VIENNA – Most countries have not determined the playoff participants, but in Austria the league marches to the beat of a different drummer as the quarterfinals are already finished. Of the four teams left, only three of hail from Austria.
Austria’s top league, the “Erste Bank Eishockeyliga” (EBEL), is not purely Austrian anymore. In 2006-07, the league was struggling to locate competitive teams in the country, but found interested clubs across the border. Acroni Jesenice from Slovenia joined the Austrians that year. Jesenice is only ten kilometres from the border close to traditional teams Villach and Klagenfurt. The idea was not bad. On one hand, the Austrians expanded their league to eight teams; on the other hand, Acroni Jesenice was competitive with fifth-place finish in its first season with an attendance average of 2,604, good for sixth in the league. This season, the interest has grown as Acroni jumped to fourth place in attendance.
Two more foreign teams joined the league last summer: Slovenia’s most successful capital team Olimpija Ljubljana and Hungary’s Alba Volan Szekesfehervar, which won five consecutive Hungarian championships. Ten teams played the regular season and for the first time since 2003, a quarterfinal round could be played.
The success of the newcomers was different. While Alba Volan just managed to win seven of 42 games, Olimpija Ljubljana finished the regular season in seventh and surprisingly swept Klagenfurt, 3-0, in the quarterfinal series. Starting today, Olimpija will play the Black Wings Linz, who beat Acroni Jesenice 3-2.
Olimpija’s best-known player is Todd Elik, a polarising Canadian forward who made headlines in Switzerland and Austria not only for his scoring skills, but more notably for his questionable gestures to referees, and actions towards fans and sponsors after his NHL career.
Will the Black Wings from Linz, Austria’s third biggest town, eliminate the other Slovenian participant? If not, Austria risks losing its championship crown to a foreign team. Although Austria has a contingency plan, as there are two championship titles: The playoff winner is the Erste Bank Eishockeyliga champion, while the best Austrian playoff team becomes the national champion, earning a place in the 2008 IIHF Continental Cup.
Olimpija became well-known in Austria not only for its solid play, but also for its sometimes overzealous fans. After some of them, well-known from Slovenian football, exhibited an aggressive behaviour against Klagenfurt, the league warned Olimpija and had them pay the damage in Klagenfurt. “This is a new situation in ice hockey and we will do everything that the positive image does not suffer,” said League Director, Christian Feichtinger.
But overall, Feichtinger is happy with the non-Austrian teams: “We hoped that they would be competitive and the international component has been received well by the Austrian fans. Acroni Jesenice had the highest attendance average in road games last season.” Feichtinger hopes that the league will continue with the same ten teams. “For six years our figures have been continuously growing. Our product is working and we hope this continues,” Feichtinger said.
An exciting, all-Austrian, semi-final clash awaits the fans in Vienna and Salzburg. The 2000-founded Vienna Capitals won the championship in 2005 and look dominant after winning the regular season. The Capitals also have the most efficient Slovenes of the league on their team: brothers David and Marcel Rodman, who lead in scoring just behind of their American teammate Aaron Fox and Linz’ Canadian Brad Purdie.
Red Bull Salzburg, supported by local billionaire and inventor of the energy drink, Dietrich Mateschitz, is the defending champion, but only finished fourth with new head coach Pierre Pagé, who most recently won a championship in Germany with Berlin before. No doubt, the team has to step up to make it to the finals.
The early playoffs are because of the relegation of the national team, which will be fighting for promotion at the World Championship Division I in Innsbruck April 13-19. “We know about the importance of this tournament for the national team,” Feichtinger explains. There was no question to end the league two weeks earlier to give the national team time to prepare.
While the season is finished for most Austrian teams, the three foreign EBEL teams are still in the hunt for gold. Olimpija Ljubljana and Acroni Jesenice will re-join the Slovenian league for the playoffs. Alba Volan played the Hungarian league with its farm team and finished sixth in the regular season. Now, Alba Volan’s season in Austria is over, they can try to defend their national title. Dunaujvaros won the regular season in a league that is also multi-national with two Romanian teams from Miercurea Ciuc playing. The city is located 300 kilometres from the frontier but has a Hungarian-speaking majority.