Caps Still Hope Europe is in Their FuturePosted on January 14, 2013 by Mike Vogel
For the last few months, talk has been circulating that the Washington Capitals would be one of the teams chosen to participate in the NHL’s Premiere Games, a series of season-opening contests held in various European cities. On Monday, the NHL unveiled its Premiere Series slate for the opening of the 2011-12 season. Four games will be played in three cities: Berlin, Helsinki and Stockholm. That schedule does not include the Capitals. Despite the best of intentions and a fervent desire to participate in the 2011 Premiere Series, the Caps won’t be opening the 2011-12 season in Europe. The first Premiere games were played in London at the start of the 2007-08 season and featured Anaheim and Los Angeles. Since that beginning to the franchise, the Premiere series has expanded to include multiple cities and multiple pairs of teams. For the last several months, the Caps were in the mix to participate in NHL Premiere 2011, a series the league hoped would involve six NHL clubs playing six games in six cities. Premiere games have been held in England, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. Given its rich hockey history and heritage, Russia seemed to be a natural choice for future Premiere games. Given their marquee Russian players, the Caps seemed to be a natural choice as the team to represent the NHL in Russia in the Premiere series. Washington’s roster features three marquee Russian players: Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Semyon Varlamov. But when it was all said and done, the NHL and the Russians were unable to reach an agreement. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun penned a piece that detailed the reservations of both sides. Russia claims that the NHL wants too much money, but the main reason for the NHL’s hesitance is probably Russia’s reported insistence that there be exhibition games between the KHL clubs and NHL clubs. It is believed that the New York Rangers were willing to play some exhibition games against KHL clubs. The Rangers’ Madison Square Garden home is undergoing off-season renovations and may not be ready in time to host pre-season games this fall. “I don’t want to blame [the Russians],” says Caps assistant general manager Don Fishman, “because if you take a step back, how much would we want to watch the KHL playing vs. the KHL at Verizon Center? It’s a different animal. I don’t live there, so I don’t want to speak for them in terms as to what they should be interested in seeing. I like to think the Capitals vs. another NHL club would have appeal because we have so many Russian players.” In previous years, two or three European cities would host two games each. The league hoped to expand the series in 2011, aiming to involve more cities. “The NHL wanted to do six teams in six cities,” relates Fishman. “So instead of sending two teams to one city, and two teams to another city – having four teams, two cities – they wanted to have teams jump around more, which makes sense. There is a little more travel involved, but we got over that hurdle as long as you’re not making too many stops.” Historically, teams with multiple and/or marquee players from certain European countries have been sought after to open the season in those countries as part of the Premiere Series. Washington appears to be a great fit to travel to Russia and also Sweden, the native country of centers Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. “I think it’s definitely teams that are attractive to Europeans,” says Fishman. “They want to get a good mixture of teams that have Europeans on their team. I think they’d like teams to do it every four or five years and we hadn’t participated. We knew our time was coming. We were hoping that when they came to us, they would come to us with Russia. And they did. They came to us and they asked us to play in Russia and we were excited. So we started the process with the NHL.” That process is a complicated one. Teams that travel to Europe for regular season play have to forfeit one of their home games. One of the first steps in the process is for the NHL to “buy out” a team’s home game. Home games are not created equal around the league because of variances in ticket prices and seating capacities, so there is a negotiating process that takes place and a dollar amount that is agreed upon. Once the financial aspect is taken care of, the nuts and bolts of the trip are tended to. Where will the games be played, and against which opponents? Will any exhibition games be part of the trip? How many people will be traveling with the team on the charter and staying at the hotels? The league picks up the travel tab, and teams have input as to how long they’ll stay and where they’ll play. Washington was very interested in participating, but the Caps’ ideal trip was all business. “Our version of the trip was pretty