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NHL expansion in Europe a long way off, Burke says

Brian Burke

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

On the day that the Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit unveiled its four-member steering committee, one of its more influential members, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, suggested that NHL expansion to Europe was a long way off and an exercise fraught with peril.

The purpose of the summit - to be held in Toronto later this summer - is to grow the game internationally. Burke believes that if the NHL was to elbow its way into the top cities in Europe, as has been speculated for years now, it would have just the opposite effect.

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Burke said the prospect of NHL expansion to Europe is not viable financially and would be ultimately undermined by travel issues.

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"Even if all those things could be mastered, the bigger question is, 'What does it do to the Swedish Elite League?' " said Burke. "If it puts them out of business, why are we even talking about it? We should be talking about making that league stronger and grow the product that way.

"These are very complex issues and no one has a full set of answers, but to me, when people say you should put a team in Europe, I want to know, if we put a team in Stockholm, what's that going to do [to club team]Djurgaardens? Are they going to be able to draw?"

Probably not.

Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who joins Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, and Canadian women's national team captain Hayley Wickenheiser on the leadership team for the summit, also thought the NHL was better off leaving Europe alone for the time being. He joked that while he might have to give up a few rounds of golf in order to participate, he was looking forward to working through the summit's rather ambitious agenda - discussions on everything from player safety and development, to an examination of the women's game, to a review of the NHL's Olympic participation.

The summit, to be held in Toronto from Aug. 23-26, is a joint venture among a who's who of the global hockey community - from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, the National Hockey League, National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) and the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).

In February, IIHF president René Fasel said a primary focus will be on safety issues that currently caught the public's attention this last season, particularly as they relate to the number of concussions at every level of the sport.

Burke also stressed the value and importance of grassroots programs.

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"I believe hockey programs have to be designed to create hockey players for life," he said. "Then, if the pyramid is big enough and enough elite athletes pick up the stick, you develop a Daniel Alfredsson out of that group. But we need programs to get kids playing and keep kids playing.

"It's like I tell the parents all the time here, they think their kids are going to play in the NHL. I say, 'Assume he's not.' Don't gear this experience for your son to make the NHL because the odds are, he's not going to. Gear it so he can play the game he loves until he can no longer physically play the game - and if he's good enough, we'll find him and he'll find us."

For her part, Wickenheiser stressed the need to grow the women's game internationally, so that major competitions, such as the Olympics and world championship, can become more than the two-horse race between Canada and the U.S. that they are now.

"My interest is in growing the female game and the pressing question about how to take the game to the next level and develop the game worldwide," said Wickenheiser. "With my experience playing and living overseas, in Sweden and Finland, and playing professional men's hockey … I'm looking forward to offering what I can to help the women's game move forward."

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More


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