ATLANTA (AP) -Basking in the spotlight of its All-Star game, the NHL decided Saturday was the perfect time to unveil a big announcement for the start of next season: Four teams will get the honor of opening in Europe.
Maybe someone should have thought to tell the players.
Saying there were still details to be worked out, the leader of the NHL Players' Association objected to the league announcing two games would be played in both Prague and Stockholm to start the 2008-09 season.
Commissioner Gary Bettman said the New York Rangers are scheduled to meet the Tampa Bay Lightning at Sazka Arena in the Czech Republic, while the Ottawa Senators would face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Globe Arena in Sweden's capital city.
The games would be played Oct. 4 and 5 - assuming the Players' Association signs off on the plans.
That might be a problem. Paul Kelly, the NHLPA's executive director, said he was aware of the European games but warned the league not to make a firm announcement until the two sides worked out all details.
``If they want the Players' Association to be a true business partner, then they have to include us in discussions about these matters at the earliest stages,'' Kelly said. ``We shouldn't read about it in the press and we shouldn't find about it after the fact.''
Kelly said he was approached by league officials Friday night and asked to sign off on the European games, which would mark the second straight year the NHL has opened its season on the other side of the Atlantic.
His response: ``Look guys, you know we have a lot of details to work out. Travel, promotional issues, NHLPA involvement, accommodations, the schedule, etc. So there's still lots of details to work out, but if you want to announce it generally, that's fine.'
The NHL sure made it sound like a done deal during Bettman's state of the league address, which followed the Board of Governors approving the Prague and Stockholm games during its morning meeting at a ritzy hotel in downtown Atlanta.
``We'll start next season with doubleheaders in two international venues,'' Bettman said on the eve of the All-Star game. ``We're all pretty excited about that.''
The league didn't sound nearly as excited after Kelly's objections.
``There seems to have been a breakdown in communication somewhere along the line,'' deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. ``We felt the PA had specifically authorized today's announcement. We'll address it directly with Paul and try to make sure it doesn't happen again.''
The league clearly wants to showcase some of its top players, such as Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson and Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier. Of course, the top draw in Prague would be New York's Jaromir Jagr - if he's still with the Rangers.
The Czech standout could become a free agent after this season.
``There's no guarantee that anyone on our team right now will be on our team in the fall,'' said Glen Sather, president and general manager of the Rangers.
The NHL opened its current season in London. The Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks played the Los Angeles Kings before two sellout crowds at O2 Arena.
As part of next season's European trip, the NHL announced the Rangers also would meet European club champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia on Oct. 1 in Bern, Switzerland for the inaugural Victoria Cup.
There again, the Players' Association said it hasn't agreed to such an arrangement.
``Did I know that they had the Victoria Cup on the drawing board and the Rangers on the drawing board? Yes, I did,'' Kelly said. ``Did I know that they were going to announce it today? No, I didn't.''
Kelly said he thought the league was still trying to work out a player transfer agreement with the International Ice Hockey Federation, and that any negotiations for the Victoria Cup were on the back burner.
The IIHF is organizing the game - named after the Montreal arena where the first organized game was held in 1875 - as part of its 100th anniversary celebration. The organization hopes to make the Victoria Cup an annual event between the European champ and an NHL challenger.
``Frankly,'' Kelly said, ``the last I know, Bill Daly had said the NHL hasn't committed to playing in the Victoria Cup because we're still dealing international transfer issues and the like. So that one was a surprise.''
---
AP Hockey Writer Ira Podell contributed to this report.
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