Champions League for hockey? Yes, please.

April 12, 2013, by
Just picture a puck, instead of a soccer ball.

Just picture a puck, instead of a soccer ball.

Last week, Craig Custance at ESPN published an article about the NHL’s plans to expand its global brand.  Most of the article discussed further expanding outdoor games, the resurrection of the World Cup of Hockey, and the finalization of an agreement that would send NHL players to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Olympics.  There was one more idea condensed to one little blurb in the text:

He’s also intrigued by the idea of a Champions League, featuring games between the NHL’s and Europe’s best teams.”We love the idea of the power of the team competition,” he said. “Maybe we bring NHL teams over to play the best teams in Europe. How do we stage stage that? That’s definitely something we’re looking at.”

For those unfamiliar with European professional football, the concept is pretty simple: there are various high quality professional football leagues throughout Europe, let’s play a tournament to crown a champion of them all.

The format is quite complicated for qualification, but one you get past that, its quite elegant.  There are 8 groups of 4 teams.  No teams from the same league can be in a group together and no league can send more than 4 teams to participate.  Seeding determines the composition of the group.  During this group stage, each of the 4 teams play home and home round robins against one another.  After the 6 game group stage, the top two teams in each group advance to the tournament proper.

For the round of 16, the rule keeping teams from the same league from drawing each other is kept in tact.  However, once the quarter finals are drawn, the matchups are unregulated.  Each matchup is an aggregate score across two games, one at each team’s home stadium.  Think of it as one really long game.  This is the format until the Final, which is one single game.  The winner is the Champion of Europe.  Got it?

Applying this concept to the NHL is 1.) awesome, and 2.) extremely tricky.  There are several major differences between hockey and soccer league formats.  Let’s use the English (Barclay’s) Premier League as a point of reference, because it is the closest comparable to the NHL.

In the Premier League, the group stage matches (and other tournament games) are interspersed throughout the regular season.  But since there are no playoffs in the Premier League (the team at the top of the table is crowned champion when the second place team is mathematically eliminated), it lends itself much better to working in tournament games.

The NHL, as we know, is comprised of an 82 game regular season and a possible 28 game postseason.  After the grind that is the NHL playoffs, do these guys really want to spend the first month of their offseason traveling through Europe playing for the “World Champion” moniker?

This is really the first major hurdle the league would have to address.

Then we move on to participation.  There are dozens of professional football leagues throughout Europe, with varying degrees of quality.  There are far less high quality hockey leagues.  The big boys, NHL, KHL, SEL, and SM-Liiga would have representation.  Then we get into the Czech and Slovakian leagues, the German and Swiss leagues and various other central European formats.  Do we let the Calder Cup winner from the AHL play?  Are major junior teams allowed to qualify?

I think preliminarily, the 4 top leagues would make the most sense.  It keeps the quality level extremely high, while keeping the number of teams, and by extension, the number of games, down.

Once it’s determined who will be playing, whose rules do we use?  In football, the tournament is governed by the Union of European Football Associations, or UEFA.  Would the IIHF govern?  Would an independent regulatory body be created?  Would the determination to play on North American or Olympic sized rinks be determined by location of the home team?

The final major hurdle in this exercise would be travel.  Just for example, if the LA Kings were matched up against Metallurg Novokuznetsk in the quarterfinals, the home and home would require over 12,000 miles of travel per team, assuming they left one location and headed to the next.  Not exactly ideal.

So, how could this feasibly work?  Well, one option would be for the NHL to completely forgo the group stage used in football, and only allow the winner of each of the four major leagues qualification.  It would act as almost a weird “frozen four” style mini-tournament.  It could be played over the course of two weeks at the end of the NHL playoffs.  The tournament could choose to forego the aggregate leg system of football and employ a more familiar “best-of-3 concept” and use a neutral site chosen each year, as they do in the World Championships, World Junior Championships, and the Olympics.

The long haul of the playoffs throws a major wrench in a simple model adaptation of European football, and it remains to be seen if the Stanley Cup Champion would be enthusiastic about playing potentially 6 more games against the top European clubs.  I do think, however, that the concept is one that could work for hockey, it would just take some significant tinkering to make it work within our system, specifically.  But the idea of a world champion club for hockey is incredibly cool, would presumable drive massive amounts of revenue, and enhance the sport’s global brand.  All while bringing the second tier pro leagues into the consciousness of North American hockey fans.  I think that definitely deserves some consideration.

