GRENOBLE, France – The 13th Continental Cup enters its final this weekend in Grenoble, France, known unofficially as the ’Capital of Alps’.
19 teams from as many countries participated in the four-stage competition and now four teams remain in the hunt for the Continental Cup plate in the Super Final which is this weekend.
Host team Grenoble Brûleurs de Loups, Yunost Minsk, the Sheffield Steelers and Red Bull Salzburg are the contenders. Yunost Minsk won the Continental Cup in 2007 while teams from Austria, France or Great Britain have yet to hoist the plate.Grenoble’s rise with the Olympics
The history of the Brûleurs de Loups dates back to 1963 when the club’s foundation coincided with the opening of the first artificial ice rink in Grenoble. One year later, the city was awarded the 1968 Olympic Winter Games.
In the Olympic year, Grenoblewas the French league runner-up, but it took until 1981 for Grenoble win its first of six championships – the others followed in 1982, 1991, 1998, 2007, 2009.
The atmosphere in the Patinoire Pôle Sud, the team’s home arena since 2001, is famous in the nation’s hockey community. With 3,496 seats, it’s the biggest arena in the French league and the games are sold out for nearly every home game.
Grenoble is one of the most notable hockey towns in France, and the club has produced the lone current French NHL player, Chicago Blackhawks netminder Cristobal Huet. He left the club after winning the championship for Switzerland in 1998 and made the NHL four years later.
The club folded one year later and was relegated to the fourth-tier league, but was reintegrated in the highest league in 2001 and has never finished lower than in fourth. 2009 has become a year full of success as the club won the Ligue Magnus, the French Cup and the League Cup.
For Grenoble it’s the sixth showing in the Continental Cup, but the first time in the final. Two years ago, they missed the final berth after losing the deciding game against Denmark’s Aalborg in a shootout.
“We have a lot of young players and the group is still in construction,” said Swedish head coach Mats Lusth. “It will be a very good experience for them, and a change to play great teams. And it’s also a challenge for the club to be the organizer. We are ready to try to win, but it will be tough. The Belarusians will be the strongest opponent, with the bigger budget, a bigger pool of players and some very good players.”Yunost looking for second title
Being from the top-ranked of the four nations, Belarusian champion Yunost Minsk has one clear goal: to win their second Continental Cup title. In 2007, Yunost defeated Finland’s Ilves Tampere, Russia’s Avangard Omsk and the Hungarian host Alba Volan Szekesfehervar for the title.
The man behind Yunost’s success is Mikhail Zakharov, who coaches both the Belarusian and the Ukrainian national teams. Since he was named Yunost’s head coach in 2003, he won the Continental Cup and four national championships.
Yunost has won three straight titles from 2004-2006, and claimed the 2009 Belarusian Extraliga title after semi-final and final series over seven games.
After 40 games, the team has a 33-7 record in the league and a 19-point lead to a trio of followers. The offence is led by Ukrainian national team players Oleg Timchenko and Oleksandr Materukhin, who pace the league in scoring with 56 and 54 points, respectively.
In the net there is veteran Sergei Shabanov, who came home to Minsk in 2007 after seven years in the Russian league. The 35-year-old leads the goalkeeper stats with a 94.5 save percentage and a 1.36 goals against average.Steelers looking for shape
Like Grenoble, the Sheffield Steelers didn’t have a smooth start into its campaign to defend its title in the UK. The team is in seventh place among the eight-team British Elite Ice Hockey League with a 12-20 record.
They took a step in the right direction on Sunday when they hammered sixth-ranked Edinburgh Capitals, 8-0, after five straight losses.
“It was one of those games that we haven't had this year,” Canadian defenceman Kevin Bolibruck wrote in his blog on the BBC website. “It was long overdue because we have put together performances, but not really put the puck in the net. It was really good to get a game like that under our belts ahead of this weekend in France.”
What he’s looking forward to are the fans. Like in the third-round tournament in Italy, hundreds of British fans are expected in the final tournament.
“It will be great to see them over there and I hope they make plenty of noise, especially on that first night when we play the home team, because I am told they create a great atmosphere,” Bolibruck said.
Sheffield is the first team from the United Kingdom to advance to the final since the Belfast Giants in 2003. The Steelers won the third-round tournament with three, one-goal victories. In the deciding game, they beat last year’s finalist Bolzano in a shootout.Austrian premiere
Red Bull Salzburg is the first-ever Austrian club to play in the Continental Cup final – the biggest success of an Austrian club on the international stage since VEU Feldkirch won the 1998 European Hockey League.
Since the energy drink producer and its sport-crazy owner started backing the club in 2000, Red Bull Salzburg is Austria’s new powerhouse. The club was promoted to the highest league in 2005 and won the 2007 and 2008 titles. Last year, Salzburg lost the final series in seven games to Klagenfurt.
Pierre Pagé has coached the team since 2007. The longstanding NHL coach (Minnesota North Stars, Québec Nordiques, Calgary Flames, Anaheim Mighty Ducks) joined the Austrians after success with the Eisbären Berlin in the German league with its first-ever DEL titles in 2005 and 2006.
Salzburg is in third place behind Graz and Villach, but still is a favourite to win the title with many national team players on the roster and players with NHL experience like goalie David LeNeveu and towering winger Steve Regier.
For Salzburg it’s the third year in the Continental Cup. In 2007, they lost to later Continental Cup winner Yunost Minsk, 1-0, in the third round. One year later, Salzburg lost in the second round against Denmark’s Aalborg and British team Coventry Blaze.
Third time’s the charm. This winter, Salzburg defeated Sokil Kyiv and Latvian host Liepajas Metalurgs in two tight games to qualify for the final round.
“Everybody says the Austrian league is not as good as this, and not as good as that, so we need tournaments like the Continental Cup to prove that there’s very good hockey in Austria,” Pagé is looking forward to the event in Grenoble. “The players know that the teams will be tougher than in Latvia and they try so hard, because they know it’s going to be hard.”Watch the Continental Cup live
All six Continental Cup games will be broadcast live on Orange TV. A live stream will also be shown on hockeyfrance.com
, the website of the French Ice Hockey Federation. Sport+ will show highlights of the games.