SALZBURG, Austria – And the first “European Trophy” goes... not to Sweden, neither to Finland, nor to Switzerland, but to Germany’s Eisbären Berlin. The underdogs surprised the big-nation teams.
The European Trophy was the most significant pre-season competition in Europe. The event evolves from the Nordic Trophy, a Finnish-Swedish pre-season competition that was run from 2006 to 2008 and then stopped when the Finnish clubs decided to part ways last year.
After a one-year break it was back in an extended version with more teams and more nations. The Nordic nations still dominate by having two thirds of the 18 teams in the competition. Six teams came from Sweden (Djurgården Stockholm, Färjestad Karlstad, Frölunda Gothenburg, HV71 Jönköping, Linköpings HC, Malmö Redhawks), five from Finland (HIFK and Jokerit from Helsinki, Kärpät Oulu, Tappara Tampere, TPS Turku) and Vålerenga Oslo from Norway.
The Nordic Trophy became more European by adding Central European teams from Germany (Adler Mannheim, Eisbären Berlin), Switzerland (SC Bern, ZSC Lions Zurich), the Czech Republic (Sparta Prague) and Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg that hosted the final tournament of the best eight teams.
The competition was organized by the clubs who paid an entry fee of €25,000 each to cover the prize money as well as the travel costs that have reportedly summed up to a one-digit million sum. On the income side there were ticket revenues and some television rights. About 137,000 spectators, an average of 1,700, visited the 80 games.
While both German teams had decent crowds and averaged 5,904 (Mannheim) and 4,766 (Berlin) fans respectively, the majority of the clubs attracted between 1,000 and 2,000 fans, some of them less than that.
Eisbären Berlin and Swedish champion HV71 Jönköping were the most successful teams on the ice. They both won their preliminary-round divisions and met in the gold-medal game of the final tournament, the Red Bull Salute in Salzburg and Zell am See, Austria.
Eisbären overran TPS Turku in the quarterfinals with a 4-1 win after a comfortable 4-0 lead already midway through the game.
They had tougher competition in the semis against SC Bern, but three goals within less than two minutes in the last period led the way to a 5-1 victory and to the final game.
HV71 struggled against host Red Bull Salzburg in their quarterfinal clash. The Austrians led until the last period when the Jönköping team turned the momentum and won 5-4. André Petersson was the outstanding player in the ensuing all-Swedish semi-final against Färjestad, which HV71 won 6-2.
Eisbären dominated the final game and never looked back.
Laurin Braun and Jeff Friesen netted two within 17 seconds in the first period and when Oscar Sundh received a five-minute penalty plus game misconduct for slashing. A few minutes later, Friesen scored his second goal for a 3-0 lead.
HV71 fought back and cut the deficit to one goal, but Eisbären defended the lead and won 5-3 after an empty netter. Captain Denis Pederson had the honour of accepting the first European Trophy while the almost 100 partying Eisbären fans sang “We’re the number one in the world”.
The Berliners were more than happy about the success as German club teams haven’t been spoiled with too much European success.
“Nobody believed that we would even reach the final tournament. People from other countries often belittle German hockey. But we knew that we had a strong team and we played very well,” said Eisbären forward André Rankel.
The organizers expressed satisfaction with the first season. “We have seen some very good hockey games in the month of August – good quality, high intensity and really competitive games,” said Bo Lennartsson, the European Trophy’s tournament director, and he noted that more Central European clubs are willing to join the event next year.
Many players confirmed the high competition level especially considering that the season has not started yet.
“It was pretty tough to play three games in three days. I can’t remember if I’ve ever had such a schedule at this level,” SC Bern defenceman Philippe Furrer admitted. “Probably it would be good to have two games in two days and then a break, like in the World Championship. And maybe to get rid of the classification games once a team is out.”
The outcome on ice showed that such a competition is useful for the teams. Of the 12 Nordic teams, only two Swedish teams and none of the Finnish squads made it to the semi-finals together with the German and Swiss representatives, who showed their opponents that there’s also good hockey being played in other countries than Europe’s “big hockey nations”.
The philosophies of these clubs from different parts of Europe about the future of this competition go into different directions. Marc Lüthi, Bern’s GM, describes the European Trophy as what it actually is: “A pre-season tournament with a high sporting level that costs some money.”
For Färjestad, HV71 and other Swedish clubs it seems to be more than just that. For them, the European Trophy is a statement for higher ambitions.
The driving force behind the project is HUB Europe, a hockey development company incorporated in Gothenburg, Sweden., HUB is owned by some Swedish top clubs that may opt out of their contracts with the Swedish Elitserien as per 2012.
They have a vision of a permanent, pan-European league west of the KHL’s Russian neighbourhood.
However, the Central European clubs don’t seem to be that progressive. Neither Bern nor Eisbären view leaving their domestic leagues to be an option in the near future.
“The German league is important for us and right now I can’t imagine leaving it for a pan-European league,” said Eisbären GM Peter John Lee. “But you never know what happens in, let’s say, 15 years. The losses we have incurred now are an investment to develop something and the clubs who decided to invest something are those who were present.”
The European Trophy is organized according to a different approach than what is common in the European sport sphere.
The recognized standard in Europe is the Champions League model that is a billion euro business in football and also well accepted in other sports such as basketball, handball or volleyball. Even if it may not be a cash cow in latter sports, it is successfully used as an instrument to promote the clubs and the sport.
One major principle of any European competition like that is qualification through sportive accomplishment on the domestic scene.
The European Trophy on the other side is an invitational tournament with a more commercial approach. It is run by a “club of clubs” that identifies markets rather than necessarily looking at sportive quality.
Malmö, for instance, was ranked 15th in Sweden and even plays in the second-tier league. (Hardly surprising, they had the worst record of all 18 teams.) But the driving forces behind the European Trophy come from Sweden. And Malmö is the third-biggest market in the country.
The participating clubs would like to continue with the European Trophy this way rather than using sports criteria and risk losing their spot in the competition due to a bad season at home.
The organizers also want to limit the area to west of the former Soviet area and leave the KHL – arguably the strongest European league – out due to the immense travel costs. At least for now.
For the new season the organizers are looking to expand, both with the number of teams and with its calendar.
Whether a “club of clubs” is the way to go, remains to be seen. Modest attendance figures and media coverage have shown that there’s still room for improvement.
Or as Peter John Lee said: “At the end of the day it’s the spectators who decide what they want to see.”