BERLIN – JYP Jyväskylä won the Red Bulls Salute, the final tournament of the European Trophy, but more important were the announced plans at Berlin’s O2 World as the clubs met for a fresh start for European club hockey with the rebirth of the Champions Hockey League.
Information about the 26 founding clubs – successful teams with strong brands and history from the six founding leagues from Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Switzerland and Sweden – as well as the interim board and Infront Sports & Media as commercial partner was announced earlier (see release from 9th December).
At a media conference in Berlin, the Champions Hockey League, which is organized by a newly-founded shareholding company owned by the 26 founding clubs (63%), the six national leagues (25%) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (12%), made public new details about the new competition.
The competition will consist of 40 teams who will play the preliminary round in ten groups consisting of four teams each starting on 21 August.
The 26 founding clubs participate with A-licences. These clubs will enjoy multi-year participation, providing they continue to fulfil a number of preconditions, like solid finances and good organization.
“Their participation is guaranteed for four years if they fulfil all criteria,” said Anders Ternbom, chairman of the interim board that consists of six club representatives, two league representatives and one IIHF representative. “But there will be a review after three years.”
One of the criteria is that a team has to play in the top league of its country in the year of participation. Currently one club – Djurgården Stockholm – would not fulfil this criterion and must earn promotion to the Swedish Hockey League in order to participate in next year’s Champions Hockey League.
Up to 12 additional clubs will join the competition with B-licences. These are the champions and regular season winners of the six founding leagues, unless these already are A-licence clubs. In that case, additional teams from the country such as the runner-up of the regular season, the losing playoff finalist or a losing semi-finalist will take the B-licence spot.
Champions and regular-season winners will be top-seeded in the group draw, with the leagues ranked according to the IIHF World Ranking until an own club and league ranking will be established in the upcoming years.
That will make a minimum of 31 and a maximum of 38 teams with A- and B-licences according to the league’s regulations. Wild cards (C-licence) will be distributed to additional clubs to reach the number of 40 participants.
“It’s the idea to give the wild cards to clubs from leagues that are not part of the six founding leagues. It could be Denmark, France, Great Britain, Norway or Slovakia for example,” Ternbom said. “The leagues from Great Britain, Norway and Slovakia have already sent us letters about their interest.”
It is also planned to reserve one wild card for the winner of the IIHF Continental Cup in the future and use the Continental Cup as a clear “best-of-the-rest” competition, outside of the six founding leagues.
The Champions Hockey League will kick off on 21st August. The ten group winners and the best six second-placed teams advance to the play-offs that start with the home-and-away 1/8 finals. The final will be played in one game on 3rd February and mark the 149th game to determine the best club team in Europe.
The announcements were made during the Red Bulls Salute – European Trophy Finals in Berlin 20th December.
“As a club we have tried to play everywhere and make hockey more popular,” said Eisbären Berlin’s Peter John Lee referring to the many pan-European competitions the German team has been part of.
And he also explained the reasons when a Finnish media representative once asked him why Finnish teams would do something out of their league and play in Germany.
“I told him it’s about growing the game. It’s like with the Canadians. When they had the NHL in Canada they thought instead of a market with 30 million people it’s better to get the Americans with 300 million people interested too,” Lee said. “We haven’t had a Stanley Cup winner from Canada since 1993 but we made hockey more popular.”
“We have 90 million people in Germany we can make happy and I think it’s important for the Finnish teams to make more than 5 million people excited about hockey. With our wild cards we can have teams from Great Britain or France and have markets with over 100 million people. We can grow the game of hockey and that’s why Eisbären is very excited about that.”
“With this new format we can make hockey more popular in Europe,” Lee is convinced.
The best six teams of the last European Trophy edition played at the Red Bulls Salute in Berlin where Sweden’s Färjestad Karlstad and Finnish team JYP Jyväskylä advanced to the final game.
Although Färjestad had more shots, it was JYP’s Max Wärn, who opened the scoring on a man advantage at 8:25 of the first period. Shortly after the intermission, Markus Nenonen extended the lead for the Finns.
