Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Victoria Cup: Metallurg Magnitogorsk vs New York Rangers

For hosts SC Bern, the Victoria Cup is a pertinent reminder of how far European hockey has come, not in the game itself, but as an increasing spectacle in the digital age. Recently noted as Europe’s most successful side in terms of attendance averaging nearly 17,000 fans a night for the comparative backwater rigors of the Swiss League, the thinking behind Switzerland’s hosting of one of hockey’s most momentous inaugurations is not solely down to the landlocked nation being birthplace to the current president of the International Ice Hockey Federation Rene Fasel, but also an recognition of how far European hockey has come on as a rival to the NHL.

Named for the Victoria Skating rink in Montreal where the first documented game of indoor ice hockey took place on March 3rd 1875, the showcase game between the European Champions and a representative of the worlds most elite league has become a centerpiece for the IIHF centennial celebrations and an watershed effort of co-operation between the global games disparate governing bodies. Perhaps even more significantly the game offers up a mouth watering confrontation between the NHL and the KHL in an increasingly disparaged competition for global dominance not unlike the Super Series seen throughout the 70's and 80's. However, where the Super Series games were played out on North American rinks to the fanfare of North American fans, the Victoria Cup will be played out to European specifications and rules.

Despite the celebratory backdrop, the game will remain vehemently competitive, firstly owing to organizational pressure from both the NHL and the KHL and the matter of 1,000,000 Swiss francs to the victor. Regardless, the NHL have managed to make a farce out of co-operating with the international governing body for which it has recently found itself at loggerheads regarding trade pacts. Originally touting the cup as match up between European and Stanley Cup champions, the game was later remarketed as a challenger competition between European holder and NHL owing to reluctance on the side of the Detroit Red Wings. Indeed the games timing comes at a particularly poor nexus in IIHF-NHL relations after a year of torrid emergency trade talks ended in failure.

There was little surprise that Europe’s G7 (minus Russia) were keen to re-open negotiations in December 2007 following the tremendously lopsided player trade agreement ratified less than a year previous. Citing the collapsed agreement between Russia and the NHL in 2005, many an analyst believed the NHL’s attitude to European hockey clubs hardened. The subsequent offer tended by the NHL in early 2007 saw the NHL reduce its compensation funds for European teams which had lost players to the big league from $12 million dollars to $9 million with the insistence that the NHL could sign players up to the 24th of August, usually less than a month before the European leagues get under way. Furthermore the agreement allowed the NHL to sign in contracted players in Europe after the trade deadline minus a comically small fine. The “take it or leave it” agreement left many in Europe stinging and suggested that the NHL saw European competitions as a developmental league from which to pluck players at their own choosing. Demonstrating a brutal and myopic lack of sensitivity to European hockey organizations and its fans, the NHL was itself hardballed when eleventh hour measures where put in place to establish a one year extension of the Player Transfer Agreement. Whilst five of the six nations were keen to keep some kind of agreement in place, the Czech Extraliga refused to sign into the pact and the subsequent agreement collapsed leaving the Europeans to opt out of any form of PTA with the NHL for the first time in over a decade.

Whilst the IIHF was a mere conduit for negotiations, the subsequent fallout has left some embitterment in the mouths of European officials flexing their own muscle and the NHL now forced to approach players and their contracts on a case by case basis to the detriment of the IIHF organization for which it rarely identifies with. Seemingly opting for an increasingly isolationist approach to external and international matters, European and NHL relations received a further blow when Alexander Radulov deserted the Nashville Predators in mid-contract to join the upstart KHL and Salavat Yulaev Ufa in July. The first superstar to desert the NHL for the KHL, Radulov’s exit was one in a sequence of troublesome contracts to swap sides of the Atlantic since the PTA collapse between Russia and the NHL. The ensuing standoff has reopened old wounds between the two organizations that transcend the KHL's threat of future financial dominance in the global game whilst also giving the NHL a taste of its own underhanded trading ethos and a bloody nose to its superiority complex.

With the clouds darkening over the NHL's own attitude to Europe, many believed the Rangers should have declined participation. However, with the IIHF trying to maintain a workable relationship with the NHL and European nations with an evenhanded slew of press releases the league relented. Whilst such an act could be seen as a mere attempt at saving face, the NHL is quick to realize that Europe remains a particularly verdant market for it's product, more so than many of the cities it has placed franchises in. Whilst bullying trade pacts have turned the most partisan European hockey fans away, there is a strong crowd who follow the NHL more readily than their native leagues. Furthermore, with the KHL showing ambitions to encompass more than its current Eurasian catchment with its "Kontinental" moniker, the NHL is looking to strengthen ties in Europe, not for the sole purpose of future trade negotiations, but to continue it's water testing interest in European expansion which has been touted in recent years in the face of the Premiere series.

For Metallurg Magnitogorsk the game takes on an even greater importance, playing out of the worlds most controversial league, the strong socio-political ties between sport and culture in Russia offers Metallurg a chance of redemption for the Miracle on Ice in what would be a boon for their home nation. For the KHL, Wednesday night offers it's first chance to support its own hype, with disappointing attendances and talk of a Swedish-Finnish league, the KHL is looking for validation as it puts it's money where it's mouth is. Whilst it is impossible to gauge the amount of interaction the KHL hierarchy is having with the Metallurg staff, it's safe to presume that the league will want the best from one of its showcase sides as an advertisement for itself and the state of Russian hockey.

Whilst many have been quick to dub the Victoria Cup little more than an showpiece exhibition, the politics that underline the game give an incredible sense of meaning to the proceedings. Setup as an annual event alongside the Premiere series it will be interesting to see how such future forays into Europe pan out as the NHL licks its wounds. With more than just bragging rights at stake, the game will also provide some barometer to how far European hockey has come in terms of competitiveness and in the case of an embarrassing upset, perhaps reshape how the NHL approaches future negotiations. There’s sure to be little love lost when the Rangers and Metallurg faceoff.


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