s announcement the previous May to dedicate a new Cup during the centennial season of international ice hockey honouring the roots of competitive ice hockey. The Cup will be called the Victoria Cup – named in honour of the Victoria skating rink in Montreal where the first organised hockey game was played on March 3, 1875. (This building, no longer in its original state, was located on Stanley street a stone throw from the Bell Centre. If you’re curious, it is now a car rental place and should have a plaque on or nearabout it – though I haven’t sought it out for myself).

This press release from the IIHF gives an idea of what the Victoria Cup is and what it will aspire to become:

“The one-game Victoria Cup will be played at Berne’s 16,789-capacity PostFinance-Arena, also the main venue for the 2009 IIHF World Championship. The winner will receive the Victoria Cup, a trophy to be awarded annually to the winner of game between Europe’s top team and an NHL-challenger.”

Apparently in their infinite arrogance, the NHL will refuse to commit sending the Stanley Cup Champions for this game. Now, I completely understand this decision with the leagues as they currently are. Why would the NHL mandate one of its members to go participate in a game that should be a foregone conclusion?

I can think of several reasons, off the top of my head:

1) To honour the history of hockey

2) To create excitement in Europe (something that is clearly on the league marketers’ minds these past two seasons)

3) Showing the IIHF a little bit of good will once in a while might actually help get the NHL some support in labour disputes like the one over Radulov. His was not the first, and it certainly won't be the last.

Still count your blessings M. Fasel, Bettman and the cronies have done far worse than throw the Rangers Europe's way. That any NHL team at all is competing is an accomplishment. Take for example the fact that Canada held its very first World Championships just last spring in Quebec City and Halifax a hundred years after the IIHF was formed.

And, at least the IIHF got the Rangers, there were 20 odd worse options.

But really, this Victoria Cup could have been greeted in style with either the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings or the league’s elder statesmen Canadiens – both laden with European talent. I think the Canadiens, in particular though, should have been able to rise above both the NHL and Hockey Canada in this case and give this inaugural Victoria Cup its due, especially when celebrating their own anniversary.

Evidently, they were not able to do that. Now the Rangers will likely add the Victoria Cup to their trophy cupboard to go with their 4 Stanley Cups.

Better options

Don’t tell me that the IIHF wanted the Rangers though. Sure, they’re doing some great retroactive spin-doctoring now, but the IIHF wanted higher prestige for their game than this.

“René Fasel had said he hoped to have ‘a team with some history’ represent the NHL at the Victoria Cup event, and we are extremely pleased the Rangers agreed to participate,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “We also are delighted to help the IHF celebrate its 100th Anniversary.”

“We agreed that the Rangers would be the optimal club to represent the NHL in the first Victoria Cup,” said IIHF President René Fasel on the decision to have the New York Rangers become the NHL-challenger in the inaugural Victoria Cup. “The Rangers were the first ever NHL club to play against a European team when they met CSKA Moscow in New York on December 28, 1975, they have been one of the NHL teams that have most often shown enthusiasm to go overseas and there is no doubt that many Europeans fans will have no problems identifying with the heavy international presence that the club has. But first and foremost, the New York Rangers are one of the most identifiable clubs in all of hockey and professional sports.”

Admittedly, I didn’t remember that the Rangers were the first NHL club to ever play against a European club (back in 1975). Their game, which ended in a bit of a wash for CSKA, and strangely didn’t make the top 100 memorable moments in international hockey history.

No, if you are to believe the rumours, barring a commitment for the Stanley Cup champions, the IIHF wanted the Canadiens (One story from last year here):

If International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel had his choice, the Montreal Canadiens will represent the NHL in a European exhibition series in September 2008.

The final decision will be made by the league in conjunction with the IIHF, but Fasel knows who he wants.

"As a Francophone who grew up as a Canadiens fan, it would be a dream for me to have the Canadiens," he said during an interview in French on Tuesday. "But the decision is not up to me. We will have to talk with the league."

The Canadiens are the oldest hockey team in the world and celebrate their own centennial anniversary in 2009. They would be a perfect fit for what Fasel has in mind for the inaugural exhibition series.

