After a bad regular season in seventh place, few expected the ZSC Lions Zurich to win the Swiss championship despite being one of the biggest and most powerful hockey clubs in Switzerland. But in a revived final clash with HC Lugano the team from Zurich won the championship like it did in the early 2000s in this north-south clash. And like back then it did so in Game 7 on the road.
Back in 2001 Swedish import Morgan Samuelsson hit the back of the net in overtime. This time it was a bit less dramatic. Captain Patrick Geering scored the game winner with a slightly deflected shot already after seven minutes of play after having lost the previous two games. After that the Lions defended cleverly and stayed focused despite 7,000 passionate fans in the biggest city of Switzerland’s Italian-speaking part of Ticino. Lugano tried to equalize without success and the Lions’ Latvian national team forward Ronalds Kenins scored into the empty net with 19 seconds left for the final score of 2-0.
“I’m so happy for the entire team, especially for [Mathias] Seger, for [Kevin] Klein, there’s nothing better than ending a career like that. We didn’t get much credit but we kept our chins up. I was convinced that we had a good team with good players and I believed in it even if tens of thousands wrote us off,” Geering, who replaced long-time hero Seger as captain for this season, told broadcaster SRF2 after winning the National League.
It was a season with ups and down. Or with downs and ups if you will. Seventh place in the regular season was a disappointment. One year ago Swedish coach Hans Wallson was hired with the idea that Swedes are doing best in developing players in Europe – and Wallson was among the best in Sweden having built a dynasty in Skelleftea. In Zurich it didn’t work out that way and in December he was replaced by Hans Kossmann. But also under the Swiss-Canadian coach the team didn’t earn more points – until the playoffs began.
The players made a step forward when it was needed. In the playoffs it didn’t all depend on all-year strong scoring leader Fredrik Pettersson or goaltender Lukas Flueler anymore. The new generation of players that the club tries to develop in its own system woke up, played more physical and took more responsibility. That 28-year-old captain Geering scored the championship-clinching goal was symbolic. Also coach Kossmann had nothing to lose since he was only hired for the remainder of the season – Serge Aubin, now with the Vienna Capitals, will take over next season.
“We just tried to take away the pressure, have the right attitude. You have to soak in the energy at this arena and convert it to power on the ice,” Kossmann said. “You have to enjoy every day. Now I can go back [to Canada] and will have a smile for the next four months.”
As seventh-seeded team the Lions didn’t have it easy. They had to beat last year’s runner-up EV Zug in the quarter-finals and then defending champion SC Bern in the semi-finals. In the final series they blew a 3-1 lead against Lugano and had to play Game 7 on the road. Lugano seemed to have the momentum and was to play the deciding game in front of its loud home crowd but the Lions had a history in winning Game 7.
It was also a farewell for long-time club hero Mathias Seger, who owns the record of most IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship participations (16). He played 22 years of professional hockey including 19 with the Lions. With his sixth Swiss championship he joined a group of players who have won a record six championships, the others being Andres Ambuhl, Sandro Bertaggia, Patric Della Rossa, Beat Forster, Jan von Arx and Reto von Arx.
In his last season he didn’t have a big role anymore and was benched for most of the last game until the 2-0 empty-net goal when he was sent onto the ice for the last 19 seconds and his teammates prepared masks with his portrait. After a three-hour drive back to Zurich and starting the champions’ party with the fans waiting at a public viewing hall at 3:30am he will soon travel to Australia and drive through the country with his family and a caravan.
“It was very emotional. What the guys showed was amazing after missing out on winning the championship in the last two games. It was a perfect away game. I had the best place at the arena on the bench and I’m extremely proud of the boys. They did an extremely good job. We had a difficult season and played brilliant playoffs. The team has a big future ahead. I’m thankful for the team that I could experience this,” said Seger, who played 1,156 games in Switzerland’s National League (formerly known as National League A or NLA).
For Lugano, which was looking for its first championship since 2006, losing Game 7 on home ice was a disappointment. The club already made it to the final two years ago and lost. Latvian national team goaltender Elvis Merzlikins, who spent most of his junior career and his entire pro career with Lugano, told hockeyfans.ch in tears: “I’m without words. We showed character during the entire playoffs. It hurts to lose in Game 7. I will bring this trophy to Lugano soon, remember my words.”
The region of Zurich was in the centre of attention last week not only because of the Lions. Two teams played a best-of-seven promotion/relegation series for the last spot in next year’s National League. The SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers, who won the second-tier Swiss League, beat EHC Kloten, the last-place National League team, in overtime in Game 7 to earn promotion to the top league after three years. Kloten was the longest-serving member of the National League and has to leave after 56 years following disastrous season.