With his Pittsburgh Penguins preparing to ship out to Stockholm for a double-header against Ottawa to open next season, Laraque has again opined about the NHL in Europe, making it clear to Rob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that he believes the League is wasting its time:
"Spending money to go play in Europe is not doing anything for the NHL in the United States," Laraque said. "We're talking about wanting a bigger market for hockey in the U.S. What are we going to accomplish by going to Europe? What are we doing? The league needs to do better work to make the game popular in the U.S."
"Is the NHL going to expand into Europe? No," Laraque said. "We need to work to make hockey bigger in the U.S. I don't understand this goal."
Laraque is one of only 14 black players in the NHL. He said the league should focus on promoting hockey to minorities in the U.S. rather than fans in Europe. "We all know that if we want hockey to be more popular here it has to become more popular among minorities," Laraque said. "That is the big problem. That is why a brand new (Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.) is half-empty. Going to Sweden is not going to change that."
Excusing the narrow scope of his critique of the Devils' arena in Newark -- which is almost Melrosean in its simplicity -- I hope Laraque sticks to his guns this time, because he brings up a point I've heard echoed in other corners of the hockey world: Would it be better for the NHL to stage high-profile regular season games in non-hockey U.S. markets than to travel overseas for games that promise to be as invisible on sports fans' radar as the League's trip to England was this season?
(Yes, I know: The NHL has done the neutral site thing before. But there's a bit of difference between the Islanders meeting Edmonton in Oklahoma City on a random day in December and opening the season there with Crosby vs. the Senators.)
It's a fair point, but ultimately a moot one: The NHL is in full retreat in the United States, content to carve out whatever international niche it can in order to insulate itself from further market decline. This isn't the NBA seeking to add European markets to its already massive empire; this is a marginalized league that's increasingly taking the Woody Allen approach to sports marketing: Play to the die-hards, but head to foreign markets in order to remain financially viable. And we don't even get to some quality Scarlett Johansson face time out of the deal.