Billy Daly, vice president of the NHL, has admitted that one day - no time soon, mind you - the NHL will expand into Europe. It makes sense. There is far too much hockey interest and history in Europe.
A major roadblock from the past is becoming less of an issue. European arenas tend to have smaller seating capacity. Given that the NHL has always been heavily dependent on ticket sales, that is a big problem for the viability of potential European franchises. New buildings are being built larger, but the real key to survival will be subsidizing franchises with significant television and new media deals. In the coming years the NHL is eyeing up a new American TV deal, and it should be a significant boost to NHL teams. A significant European deal may be the key European expansion.
That being said, time zones would be a drawback for any bidding company. After all, it's hard to support a team that is playing in the Pacific Division at 3am.
Further to that point, of course travel will always be a problem. There's not much anyone can do to get around that except to have a mass expansion. Do not expect a team or two to be added. The NHL will have to have an entire European division. It is the only way it makes any sense for any existing team to travel that far is to play a number of games while they're over there. That being said, the real travel disadvantages will fall upon the European teams coming over here.
So that means a European expansion would see six or even eight new teams. Is there enough talent to stock that many more teams? The knee-jerk reaction is no-way. But perhaps there is, or one day will be. When the NHL expanded from 21-24 teams a major criticism was talent dilution. But it seems the NHL is as healthy as it ever has been now at 31 teams and another, Seattle, on the way. Growth of the American, European and even non-traditional player base has met the demand. Perhaps it - particularly the emerging American base - can meet such an aggressive expansion.
That being said, a European division is likely still many years away. And I've seen historical musings of people in the hockey business dreaming of European expansion since the 1960s. But I have to agree with Bill Daly when he says the NHL in Europe is inevitable. That means the league has gone from beyond musings to serious exploration and game planning.
As someone with an interest in European hockey history, I think it would be fantastic if, somehow, the most historically important European franchises were granted entry into the league, if in name only. CSKA Moscow and/or Dynamo Moscow, Jokerit (Helsinki), HC Davos, HC Sparta Praha (Prague) or Djurgardens IF (Stockholm) taking on the Montreal Canadiens or New York Rangers just seems right.