The future of this concept is obviously up in the air right now, but given the NHL’s desire to increase awareness of the sport and cultivate a global fan base, at least exploring this idea makes a ton of sense.  This is one story I will definitely be following closely.

What do you guys think?  Any better format suggestions?  Ways around some of the difficulties?  We would love to hear your feedback.


  1. The Suit says:

    As long as they don’t do an away goals tie breaker, I like it.

    Hate away goals.

    • Justin says:

      Change approved.

      • Dave says:

        Can we get a 3-2-1 point system for the NHL too? They are the only league that doesn’t do it.

        • Justin says:

          Amen. I actually think there are quite a few league practices in England that would benefit American sports immensely…

        • Mr. Snrub says:

          Or kill the overtime and shootout and have a 3-1-0 format like in European Football

          • Dave says:

            Nah, don’t kill the overtime. I’d rather have continuous 4 on 4 overtime than a shootout. Much more exciting.

            • Mr. Snrub says:

              continuous OT in the regular season? Maybe if they shortened the season to 70 games as Brooksie suggested…

              • Dave says:

                Very few games would go to multiple OTs if it’s continuous 4 on 4, 10 minute periods. Teams go for it knowing the game will end eventually. More aggressive since it’s not the playoffs.

  2. Tim B says:

    Im not really worried by any of the European teams except KHL teams. They have a ton of really good players. Plus the really good former NHLers are their too. Dynamo Moscow I wouldnt’t want to play against and others.

  3. PopsTwitTar says:

    Great idea from a sporting and competition angle…and bad idea from a business angle (at least for the NHL). They’d have to find a way to reverse those facts to get the league to consider it. How would revenue be shared internationally? How would it be shared between the NHL ans NHLPA? You’d really need to shorten the NHL season to free up the time (which is a good idea from a sporting angle regardless of this but won’t happen in any case). And deep down I don’t think the NHL would ever want to take a risk of not having the most prestigious “championship”. Part of the NHLs marketing to fans, sponsors and even hockey players is the chance to win the Stanley Cup. Why would the NHL ever want to layer something “bigger” than its own championship over that?

    • bogans says:

      This is exactly the problem, the NHL owners would never risk seeing their league put on a level with any other leagues. The difference in futbol is that you can argue that the Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, or others are the best from year to year. THey all have plenty of fans and this is a money making proposition for them. At the end of the day, for an NHL owner, this will bring some additional revenue, but the ultimate cost could be too risky.

      That said, HELL YEAH!!!! Would LOVE to see this!

    • Justin says:

      I think thats where the governing body comes in. I think that the split between the leagues would be determined at the “UEFA” level and the revenue split between the NHL and NHLPA would mirror the CBA.

      You make a good point about losing the prestige of the Cup, but if the league is truly concerned about the long-term viability/growth of the sport on a global level, it needs to be sucked up. Bottom line, the Stanley Cup will still be much more difficult to attain through 4 rounds of 7 game series than the Champions Cup would be winning 4 games.

  4. Matt Josephs says:

    I’ve thought about this sorta concept but I think it’ll be very hard to schedule this. Could do the tournament in September when the training camp and preseason would be. Take the teams who finished top 4 in each league involved and the team who won the Stanley cup is automatically exempt.

    It could work if all the games were played at a nuetral city or something. But now every league would schedule around this.

    Also what about the next time the NHL locks out? It will happen again but a lockout preventing the NHL sending teams to “champions league” would be very embarrassing.

    • Justin says:

      That’s the problem MLB has with the World Baseball Classic. Players aren’t in form and the best product isn’t being put out on the field/ice.

      You make a good point about the lockout. That would be incredibly embarrassing, but it would be incentive to avoid another lockout next time around.

  5. Dave says:

    This is fantastic. Great job Justin.

  6. VinceR says:

    Love the idea, but I don’t see getting past the grueling playoffs, and then having the off season cut short.

    With the flying/playing/practice etc, the winner of The Stanley Cup would be lucky to make the playoffs the following season. It is already common for teams who go deep in the playoffs to fall off a bit the following season. I’m sure there are many reasons, but a rather considerable one would be fatigue.

  7. Dave says:

    The biggest hurdle would be getting NHL owners to see potential profits. Let’s be honest, with that many teams/leagues splitting the revenue, the ROI may be minimal for the NHL.

    Of course, I’d probably fly to Europe to watch this if it happened.