SALZBURG, Austria – For the first time since Austria’s top league EBEL opened its borders in 2006, it has been won by a foreign team. The Bolzano Foxes defeated Red Bull Salzburg thanks to Slovene Ziga Pance's overtime championship-winning goal in the deciding game of the best-of-five final series.
“It was an incredible series and an incredible year. We gave everything on the ice every second. The goal will remain forever,” Pance said in a flash interview after the game.
The Austrian-based league has grown a lot in the last few years and covers almost all areas of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire with teams from Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and since this season Italy.
The Bolzano Foxes joined from the Italian region of South Tyrol, a mainly German-speaking area that belonged to Austria until World War I. Better known in Austria under its German name Bozen, the provincial capital city is home to Italy’s strongest club team.
With a roster consisting of players from South Tyrol, elsewhere from Italy and import players in the key positions, the Foxes surprised not only with a second-place finish in the regular season that earned them a spot in the new Champions Hockey League but especially in the playoffs.
Bolzano swept Hungary’s EBEL entry Fehervar AV19 4-0 and defeated VSV Villach 3-1 in the semi-finals while Salzburg ousted Dornbirner EC and the Black Wings Linz. Reigning champion KAC Klagenfurt surprisingly missed the post-season after a ninth-place finish in the regular season.
Bolzano had a strong start in the final series as well. The team, led by coach Tom Pokel who also coaches the Italian national team, won the first game 6-1 and followed up with a 4-2 victory on home ice, only to see Salzburg tied the series and force a fifth game.
Salzburg gained the lead twice in the deciding game but Bolzano equalized to force the extra period that brought them the title with Pance’s goal that came after 12 minutes of overtime action.
“We were very careful with player transfers for this season. The first criterion was their character,” coach Pokel is quoted on the EBEL website. “Initially we thought it would become a very difficult season with many ups and downs and for that you need players with character.”
“Our will to win was there in every game and after our first wins at the start of the season our confidence continued growing and a snowball became an avalanche.”
Indeed it was not individual skill that made the difference in Bolzano’s favour, it was team play and depth. The best Foxes scorer, Mark Santorelli, came in 11th place with 18 goals and 39 assists in 67 games.
As a consolation, favourite Red Bull Salzburg, which won four league titles between 2007 and 2011, can name itself Austrian champion since this title according to the regulations goes to the best Austrian EBEL team. One final, two champions. Somehow everybody had reason to celebrate in the EBEL Empire but on the team pictures with the two different trophies it was the Bolzano Foxes who doubtless had the brightest smiles.