How Should the NHL Structure the Upcoming Champions League?

Wouldn't it be great to see the Hawks take on Dynamo Moscow? (Screen shot from

Wouldn’t it be great to see the Hawks take on Dynamo Moscow? (Screen shot from

When I first started following soccer, I enjoyed the UEFA Champions League more than any other domestic league or even international tournament. Originally, I think I was intrigued by the novelty of club teams from different countries playing against each other, something that you don’t see in any of the four major sports in the United States. Later, as I became more knowledgeable about the game, I realized that the Champions League provides the highest level of competition there is in European soccer. Even though the top club and top international teams have comparable talent levels, the club teams practice together and develop a chemistry that can’t be matched by an international team, simply due to the amount of time spent together. It’s easily one of the most interesting leagues/events in sports.

With that said, I’ve always wondered why the NHL didn’t try to replicate the Champions League with some of the stronger European hockey leagues. Of the four major sports in the US, it has always been the best suited to do so. The NBA, NFL, and MLB just don’t have enough international leagues to compete with that are on a comparable talent level. Even though the NHL is clearly the world’s best hockey league, the KHL is gaining ground and the SM-liiga of Finland and the Elitserien of Sweden possess teams capable of competing with NHL teams.

For proof, you don’t have to look any further than the 2008 and 2009 Victoria Cup (which is now defunct). In 2008, the New York Rangers defeated Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-3 and the 2009 game saw the ZSC Lions squeak by the Chicago Blackhawks 2-1. With international teams being capable of playing competitive games against NHL teams, it’s a ripe time to start a Champions League of hockey. (Side note: In the 2008-2009 season, there was a Champions Hockey League that featured seven different European countries. The NHL, however, did not participate and the league folded after one season.) By helping to start — or revamp the old CHL — the NHL could not only grow its brand worldwide, but it could also greatly increase its revenue. And what professional sports league doesn’t want more revenue?

Still, no matter how much money there is to be made, there are some major issues standing in the way, which likely has kept the Champions Hockey League from happening. Apparently, however, the NHL has found a way to resolve those issues, as both SB Nation and Chris Botta of the Sports Business Journal reported that the league was looking to begin a “Champions Cup” by 2016.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 9.45.29 PMAs I see it, the three major issues that the NHL was and is still facing in the creation of a Champions Cup are timing, traveling, and overshadowing the Stanley Cup. Fortunately for the NHL, there’s a way to solve all three of these issues.


There’s just no getting around it. A Champions Cup or Champions Hockey League would involve a ton of travel, especially for the NHL clubs. In addition, traveling across the Atlantic at the beginning of the week to play a few Champions League games, only to have to turn around and head back for some regular season games back in the US would be brutal and a competitive disadvantage for teams in the Champions League.

So what? The best soccer teams deal with this kind of schedule, right? Well, yes and no. Although Champions League games are normally held on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and clubs head back home to play domestic games on the weekend, they’re not traveling as far as an NHL team would be. Also, hockey teams are expected to play as many as four games in a week, while soccer teams, at the most, will play twice in any given week.

In order to resolve the travel issue, the NHL should adopt a tournament format for the Champions League/Cup. By adopting a tournament style as opposed to a full league schedule like soccer uses, the NHL could hold the tournament in a single location over a week or two. Every season, the tournament could be held in a different location, which would give each participating league a chance to feature the tournament. In addition, it would cut down on travel costs and be less taxing on the teams participating in it.


With the travel issue solved, timing becomes the next obstacle standing in the way of a Champions Cup. This season, the NHL will take almost a month long break for the Winter Olympics, something it’s clearly reluctant to do. If the league is reluctant to take a break every four years, it’s hard to see how it would be willing to take a significant break in the middle of every season.

To avoid a break mid-season, the NHL should conduct the Champions Cup during its preseason. For the past few seasons, the league has sent teams to Europe to play exhibition games. Instead of meaningless exhibition games, why not just send the teams participating in the Champions Cup? Unless, of course, an American or Canadian city is hosting the tournament that year, in which case the teams would head to that city.

The Champions Cup should also be held toward the end of the preseason. This way, NHL teams could hold their training camps in the city the tournament is being held in during the time they would regularly have their camps. By giving them time for a normal camp, NHL teams wouldn’t be at a competitive disadvantage during the tournament and could use the tournament as a springboard into the regular season. Let’s face it, the NHL preseason is boring. By including a Champions Cup tournament, the NHL could create some excitement and lend some importance to the most lackluster aspect of its schedule.


