Wow! What a week of finals central Europe has experienced. The Bolzano Foxes from the South Tyrol region in Italy for the second time won the Austrian-based cross-border league EBEL.
Earlier this week, the Alps Hockey League needed seven games for a champion to be crowned. Now the EBEL, which is the top league for teams from Austria, Croatia, Hungary and Italy and also involved a Czech team, kicked things up considerably in the drama department. After a historical run to the EBEL Championship by the Vienna Capitals last spring, who went undefeated throughout the entire playoffs, an entirely new form of drama was achieved in this year’s finals.
Like its affiliate circuit Alps Hockey League, the EBEL also required all seven games of the final in order to crown its new champion, the ever so surprising Bolzano Foxes. With that, the Foxes wrapped up their second ever EBEL championship. That is, however, only the beginning of this story.
Making this fantastic final result all that much more incredible was the fact that the team from Bolzano, also known as Bozen in German, barely slid into the playoffs with a victory on the very last day of the qualification round. Going back even further, that in itself was quite the accomplishment when considering that Bolzano was dead last in the standings in December, 12 points behind the second to last place team. Ultimately, the Foxes ended the 44-game regular season 9th in the 12-team standings.
In short, Bolzano has entirely rewritten the famous book “The Little Engine That Could.”
The Red Bulls Salzburg, the league’s most recognizable and potent address in the eyes of the international ice hockey community, entered the playoffs with vengeance on their minds after being austered unexpectedly last spring, preventing them from garnering a 3rd EBEL championship in a row. With this finals match-up, pundits could hardly be blamed for thinking Salzburg might even have an easy time of things in garnering a 3rd championship in four years.
As for Bolzano, a furious qualification round allowed the Foxes to make their way into the playoffs as the fifth overall seed and they took things into their own hands from there. In the first round of the playoffs, they faced off against last season’s runners up from Klagenfurt, who they surprisingly dismissed in six games. As if that wasn’t enough, the Italians from South Tyrol went on to knock off reigning champion Vienna in just five games. This was no small feat as the Vienna Capitals had finished both the regular season AND the preliminary round as the league’s top team, accumulating an outstanding 117 points (54 total games) in the process. In fact, Bolzano’s victory was one of the biggest upsets in EBEL playoff history, a feat that was also due in great part to the continued goaltending success of Pekka Tuokkola, who finished third in MVP voting for the regular season.
In any case, their victory over the Capitals sent Bolzano to the finals having only lost three games along the way. And fans could hardly imagine the drama that would follow!
That Salzburg would be Bolzano’s opponent wasn’t quite as surprising. After collecting 106 total points and having finished second to only Vienna in both the regular season and qualification round, the Red Bulls headed into the playoffs as a clear favourite for the finals. Once Vienna was out, Salzburg became the all-out favourite for the title.
Getting there required Salzburg to go through a very tough Dornbirn Bulldogs team in six games in the first round. Of the four victories, three were by two or less goals difference and the fourth came after allowing Dornbirn to crawl back into the series with victories in Games 4 and 5. No sooner had the Red Bulls licked some wounds from that series did they find themselves involved in another six game battle against Linz. This series as well saw only close games in which the Red Bulls never managed to beat Linz by more than two goals. So once the finals arrived, Bolzano was far more rested and coming in on a high, something that wasn’t the case for Salzburg.
With the Foxes being a team built on defence, it should have come as no surprise that the two teams kept the first two games very close and very low-scoring. Bolzano surprised on the road with a 2-1 victory in which a goal by Austin Smith in the 34th minute proved to be the game winner. Salzburg then turned the table shutting out the Foxes by a score of 3-0 in the Game 2, where Salzburg’s Mr. All Everything John Hughes had a goal and an assist. Things picked up in the scoring department from there on out.
Game 3 saw Bolzano win at home in front of an enthusiastic crowd by a 4-2 score. Both Mathias Sointu and Dominic Monardo chimed in with three assists a piece. But the series took another turn when Salzburg put in a dominating performance in taking Game 4 by a score of 6-3, scoring four unanswered goals in the final 25 minutes, getting two goals from Rob Schremp and three assists for Peter Mueller, both Americans who have NHL experience.
Game 5 took everything up another notch as the teams had an all-out battle that saw them trade goals all night long until the game went into overtime tied at five. Brant Harris then scored the game-winner, his second of the night, in the 16th minute of overtime, giving Salzburg the so-called “match ball” heading into Game 6. Harris was one of five Red Bulls to have two points on the night. But with the series on the line, it was Bolzano that had a huge third period in Game 6 and popped in three third period goals to win 6-3. Despite another two-point performance from both Mueller and Schremp, Bolzano got contributions from 14 different players on the six goals they scored.
