PARIS – If you think of French hockey as a marginal sport played at small arenas in small towns, you might probably be surprised to hear that 13,364 spectators watched the Rouen Dragons defeat the Angers Ducs in Paris for the French Cup Final on January 30.
The reigning French champion and league leader defeated Angers 5-4 in a shootout to claim the Trophée Pete-Laliberté.
The Cup – as opposed to the league – is a competition that can hardly be seen in hockey anymore. But in France, it has celebrated a huge revival in the last few years and the Cup Final has become a big national hockey event.
The Cup is a popular knockout competition in European sports, most notably in football. It traditionally includes dozens of teams from several divisions. In football, where not that many goals are scored, it’s a festivity for small-town underdogs hoping for a surprise when they get the right to host the big names at their often less glamorous pitches – and it’s good income for them, too.
In hockey terms it would be the same like finding the NHL’s New York Rangers with the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers and the LNAH’s Laval Titans in the same competition. It would be a big honour for the small teams, but rather an uninspiring obligation for the big-business franchises with predictable outcomes and lopsided scores.
In European hockey, the Cup competition hasn’t worked out that well in relation to other sports because the gap between the leagues is mirrored in the scores clearer than in football. In many countries a Cup has never existed. In others, like Germany, Russia or Switzerland, it has been scratched.
A classic knockout competition over several tiers during the season exists, apart from France, also in Denmark, Italy and Poland.
The comparisons between the leagues were not always that inspiring this season in France. The most positive results in favour of the French Cup was that second-tier team Brest defeated Caen from the Ligue Magnus, the top league named after the IIHF’s first president Louis Magnus, 6-5. Neuilly-sur-Marne even made it to the quarterfinals, defeating former French champion Amiens 4-3 in the 1/8-final.
Top-league contender Dijon struggled at third-tier squad Lyon in an 11-7 victory in the 1/16-finals while Angers also had a hard time visiting second-tier team Brest, edging the host by only one goal in a 5-4 1/8-final victory.
On the other side of the scale, pessimists would likely point out Amiens’ 27-1 hammering of fourth-tier team Le Havre. But of the 42 games played this year, only five ended with a margin of ten goals or more and 16 with a goal difference of five or more goals.
The competition is not mandatory for the teams, but still 43 squads applied for participation, including eleven out of the 14 clubs from the Ligue Magnus. That the first rounds are played in regional pairings also makes it more attractive for teams of any level.
But in France, where the Cup was introduced to hockey in 1968, the French Ice Hockey Federation took the idea even a step further, making it a more exact copy of the model successfully used in football.
In football, it’s not only an event to broaden the sport and support amateur and semi-professional clubs, but the competition also concludes with a prestigious best-of-one Cup Final as much a national celebration as a game, most often played in the country’s national stadium.
What is the Wembley in London for English football or the Olympic Stadium in Berlin for the Germans, the French first had to find for hockey. And they did. In 2007 the Cup Final moved to Paris-Bercy, the most famous arena for indoor sports and concerts in France, and it immediately became a success that has been repeated ever since.
“When we split from the French Ice Sports Federation and created the French Ice Hockey Federation in 2006, we wanted to go to Paris-Bercy with the final because ice hockey had been out of the arena for 19 years,” the federation’s president Luc Tardif said. “When we were part of the ice sports federation it was difficult to organize a thing like this because of the risk of failure. Now it’s completely different.”
“When we got the idea some years ago, we knocked at the arena door and they happened to have a free day because a concert was cancelled and we jumped at the opportunity. It was not an ideal day.”
“We didn’t have any of the big teams in the final and it was St. Valentine’s Day, but we were surprised because we had more than 12,000 people on a Wednesday. Now it has become a celebration for people around Paris. It has become a rendezvous for French hockey and we can make a profit, which we can use to fund youth hockey with.”
While 12,215 fans came to the 2007 final – the first game with such an attendance in the modern era of French hockey – the numbers increased continuously and the 13,364 spectators in Sunday’s final became the new French attendance record.
Such numbers were unthinkable in French hockey before. Of the ten biggest cities in the country, only one, Strasbourg, is represented in the Ligue Magnus, the top league. There are some teams located not far away from Paris, but the metropolis’ best team, the legendary Français Volants (“Flying French”), were relegated to the third level of French hockey and they play in Bercy’s practice rink.
The other clubs may come from real hockey towns with passionate and knowledgeable fans, and they might even sell out most of their games, but their rinks usually don’t offer space for more than 3,000 spectators.