The final major problem that the NHL faces is creating an event that would overshadow the Stanley Cup. Without a doubt, the Stanley Cup is the greatest trophy in sports and the NHL would be making a mistake if it helped create an event that took anything away from the Stanley Cup playoffs. In soccer, for example, plenty of teams covet winning the UEFA Champions League over their own domestic leagues. This is something the NHL definitely doesn’t want to emulate.

Luckily, we’ve already solved this problem. By having the tournament in the preseason, the NHL ensures that future generations of hockey players will always value the Stanley Cup over the Champions Cup. If the NHL really wanted to make sure this never happened, it could just create a trophy for the Champions Cup as lame as the Victoria Cup trophy.

So there you have it, all of the major problems standing in the way of a Champions Cup have been solved. Of course, there are still some areas to be worked out including the tournament format, leagues included, and how teams would qualify for the Champions Cup. All of these, however, should be easily resolvable now that the major obstacles are out of the way.

You’re welcome, NHL.


CharlieCharlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.

Previously from Charlie Crespo:
Frankenbride; or, The Contemporary Prometheus
Viral Video of the Week: ESPN is Clearly Excited to Have the NFL Back
On Trying to Find a Sleeping Bag in Shanghai
Flopping Has Finally Infiltrated the NFL
Science Says You’re Happy With a 40-Hour Work Week

12 responses to “How Should the NHL Structure the Upcoming Champions League?

  1. I think an 8 team format would be great. The top 4 NHL teams. ( Stanley cup champion, President’s trophy, top seed other conference, and the top Canadien team). would meet the top 2 KHL and 2 Euro champs. Round 1 would pair off the 8 teams with an NHL vs a KHL/euro team in a Home and Home 2 game series like soccer. If the series is tied after 2 games a sudden death OT would be played after game 2. The reason for the opening round would be for TV viewers to see there favorite teams visit different countries and there passionate fan bases. The 4 winners from round 1 would meet in a host city for a final four weekend tourney. Under this format teams would only cross the Atlantic a maximum of 2 times. I prefer playing the 1st round during the month of November with the final four between christmas and new years.

  2. If there was a Champions league this year under my format the teams qualified would be:

    Blackhawks – SC champs and Pres. trophy
    Penguins – Eastern conf. Best Record
    Canadiens- Best record Canadien team
    Ducks – Next best record

    Dynamo Moscow – KHL Champs
    Ska St petersburg – Reg season champ

    Lulea – Euro trophy champs (Sweden)
    Farjestad – Euro trophy runner up (Sweden)

    • Jay,
      I really like your ideas for how to limit travel, include more teams, and to play the final tournament around the Christmas holidays. I think they all work well.

      I’d like to propose a couple minor changes to your plan though. First, I’d like to find a way to include more countries, so it is more close to the UEFA Champions League. As it stands in your plan, we could have years where only three countries/leagues are really represented. To fix that, let’s say we keep the 2 KHL teams and for the your “Euro” category we include the Swedish Champs and the Finnish Champs automatically, who are probably considered the best two leagues after the NHL and KHL.

      After that, I’d like to only include three NHL teams: the SC champs, the president’s trophy, which I think is a cool idea, and one Canadian team (because I think, like you seem to, that we need to guarantee that a Canadian team is involved somehow). With that extra spot leftover from the removal of the fourth NHL team, we can create a “wild card” team. This “wild card” team can come from a short qualifying tournament before the round of games in November that will feature the Swiss Champs, the German champs, the Czech champs, and also the Slovak champs. By doing this, I think it would be more fun because we’d open the tournament up to more countries and see our favorite teams (well, not my favorite team because the Panthers would never make this tournament) play against an even wider range of other club teams. What do you think about those changes?

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Yes, your changes are fine. However, my thought was to begin with a modest size tournament before maybe having 16 teams or more. I do like adding the Top regular season record from both conferences to add a little something for finishing in the top seed. Also the NHL can give out a trophy (Canada Cup) to the Canadian team with best record. This would add even more spice to those all Canada NHL games.

    Furthermore, I would like the NHL network to begin airing games from other countries so North American viewers can get familiar with some European teams. A Swiss or Swedish game would be much more interesting than a taped NHL game from the night before.

