Sens' owner convinced of European expansion, Bettman skeptical

STOCKHOLM -- Talk of NHL expansion to Europe took on a more serious tone Sunday when the owner of the Ottawa Senators said he believed it wasn't a question of if, but rather when.

"It's happening, it's going to happen," Eugene Melnyk told a small group of reporters before Sunday's Senators-Penguins game at Globe Arena. "A question of time, a question of how we can set up a schedule, but you can see here in Sweden, fan response been absolutely ... almost as crazy as us Canadians.

"In Gothenburg, crazier than anywhere. In Sweden, it's absolutely wild. They consider it one of national sports. There are other countries where the product can be marketed. We can take a run at it.

... My vote's in for European expansion."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, at a news conference about an hour later, seemed taken aback by Melnyk's comments and distanced himself from that aggressive view.

"Mr. Melnyk was not voicing an official league position," Bettman said. "He may be right, he may be wrong. We know the importance of our game internationally. What I have repeatedly said … is that we want to develop a more permanent, more regular presence in Europe. Permanent doesn't necessarily mean franchises on the ground any time soon or ever. That might happen at some point in the future, it might not. It's not on the drawing board. …

"Mr. Melnyk may be of the view that it is inevitable as the world continues to shrink, that we will get to that place, and as I said, he may be right. But it isn't anything that is consistent with any plans that we've developed or any current intentions that we have."

Bettman's counterpart Paul Kelly, the executive director of the NHL Players' Association, was more bullish on the subject.

"On behalf of the players, I would say that door is very much open," Kelly said at the same news conference. "I think that in a sport that has more than 30 percent of our players who are European and Russian, we need to look forward and recognize that of all the major sports [North America], we're the one sport that probably could expand into Europe. I don't think it's going to happen in the next few years. You need buildings, you need owners, you need to work on the economics of moving teams and equipment. …

"So I think we just need to work out some of those logistics. But I think the message here, and I think it's the message from both of us, that door is definitely not closed, we are studying it. I don't think it's around the corner but I could see it long-term, and I mean five to 10 years down the road."

When asked how he viewed European expansion today compared to 10 years ago, Bettman, commissioner for the past 15 years, admitted the idea has grown in merit.

"As a practical matter, it's probably closer than it's ever been as the world continues to shrink from a media and technology standpoint," said Bettman. "In terms of the long-term vision, people have been talking about NHL Europe for years and years and years. I suppose if supersonic transport were routine and you can get from here to there in three or four hours and you weren't dealing with those types of issues, it would probably be even closer yet. But I think games like this, and these are not obviously exhibition games, these are games that count, demonstrates the fact that we think and we recognize the fact that we are not in North America the only fans that love this game.

"Having said that, and I think this is an important message for back home, North America remains our priority. We won't do anything to jeopardize the strength of our game back in North America."

In the meantime, the NHL is cautiously continuing to develop an imprint in Europe. Last year the first-ever regular-season games were played in Europe when the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings split a two-game set in London, England.

This year the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins played a pair in Stockholm while the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers squared off for two in Prague. ESPN.com's Scott Burnside reported last weekend that as many as eight NHL teams may open the season overseas next October.

"Our hope would be to do at least as many games, if not more," Bettman said. "But we're also going to have to look at the logistics. And we're also going to have to look at the timing because our scheduled may be impacted by the break we take next year by going to the Olympics.

"But my hope is, if we can put it together, to do at least what we did this year, if not more."

Bettman and Kelly also touched on the league's future with the Olympics. NHL players have participated in 1998, 2002, 2006 and will do so again in 2010, but there are no current provisions for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

"After the Vancouver Olympics, we will sit down together and determine what we think our international future looks like," said Bettman.

The commissioner and his owners are concerned that the Olympic break is taxing on the players and causes a break in flow in the season.

"If you're a team that sends 10 Olympians, when you come back they may not be as well rested as a team with two Olympians, and that is a concern to our owners. We lose some of the momentum of our seasons," said Bettman.

"The owners understand, as do I and Paul, that we have the most international North American sport. Our players grow up in this game competing internationally. They love the international competition. We're going to have to make a decision as to whether or not the Olympics is something that gives us benefits that at least equals if not exceeds the determents disrupting the season has."

The players, Kelly said, have a more simple view. They want back in.

"They favor the Olympics," said Kelly. "They favor the World Cup. They favor participation in the world championships."

Kelly said a recent players' meeting in Rome over the summer, where about 100 players congregated, "90-to-95 per cent" of them supported future Olympic participation.

"So, we're going to wait until after Vancouver… but all of them understand, and Gary understands, that the players, if you gave them the choice today, they would favor playing in the Olympics."

In the meantime, plans are underway to bring back the World Cup of Hockey, which was last played in 2004 and 1996. Both the NHL and NHLPA want a more regularly scheduled event, and it will likely return in 2011.

"I don't want to have a World Cup press conference today, but we are in discussions about picking a year, starting it and going on a regular cycle so we can have World Cups every four years," said Bettman. "We think that works very well for us because it's out of the season and we can control what goes on around us. To suggest we have little control once we agree to go to the Olympics would be an understatement. We have none. We become invited guests and in the middle of a season with our players playing that's a bit of an issue for us, as well."

Added Kelly: "We should hold this World Cup regularly. We shouldn't hold it once, then hold it six years later, then two years later, then seven years later. We should hold it and we should pick a year in a cycle so that we don't bump into the Summer Olympics and the Winter Olympics and the soccer World Cup. We are in those kinds of discussions and we think we can actually grow the format a bit beyond where it's been in the past."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com