And so the series swung back to Salzburg and Game 7 was played in front of a sold-out crowd, as nothing less could be expected. Of note was that the team that scored first had won each and every game, and “home team” had at no point necessarily meant “advantage”. If it were Bolzano Coach Kai Siukkanen’s tactical plan to get on the board first and early, then place his faith in a fortress built around super goalie Tuokkola, then it’s one his team executed to a “T”.
Monardo, a former captain of Lake Superior State University, opened scoring in the game’s 14th minute. It was no surprise that he had yet again come through on the road, as all five of his playoff goals were on foreign ice. Chris DeSousa, playing his first season in Europe, then popped in his fifth goal of the playoffs just one minute later, putting a surprised Salzburg team at an almost unexpected disadvantage. Sointu had assisted on both goals. Then in the 26th minute, home town South Tyrolian Luca Frigo chipped in his second goal of the playoffs to give Bolzano a 3-0 lead, well-known as the hardest lead in hockey to defend.
Salzburg coach Greg Poss must have done something at this point as Salzburg took more and more control and was on the offensive from that point on, largely to no avail. Bolzano thrived on its stingy defence and thwarted one opportunity after another, many coming while the team was shorthanded. It wasn’t until the 55th minute that Salzburg defenceman Layne Viveiros finally found a way past Tuokkola, giving the Red Bulls new life. The furious onslaught proved successful again with just 1:27 left in the game, as Peter Mueller found the back of the net, setting up for as dramatic a final push as you could imagine.
With goaltender Bernhard Starkbaum pulled, Salzburg spent almost the entire final minute in Bolzano’s zone seeing one shot after another being blocked by long sticks, skates, and flying bodies. With roughly 15 seconds remaining, the Foxes finally got the puck out of their zone. It was chipped in one more time, but with still four seconds on the clock, Tuokkola began jumping up and down, and was soon joined by his defencemen and then the rest of the team. Bolzano had done the incredible!
Despite the game being in Salzburg, many fans from South Tyrol had made their way into the arena to witness history and had the barn rocking in celebration. Without a doubt, the team will be welcomed home in grand fashion and the town will be celebrating in manner worthy of such a fairy tale ending to a magical championship run.
New EBEL MVP
The Ron Kennedy MVP Trophy, named after the sadly deceased Ron Kennedy, was awarded to Rafael Rotter of the Vienna Capitals, who put up 16 points in Vienna’s championship run last spring. His teammate Riley Holzapfel had been given the award the season before. Rotter managed to finish the regular season as the league’s top scorer with a whopping 30 goals and 41 assists in 54 games, giving him one more point than Linz’s Corey Locke and six more points than MVP runner up, Linz’s Brian Lebler. Rotter added another three goals and eight points in the playoffs.
Altogether, the Red Bulls' John Hughes led the entire league in scoring with 21 goals and 82 points in 70 contests. Between him, Schremp (61 points in 55 games), Mueller (61 points in 57 games), and Ryan Duncan (64 points in 73 games), opponents had their hands full just about every night of the season. For Bolzano, their top-scorer ended up being Alexander Petan with 24 goals and 55 points over 72 games, placing him just 16th overall in league scoring. Right behind him was Bolzano’s key forward, Mike Halmo, with 20 goals and 54 points in the same amount of games.
The league’s highest scoring defenceman was Linz’s Jonathan D’Aversa, who collected 13 goals and 47 points.
A growing league
The addition of the Croatian club Medvescak Zagreb boosted the league to an even 12 teams while also boosting its attractiveness. Not only was the club the league’s fifth best team, it also featured the league’s best attendance at just under 4’950 attendants per game. Even after the playoffs, the team from Croatia’s capital was the overall top-drawing team in the league.
Attendance in general was a delightful trend throughout the EBEL, with six teams drawing more than 3’000 spectators, three of which actually managing to bring in over 4’600 per home date. An even more spectacular occurrence was the manner in which hockey took flight in Bolzano with the club’s overwhelming success. By playoff end, the team was drawing over 6’000 in attendance for every home date.
This said, each of Znojmo, Innsbruck, and Graz drew less than 2’500 spectators per game, which paled in comparison to some of the bigger and more established clubs. In addition, fewer than 3’000 fans per home game made their way out to see Salzburg, which only took in a bit over that number throughout the playoffs, granted the team’s capacity is 3’400.
Nonetheless, a number of leagues around the continent would be absolutely ecstatic about these attendance numbers and the passion with which the fans of the team’s follow their team and this league. It speaks volumes about the passion for the sport throughout not only Austria, but parts of Italy, Croatia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.