    The goal of the tournament would be to produce playoff like atomsphere in November and December that regular season games cannot produce. A Champions league done right could be what the sport of hockey needs.

    viewer ve

    • I’m definitely for the NHL network adding more KHL and European league games. Like you said, the replays of the games from the night before aren’t very great and playing NHL tonight for 10 hours in a row isn’t great either. Adding those games might also convince more people to add the NHL network to their cable package.

      The NHL network is pretty weak right now in my opinion. I’m always complaining that it should be used better and I think a great way would be showing more European games like you said. I’d also love to see a tournament like the Spengler Cup get aired on the NHL Network. If you aren’t aware of it already (which I’m guessing you are), the Spengler Cup is an awesome tournament that not too many know about.

  4. What are your thoughts on a open cup tournament for hockey? Many soccer leagues around the world have a open cup where minor league teams play qualifying rounds to determine who would have chance to play major league teams. I think this is an incredible marketing tool because it brings minor league cities hope that they could one day have the Rangers or Blackhawks come to their little city. For example the Hartford Wolfpack win 2 rounds vs other minor league clubs and now meet the Boston Bruins in round 3. Old Hartford Whaler fans would love this.
    Top teams from the ECHL and the AHL located in the US would have a one game elimination with the winners meeting the bottom US based NHL teams. The tournament would progress until the final 2 teams
    meet outdoors in the US OPEN Winter classic. Where the winner would receive the Herb Brooks trophy.
    Canada would also have their version of a open cup and meet outdoors in the heritage classic. Winners would receive the Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe trophy.

    • I think adding an open cup tournament for hockey would be awesome and I love the idea of using the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic as the championship games for this tournament. As it is right now, those events are great but are basically gimmicks. Adding a bit of meaning to them will improve them a lot I think.

      The main issue I see, though, is how AHL teams would work in that style of tournament. In the Premier League for example, the high-level teams value those tournaments less and so put together essentially a “B” squad until the final stages. NHL teams couldn’t really do that without calling up players from their AHL teams. Also, in the event that a player on an NHL team gets hurt, can they then call up the best player from their AHL team to replace him? So while I think it would be awesome for the NHL to have more competitions like European soccer, I think the logistics for an open style cup would be a bit more tricky than a Champions League would.

      And since we’re on the topic of awesome theoretical hockey tournaments, I’d like to see some NCAA teams square off against junior teams. Wouldn’t seeing Boston College square off against the Halifax Mooseheads be cool?

  5. The Open cup can have a set of rules where a NHL team can not play against their own minor league team unless it is the final rounds. Each Round is one game knockout. The lower level league always would have home ice. The Alaska Aces should not be visiting Madison square garden but if the NY Rangers visited Alaska it would be huge. And lets say a minor league team like the Providence Bruins beat 2 NHL teams and made the final four with a chance to go to the winter classic. It would be hockey’s version of the NCAA 64. Every NHL fan would have heard about this great Cindarella story. And as for the rosters, yes this is a problem but soccer teams have the same problem. If they win a couple rounds their players might be bought by wealthier clubs before the next open cup game. The minor league clubs would have to live with the fact that their top players are going to be called up.

    would get home ice.

  6. The NHL network should not only carry the Spengler cup but how about the olympic qualifiers that were held last year. Great Britain surprised Japan and qualified for the final round in Lativa. Check it out on youtube. Great Britain was defeated by Lativa in a packed house in Riga the nations capital.
    Slovenia, Hungary, Denmark all have great passionate crowds at their national team games.
    Also the lower levels of the world championships has some good games. Check youtube for a game when Korea upset Poland in front of about 10,000 Polish fans to advance to Division 1. One tier below the world championships.
    There is great hockey out there and it is not just about top quality hockey but about passionate fan bases. Passionate fan bases is what is essential to an entertaining sports product.

  7. How do you feel about International friendlies replacing the all-star game? Or even in odd years a USA vs. Canada series. For the N.America cup. How about, USA vs Russia in Moscow with Putin in the stands on a Saturday afternoon in January. This has to better than team Alfreddson vs. Team Lidstrom in Raleigh NC. LOL!!! The NHL has no idea what their doing. Team Alfreddson!!!!


  8. College vs Juniors for the North American Junior championship. Maybe?
    Champions league – world champion
    NHL- North American champion
    KHL – Eurasia Champion
    European champions league – Euro Champ
    US open cup – US champ
    Canada open cup – Canada Champ
    World cup/olympics – National team champ
    World Juniors – Junior National team Champ
    And do not forget the Asia challenge cup….

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