With the NHL players lockout already costing the league one season and potentially threatening another, some pundits and fans are speculating about the possibility of a European "super league" forming to challenge the NHL's monopoly on the world's top professional players.
This notion was first floated last fall by Toronto Sun columnist Al Strachan and further analyzed in this column. Since the NHL announced the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, Strachan again wrote about the potential rise of a rival European league. Other media outlets, including Reuters and the Vancouver Province, have also commented on the subject.
There is some speculation that a group of wealthy European businessmen could either take advantage of the void left by the NHL's absence or await the outcome of its next collective bargaining agreement to start up this league.
If the next NHL CBA should bring about a strict cap on player salaries, particularly on entry-level players, it's believed a rival European league could get into bidding wars with NHL clubs shackled by that hard salary cap for free-agent talent.
Money availability, easier travel schedules, number of venues, strong fan support and competing broadcasting bids are cited as factors that could make such a league viable.
Hockey has a long-standing history with solid fan support in many of the northern and central European cities. If there were enough money available to tempt some of the NHL's better players, particularly the European ones, it could further bolster fan support for such a rival league.
There are, however, those who closely follow the European hockey scene voicing skepticism.
Danny Pugsley, a contributing writer for Spector's Hockey, acknowledged last fall it may be possible for the establishment and potential success of such a league, but cautions it may be more complicated than North American pundits believe.
"While the possibilities are certainly in place for any league to be created, I believe it will be extremely difficult for any league to become successful quickly enough to have any impact on the NHL," he wrote.
He pointed out that any league set up during the lockout would do so "with the specter of the NHL resuming operations at any time."
Pugsley also noted the NHL remains the market where most of the top caliber European players wish to ply their craft, thus there would have to be "a change in hockey culture" in order for a rival European league to have long-term success against the National Hockey League.
He also wondered just how enticing North American players would find playing in such a league, even if the money could be comparable to that in the NHL.
"Ultimately, my own belief is that any chance of success a European league to rival the NHL has is dependent on the NHL tearing itself apart," wrote Pugsley. "Any league which sets itself up as a rival to a strong, established, existing league generally ends up failing (as in the case of the WHA, and in football the USFL and XFL in more recent times) as an existing league is simply too strong to be overtaken."
Jes Golbez Ursulak, who maintains a hockey blog devoted to coverage of both the NHL and the European hockey scene, shares Pugsley's doubts.
"I see the European Elite League (EEL) as a real pipe dream...especially if it was to directly compete with the NHL," he said.
Ursulak cites ticket prices and travel as two factors that could work against such a league.
He observes that European teams earn the bulk of their revenues through advertising and sponsorship, unlike the NHL that relies primarily on the gate and luxury boxes.
"The fans in Europe are not accustomed to paying high prices for hockey tickets," said Ursulak, "and I don't know if they would be willing to."
For example, the average ticket price in the Czech League costs between $3 and $6 Canadian. Ursulak points out that only Slavia Praha, with a new arena carrying a big lease, charges higher prices, "about 9-26$ CDN per game."
Regarding team transportation, costs are considerably cheaper in Europe than in North America as most clubs travel by train. Their games are against league rivals within their own country, which contributes to low travel costs.
However, Ursulak suggests that in a European elite league travel would be between different countries, requiring air transportation in many cases, which would substantially increase travel costs.
In that case, those costs would likely be reflected in the ticket prices.
Ursulak also believes that it would be very difficult for prospective outside owners to put a team into a city where there are already long-standing franchises.
"Imagine an outsider trying to start a team in Prague with Slavia and Sparta already established. It wouldn't work," he said. "These teams have been there many years (50-75 or so)."
For such a league to exist, it would have to incorporate the most popular existing franchises in the major European cities.
Ultimately, the notion of a European Elite League may be nothing more than wishful thinking. That being said, it is possible that the European hockey market in its present form could still pose a challenge, albeit on a lesser scale, to the NHL, in terms of competitive bids for free agents.
That, of course, will depend on the outcome of the next collective bargaining agreement.
At home in Prince Edward Island, Canada, he's known as Lyle Richardson. But around these parts, he's known as Spector, FOXSports.com's Prince of Pucks. Check in with Spector for the latest NHL rumors from around the league and buy his book.