"We'd like to have a team that has a great history behind it like the Original Six teams do," he said.

The IIHF expects the decision about which NHL team will play in the event to be made by December. The European team that competes in 2008 will be the winner of the European Champions Cup tournament next January in St. Petersburg, Russia.

And even with the Rangers in the bag, he can’t stop dreaming of having the Habs in Bern:

"Ever since the historic game between the Montreal Canadiens and CSKA Moscow on New Year's Eve 1975, hockey fans around the world have been longing for games between NHL clubs and European teams.”

The IIHF president (Rene Faisel) clearly has a sense of history. Because not only are the Canadiens, the oldest and most accomplished NHL team, they also have international pedigree. After all, it is the Canadiens CSKA NYE classic, not the forgettable Rangers game, that is firmly entrenched at no. 23 on the all-time greatest moments. What’s more, the Canadiens and the IIHF are the same age.

So why no Habs?

Are we or are we not the most historic and important hockey team in the world?

This is where I get to thinking that Saku Koivu and his European compatriots, by staying in Europe, are right where they should have been to start the Canadiens "Centenary". in my opinion, someone dropped the ball on this one in the Canadiens chain of command.

It seems the Canadiens would rather have a golf tournament and a few meaningless exhibitions in a 3/4 full arena than acknowledge a new competition named in honour of their city.

I can hear the responses now: "We need to focus on winning the Cup", "We need to be ready for opening night", etc.

Nonsense. If a team can travel to LA from Montreal, it can travel to Switzerland.

And, there is no way that fatigue from early October should affect a professional athlete in May (no matter how much you want to believe Carey Price). If this competition would break them, then they were never champions to begin with.

And if I hear that the Ducks had a slow start because they played in London, I will be astounded that whoever it is buys Brian Burke's spin-doctoring at wholesale rates (we all know what Niedermayer means to them).

No, the Canadiens could handle it. Would win it.

And should have been honoured to be first in line. They should honour their elder hockey cousins after the honour was paid to the city of Montreal in the naming of the Cup. Sharing a hundredth birthday is something special (even if it is 18 months apart really). And, in a year where special things are meant to happen, the Victoria Cup is so much more special than an NHL All Star game sleeper or a draft or a bobblehead night or beer giveaways (well,maybe not that last one...)

I am willing to bet the Wanderers weren't so thrilled at defending every challenge that came their way for the Stanley Cup from Western Canada when they were tring to win their own league. But, now we look back on that and count their Stanley Cups as legendary.

The step up missed

The Canadiens could be in the same enviable position as the mega teams of world football (Real, Man U, AC) who we know by first name – well the hockey equivalents, anyway. As I see it, they currently have some marquee international draws. Finland's captain and arguably best centre ever. The most exciting young Czech forward in the NHL. A serious glut of Russian talent. Slovakia's future star goalie. The entire Belarus hockey system. Add to that, they recently were the NHL standard bearers for Switzerland and France, and you can see there might be interest for the Habs overseas.

What's more, the Canadiens are also (as far as I know) now one of the easiest teams to follow from overseas. First, you have the English and French media engines, and then, there's the wonderful online broadcasts from RDS which can be accessed anywhere (though you'd have to be keen to watch a game at 2 am in parts of Russia). Even so, extended highlights, interviews and the like are all available too, which makes the Canadiens a definite stand out among their NHL peers.

The time is ripe for a team to step beyond the Nashvilles and Atlantas of the league. Too bad it could be the Rangers...

George Gillett should know better. He owns Liverpool, one of the biggest sporting brands in the world. Teams like Liverpool (and especially Man United) frequently take their show on the road to Asia or the Middle East to not only give a shout to fans in those countries, but to stoke the fire and cash in on some revenue along the way. And Liverpool, of all teams – European champions extraordinaire, even when they can't score against Burnley.

I'll be watching the first Victoria Cup, because who knows it might just be history. After all, the KHL is becoming pretty real these days. And, NHL teams are flocking to Europe yearly.

The only dilemma is getting myself a Metallurg shirt in time for the game. Could never stomach a Rangers win...

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