Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Champions Hockey League (Kind of like the Champions league but for Hockey)

With all the pomp surrounding the IIHF's centennial in a season colored by the explosive KHL, the Champions Hockey League has arrived somewhat under the radar of many a commentator yet provides further proof that contemporary European ice hockey is experiencing a boom time. With increased financing and sponsorship pushing along standards and subsequently market interest in the European game, hockey has experienced incomparable exposure in recent times be it as a result of the NHL premiere series or the availability of European games online.

As a result the inception of a well organized cross-continental tournament was a long time coming and the recent signing of an agreement between the IIHF and the private investors of the CHL as represented by the Swiss sports management agency Ovation Sports AG for a seven year tenure was widely welcomed throughout the European hockey community.

Taking a leaf from soccer’s most prominent club tournament the UEFA Champions League, twelve clubs representing seven hotbed nations will compete in the final competition with two further clubs being eliminated in a pre-qualification tournament. The final twelve will then be arranged into four groups of three, playing a round robin culminating in a home and away semi final and final series in January. With a 10 million Euro prize fund far eclipsing any previous European club competition kitty and sponsorship from the global game dominating outfitters Reebok, the CHL is looking to rebrand European hockey for a new digital age.

With the Sinrupet Ice Tigers of Germany and HC Košice of Slovenia eliminated in September at the expense of Switzerland’s SC Bern, the first rounds of the final tournament got under way last week with eight of the championships sides getting their first taste of CHL action. In Group A favorites Metallurg Magnitogorsk experienced a bye week in the lopsided three team groups allowing German champions Eisbären Berlin an early opportunity to establish a lead with a closely fought 3-2 victory over Kärpät Oulu of Finland. In what proved to be the matchup of the first round, the 13,000 strong crowd saw their home side defeat the Finnish champs at the 02 World in a fast paced and nervous game in which Berlin scored early in each period to secure victory. With defensive frailties exposed throughout the night Oulu will have to improve when they face off against the Russian champions next whilst Berlin get the bye.

In Group B tournament pre-qualifiers SC Bern found Swedish champions HV71 extremely difficult to handle in a game which was broadcast live across the internet from the Champions Hockey League website. Despite HV71 having a difficult start to their domestic campaign with their early season blighted by injury and a poor 4-2-5 record, the team from Jönköping found John van Boxmeer’s Swiss side short of quality both defensively and offensively with a slew of penalties allowing the Swedes to outshoot them 17-2 in the first period. Despite this it took until the 18th minute for home side HV71 to break the stubborn goaltending of Marco Bührer. Nevertheless the floodgates opened in the second with HV71 posting two early goals and adding three more early in the third in an eventual 6-2 tilt. Bern will look to improve when they face Finland’s playoff finalists of last season Espoo Blues in the next round whilst the impressive HV71 will have to wait until late October to next hit continental ice.

In Group C the potential dominance of KHL clubs was confirmed in the wipeout of the opening round as Alexander Radulov and his Salavat Yulayev Ufa steam rolled Czech regular season champions HC Mountfield České Budějovice 7-1 in a historic matchup that, owing to the four hour time difference, saw the two teams open the curtain on the CHL in front of an 8,000 sellout Ufa Arena. Whilst the game was far from a classic it seemed appropriate that a KHL side should get proceedings underway. Only time will tell if another nation can break Russian club supremacy. With Ufa taking the next round off, HC Mountfield České Budějovice and Slovakian champs HC Slovan Bratislava may well be playing for second place but the rivalry between the Czech and Slovakian leagues promises a potentially mouth watering encounter.

The final group game of the opening week saw Czech playoff champions HC Slavia Praha take on Linköpings HC, regular season runners up in Sweden. With the two teams looking to be the strongest in group D, it was the home side HC Slavia Praha who took the victory but only after a spirited Linköping killed of an early two minute 5 on 3 and opened proceedings shortly after. With only 4,000 in attendance at the 17,000 capacity O2 Arena in Prague that had just housed the Rangers and Tampa season openers, the game saw the only disappointing gate of the fledgling CHL yet the apathy was not in keeping with an exciting matchup that ended 4-2. Slavia’s power play proved the Swedes undoing in an otherwise excellent defensive effort. With Linköping set to take on the underdog Swiss champions ZSC Lions, all eyes will be on the next Slavia Linköping match up in mid November with goal difference being a very possible tie breaker.

With hostilities set to resume next Wednesday, the powers behind the CHL will be happy with the tournaments initial reception. With 32,000 fans showing up for opening night, including impressive pockets of travelling support, any fears of the CHL’s relevance were allayed with soccer like atmospheres erupting from Europe’s top arenas. Whilst Swiss broadcasters have proven to be the only represented nation reluctant to support the tournament, confirmation that Universal Sports will air games in North America has been greeted as a landmark deal. Meanwhile concerns of the tournaments overall competitiveness may hinge on the successes of Russian, and to a lesser extent, Swedish clubs in the context of other nations; however next years proposals to bolster the qualifiers with clubs from Austria, Norway, Denmark, Italy, France and Great Britain will undoubtedly provide a David and Goliath spectacle. Such events can only help move European hockey forward in both hotbed and developing markets whilst securing its future for years to come.

Keep an eye out for regular updates as I cover the CHL throughout the season.  

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