Färjestad worked on a comeback in the game but apart from Anton Grundel’s shorthanded goal on a breakaway midway through the second period the Swedes were unable to defeat an excellent JYP goalie Tuomas Tarkki. JYP’s 2-1 lead remained until the final buzzer.
In total 32 teams from seven nations competed in the European Trophy this year.
“It started in 2009 based on the Nordic Trophy with Finnish and Swedish teams,” said Bo Lennartsson.
The original idea was to give interested top teams a competition in the pre-season rather than having normal exhibition games. The hope for growth and commercial success, however, was only partly fulfilled also because most games were staged in the pre-season when it was difficult to sell it to the public and sometimes to coaches as something bigger.
“We were not entirely successful with the commercial side of the European Trophy and we wanted to look for growth,” said the Finnish C.H.L. board member Timo Everi referring to the “old” 12-team Champions Hockey League in 2008/2009. “That was a tournament for the few, our goal was now to make an event for the many.”
The European Trophy average of 2,571 fans during the preliminary phase was surely better than what one can see at most exhibition games in Europe but it was below the teams’ numbers in their championships.
“But we can be proud of what we have done with small resources but strong relations to the participants,” Lennartsson said.
The biggest legacy that remains from the European Trophy is the relationship between the clubs that, as Lennartsson said, were not just part for cherry-picking but had true interest in a competition even if they fell short of a financial reward in the short run.
This will change in the future as the clubs joined other stakeholders to build something bigger for 2014/2015.
“With the rebirth of the Champions Hockey League the objectives are different. It’s about making ice hockey stronger in Europe and create a strong community, a unique brand and credibility,” Everi said.
“The Champions Hockey League will be the league European teams want to play in and the European Trophy is the award they are playing for.”
This is also shown on the financial side.
“€1.5 million in prize money are planned and we hope this will increase every year depending on our success,” Ternbom said.
And this time the prize money will be covered by the income through commercial rights rather than through investments from clubs.
Since the Hockey Forum in Barcelona when the IIHF invited shareholders from all Europe to convene in the summer of 2012, the landscape has changed and the parties have come closer together. The end result is an entirely new model for a European club competition in which all shareholders have invested money to build a new brand together.
The interim board of the Champions Hockey League will convene again in January and on 27th February the first Champions Hockey League General Assembly will be staged in Zurich and elect the final composition of the board.
Already now the Champions Hockey League is operational at the headquarters of the International Ice Hockey Federation in Zurich. Szymon Szemberg, Champions Hockey League Project Leader, informed the clubs about the good news that all 33 shareholders paid in their share before the December 5 deadline.
He also informed that the draw for the groups will be held during the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk and be broadcast live.
“The date is not defined yet but the target date is 21st May,” said Szemberg. “It will be a random draw with no geographical considerations, except that there cannot be two teams from the same country in one group. Once we play internationally, it should be kept fully international.”
One league which has not yet joined the C.H.L. is the Russian Kontinental Hockey League.
“We have an open invitation to the KHL. They should be part of such a league but it must be under the same criteria as the other leagues which includes playing on the same dates as everybody else,” Ternbom said.
“There have been discussions with the KHL ever since the project started and they have been part of the whole process, but we have not been able to find a solution yet.
“Right now, it looks like they’re not going to participate in the inaugural season because we are running out of time. We would like to have them on board and we are still discussing with them. There is willingness from both sides, but we are not there yet.”
This also means that Slovan Bratislava, which played in the European Trophy, is currently not among the participants foreseen for next year since the Slovak club plays in the KHL.
“For us it’s a bit sad because we have been in the process since the beginning and last year our organization hosted the final together with Vienna. We had very good attendance, which means that the idea of playing internationally is shared by our fan base,” said Slovan Bratislava’s Milan Vajda.
“As a member of the KHL, we need to wait until there is an agreement. I personally hope we can be part of it. If not for next season, then maybe in two or three years.”
“What is different compared to the past is that all stakeholders drive for success together,” Ternbom said. And that’s why everybody is optimistic and looking forward to this new start for European club hockey.