“It’s a problem not to have a team in Paris because you get less national media coverage. We have no adequate facility in Paris apart from Bercy. We know there’s a need and we try to push the city to build something,” Tardif said. “We also have a project in Cergy-Pontoise, about 25 km north of Paris. We plan to have our national ice hockey centre there. It’s a €28-million project with a 3,500-seat arena and a second rink. We have now three, four building companies bidding for the project and we might be ready in 2014.”
But there are also ongoing projects to improve existing facilities.
“They will renovate the Bercy arena for €150 million and the arena people like their hockey. They have built new dressing rooms and installed a video cube. The city helped us a lot and it believes in ice hockey,” Tardif said before talking about plans in other cities.
“We now also have a new rink for 7,000 fans in Marseille, another arena with a capacity for 9,000 fans in Montpellier and there’s another project in Lyon. When we know about arena projects like the one in Montpellier, we want to convince the builder to also be able to have an ice rink there.”
“An ice rink was originally not planned for the Montpellier facility, but when we invited them to the Cup Final and they saw the interest, their plans changed. There’s also a project in Gap and in Epinal. Also Angers will need an arena, so there are some projects around. We need a top league with 12 or 14 teams that have decent facilities.”
The Cup Final has become a complete contrast to everyday operations in French hockey. The arena is big, full of fans, the atmosphere is amazing and the new video cube gives the 1985-built venue an NHL feel.
The Who-is-Who of French hockey was in attendance at Bercy. Former NHLer and IIHF Hall of Famer Philippe Bozon was there as a co-commentator for the broadcaster, Oscar the Rooster had his premiere as the new mascot of the French federation, some 150 kids played a tournament at the practice rink before showing their skills during the intermission, cheerleaders entertained during the breaks and legendary Soviet goalkeeper Vladislav Tretyak came onto the ice for a symbolic puck drop, receiving a warm round of applause.
Also the game between two highly motivated teams had everything the fans could wish for. What first seemed to become a predictable game – when Angers started with penalty trouble and Rouen made it 2-0 after four minutes – became an exciting match in the end.
Rouen made it 4-1 with a Carl Mallette hat trick after two periods as Angers struggled to control Rouen’s first line with Mallette and Julien Desrosiers. Some of their passes probably even made Tretyak impressed.
Angers found its way back in the third period. Jonathan Bellemare made it 4-2 soon after the puck drop, Eric Fortier got the 4-3 goal four minutes later and midway through the period Bellemare missed the equalizer when hitting the post. With 4:37 left in regulation time, Tomas Baluch eventually tied it up, forcing a ten-minute extra period – but Rouen was the more fortunate team in the ensuing shootout.
It was the fourth time Rouen won the Cup, but the first time they succeeded in the big Parisian spotlight. In 2008 and 2010 Rouen also went to the shootout, but the third time the Dragons finally succeeded to win one.
After five successful Cup Finals in Paris, the French want to bring more international hockey flair to Bercy.
“This year we will host Canada in both teams’ last exhibition game prior to the World Championship,” Tardif said. Hockey Canada was represented at the arena yesterday to get a glimpse of what will expect them on 24th April. “We also plan to create an international tournament at the end of August in the brand-new arena in Montpellier. We might start with a test game this year.”
Could it eventually be even more hockey for the City of Light? Such as the World Championship, after Team France’s several consecutive years in the Top Division?
“We would like to organize the World Championship one day, but we know doing it on our own would be a challenge,” Tardif said. “We will have a serious look at how Finland and Sweden will co-host the World Championship next year. Maybe we could have a bid with another country for 2017 or 2018, for example with Germany. Something like Paris and Berlin would be nice.”
Another dream is hosting an NHL team now as more and more NHL teams come to Europe for the season opener. The favourite team is a no-brainer in the heart of France.
“I could imagine having an NHL game in Paric-Bercy. I would like to have the Montreal Canadiens here,” Tardif admits. “I’ve talked for two years with their president, Pierre Boivin. But it’s not easy, also because they were busy organizing their centennial in 2009.”
The French Cup final has shown that thinking big can pay off in any kind of measurements – attendance, coverage, money, prestige. It will be interesting to see whether hockey can become a bigger sport in Paris and other cities thanks to bigger venues.
The Rouen Dragons, meanwhile, can simply celebrate their success and focus on the league they lead. But the next matchup against Angers should come sooner or later as Angers is second, four points behind Rouen.