aggressive,” states Fishman. “We wanted to get over there, play some games and come home. This wasn’t going to be a sightseeing trip. We wanted to leave Sunday, play on Tuesday in Sweden, play Friday in Russia, play Sunday in Russia and then come home. It was going to be a pretty aggressive trip, and then we’d rest after we came home.” At first, the NHL wanted Capitals to play an exhibition game in Germany and two games in Russia. The Caps thought Sweden would be a more appealing place for an exhibition – ideally in Backstrom’s hometown of Gavle or in nearby Stockholm – and the team suggested an exhibition contest in Sweden and two games in Russia. That concept was on the table for a while, then it was altered to include an exhibition game in Sweden, and one regular season game each in Sweden and then Russia. “The optimal trip was to play one exhibition game over there to give the guys a chance to get adjusted to being over there, and then two regular season games,” says Fishman. “We would have played one in Russia or two in Russia. “We did want to go to Russia, though. This iteration of the Capitals has a lot of Russians. We have Ovechkin, Semin, Varlamov and next year we will have Dmitry Orlov battling for our blueline. That’s four guys right there. “If we were going to go all the way over there, we wanted it to include Russia. We were excited about Russia and we wanted to include it as part of the trip. If Russia fell apart, we would just wait for another day.” Negotiations concerning the Capitals participating in the 2011 Premiere Series had been going on for months. The initial meeting with the NHL was in December, and league had likely started working on its 2011 slate before that. Talks between the league and Russia broke down in March because of Russia’s insistence that the games played there be played between NHL and KHL clubs. Although the Caps are disappointed that they’re not going to be playing in Russia this fall, they hope the door is still open for a future Premiere Series game or games there. “I think the hope is still to do it in Russia one of these years,” declares Fishman. “It doesn’t sound like it’s going to happen this year, but we’re ready to go when the NHL wants us to go. “We tried really hard to make this happen for three or four months. We went from two games in Russia to one game in Russia. If it wasn’t going to be in Russia, we didn’t want to do it. And we still want to go to Russia if the door isn’t closed.” Russian pride in the KHL is understandable, but the NHL has established the Premiere Series as what it is, a vehicle to play regular season games with its own member teams in European cities. The New York Rangers reportedly expressed interest in participating in exhibition games against KHL clubs this fall. Madison Square Garden is undergoing an off-season facelift and may not be ready for pre-season games in September. The Capitals remain positive about the process and are still interested in participating if and when the possibility of playing in Russia presents itself again. “I think the key – like in any negotiation – is to remain upbeat and remember the reasons that you want to do it and not get sour on the process,” says Fishman. “There are a lot of great reasons to go to Russia. I was excited to work on the project. I think it would be great for our team. I think it would be great for the NHL to have Ovechkin going to Russia. I think it would have been the lead story for two weeks in September. I would like to think it would be a positive story for Russia and Russian hockey, to have Ovechkin and Semin and Varlamov returning and I’d like to think it would be a positive story next year. “I don’t see a reason why this can’t happen a year or two from now. We got this close this time around. I hope the NHL isn’t dissuaded; I don’t think it has soured us on it. I think if the NHL asks us again, [majority owner] Ted [Leonsis], [team president] Dick [Patrick] and [general manager] George [McPhee] will be ready to move down that path again.” European games – whether exhibition or regular season – can be arranged only by the NHL and not by its member teams. According to the collective bargaining agreement, the NHL has sole jurisdiction over games played outside North America. The Caps could arrange their own exhibition games in places like Baltimore, Moose Jaw, Mexico City or Paris, Texas, but not in Paris, France. “Ovechkin is under contract for 11 more years and Backstrom for nine,” Fishman reminds us. “I’d like to think we could do it again. I think the NHL was pretty disappointed that it didn’t work out, too.”
Last year, I wrote up a series of random bullet point items pertaining to the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Most of the nuggets pertained to the Capitals or their first-round opponent, but there were a few others sprinkled in as well. A few people asked if I’d do a repeat this spring, so here goes.