LINZ, Austria – For only the second time ever, the Black Wings Linz have won the Austrian championship. They defeated KAC Klagenfurt in the final series.
“Keine Sorgen” – or no worries in English – is what the ice rink in Linz is called, named after an insurance company. Indeed, there were no worries this season in Austria’s third-biggest city as the Black Wings claimed their first championship in nine years.
The club was founded only in 1992 after a merger and the city entered the top league only in 2000. Two years after winning the first championship in 2003 the club went bankrupt, but was re-founded the same year with a mission to get back to top.
The success came as a surprise as the club doesn’t have the financial means of some of the top teams in the league such as Salzburg or Klagenfurt. The team had just signed a new coach (Rob Daum) and 13 new players ahead of the season, but the players gelled together well from the beginning.
The team included 11 North American-born players as well as a Swede, but also Austrian national team veterans such as defenceman Robert Lukas (10 World Championships), his brother and forward Philipp, the team’s best Austrian scorer Gregor Baumgartner (31+27=58) and several former junior national team players.
Former AHL players Mike Ouellette and Rob Hisey led the league in scoring, with Ouellette racking up 80 points (25+55) in 61 games. Corey Murphy was the highest scoring defenceman in the league, and American goalkeeper Alex Westlund did his job well with a 92.3 save percentage.
Linz took over first place in October and never gave it up. The team won 35 out of 50 games in the regular season, second before another surprise team, Medvescak Zagreb. The team from Croatia was one of the five non-Austrian squads participating in the 11-team EBEL league this season.
After being spoiled with success in the regular season, things got tougher at the start of the playoffs. The quarter-final series against the Vienna Capitals went over seven games, but Linz won the deciding one on home ice, 8-3.
Olimpija Ljubljana was waiting in the second round. The Slovenian team didn’t make new friends and suffered drastic suspensions after deliberately losing a game in the last round of the regular season. The team pulled goalkeeper Matija Pintaric during a shootout in the last game against Red Bull Salzburg so it could avoid playing Salzburg in the quarter-finals.
The coach and goalie were suspended for several games and the club fined €10,000 for this unsportsmanlike conduct, but their plan seemed to work out as the underdog team faced the supposedly easier team in the first playoff round, Hungarian club Fehervar AV19, and defeated it 4-2.
However, in the semi-finals the season was over as Linz won 4-1 – as did KAC Klagenfurt in the other series against Medvescak Zagreb.
It was Klagenfurt that got the first win in the finals, 3-2 at the arena in Linz that was sold out with 3,650 fans for a big part of the season. But Linz avenged the loss by winning in Klagenfurt with the same score and continued its streak, beating KAC 6-2, 4-1 and 3-1.
“It was a really tough final series. We can be happy that KAC has never scored the first goal,” coach Daum said. “I’m proud of my team, the fans and the whole organisation.”
The team will celebrate the championship on the city’s main square on Wednesday evening in what they call the biggest fan mile in the state of Upper Austria.
Meanwhile the non-Austrian teams went home to battle in their national championships. Olimpija Ljubljana leads 2-1 in the Slovenian final against Acroni Jesenice. And Medvescak Zagreb won the Croatian title after defeating city rival Mladost 3-1 in the final series.
Hungary’s EBEL entry SAPA Fehervar AV19 entered the national championship in the semi-finals after having played most part of the Hungarian league with a reserve team. The team defeated Dunaujvaros 3-0 in the semi-finals.
The team from Szekesfehervar defended its title beating Miskolci JJSE 4-0 in the final series. Despite having no chance in the finals, winning silver has been the biggest successful in club history for the team from Miskolc.
The players of SAPA Fehervar AV19 celebrate the Hungarian title. Photo: Viktor Koppan