STOCKHOLM — Opportunities like the Lightning’s trip to Sweden don’t come around often.
They’re wandering Stockholm’s Old Town, taking in architecture. They’re checking out a museum housed in a re-constructed Viking ship. They’re eating meatballs and candy, the latter being their resident Swede Victor Hedman’s favorite.
They’re enjoying Stockholm to its fullest. But why are they even there?
In the most direct sense, the Lightning are in Sweden because they were asked by the NHL to participate in this year’s Global Series with two games against Buffalo. The bigger answer has to do with both team and league marketing, plus a life experience for everyone on the trip.
“This is a life experience,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s a privilege to play in this league, but you don’t really leave the continent to play. Having been around Anton Strålman and Victor Hedman, guys from the country who you love, to see a little bit of their culture. This will be a great experience.”
The NHL’s history of overseas games goes back to 1938 when Detroit and Montreal went on a European tour with nine games across three cities in England and France.
In the more recent past, the league started its season in Europe 2007-11. The Lightning went to Berlin, Slovakia and Prague in 2008. The Global Series started in 2017 with a mix of preseason, season opener and regular-season games.
The Lightning were asked to participate this season because of Victor Hedman. But this wasn’t their first opportunity.
“We had been approached in the past and we didn’t think our team was ready for that,” general manager Julien BriseBois said. “Now, we thought this was good timing for us to go.”
When they said no, the Lightning looked to the future and wanting to make the trip with a more veteran team. They are down one Swede since then, having not re-signed Strålman this summer, but now they have a more established group.
The Lightning devote considerable resources to building their brand on the local, national and international levels. Team owner Jeff Vinik recently pointed to that expansion, seeing Lightning gear across the country, as one of the organization’s successes.
“We’ve had a long interest in playing in Europe,” team CEO Steve Griggs said. “If you look at how we’ve tried to elevate our brand, on a national and international level. We hosted the All-Star Game in 2018 and now the Global Series.”
Not all of those efforts have been as grandiose as the league’s marquee events. Smaller elements such as hosting the league’s playoff kickoff, including a concert by Cage the Elephant, contribute to building the brand.
The Lightning also recognize the Distant Thunder, as they call their far-flung fans at games. Last year, they brought Italian fan Fabio Sorini to Tampa for his first live NHL game.
The team also holds an interest in building the league’s brand, which serves as the primary purpose of the Global Series. The NHL’s teams benefit through increasing revenue streams such as European television rights.
“Part of it is us being really good partners,” Griggs said. “We’re able to build the brand of the NHL and hockey, to then do other things.”
Vinik’s interest in an outdoor game is well-documented, but the organization might also ask for other benefits in exchange for making the trip. It’s not nearly quid pro quo, but the Lightning can expect positives from earning recognition as a good partner.
The Lightning are a very different team since the Prague trip in 2008. Only forward Steven Stamkos and some of the support staff carry over from then. But this version of the organization does have similar experiences.
Tampa Bay sent its AHL affiliate to Lyon, France for training camp in 2014 and 2015. BriseBois, who was the Crunch general manager at the time, pushed to make the trips.
“We were doing player development at that level, but it’s also human development,” he said. “They’re young guys, just coming into adulthood. I always thought it was very valuable for us to go.”
There is a trade-off. The trip has an effect on the rest of a team’s schedule. When you have an 11-day span with only two games, the piper has to be paid somewhere (like seven games in a 12-day stretch to start December).
The Lightning look at the big picture. They expect the trip to enhance the life experiences for the 23 players, the 20 people in hockey operations and for the much larger group of staff and even fans in Stockholm this year.
“Usually when you broaden your horizon, and you open yourself up to the world, especially people in our position, you get to be grateful for what we have,” BriseBois said. “I think that makes us better people.”
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at email@example.com. Follow @dianacnearhos.