ZERMATT, Switzerland – “We wanted to stage a unique event and were thus looking for a game at an enormous altitude,” said Sébastien Pico, the manager of the Swiss second-tier club EHC Visp. The plan succeeded. On Monday, the club aimed for the sky by playing EV Zug at an altitude of 3,883 metres (12,740 ft).
Visp is a place where idyllic, traditional Swiss wooden houses meet the modern world. The recently-opened 35-kilometre Lotschberg tunnel connects the region Oberwallis, the German-speaking part of the canton of Valais, near Visp to the urban part of the country on the other side of the Alps.
It was at the new train terminal where Viktor Borter, co-president of EHC Visp, made the opening speech of the day-long event, emphasising the importance of the club as a meeting point in the region’s social life. Adding to the 60 players and staff members of both teams, 140 guests were invited including camera teams of the Swiss and German state TV, most of them from sponsors and some lucky fans who were drawn.
From Visp in the Rhone valley (658 m), a chartered train took people up to the village of Zermatt (1,620 m), the famous ski resort and tourist destination. Its landmark is also the most famous one in Switzerland: the Matterhorn, the probably best-known mountain in Europe at 4,478 metres.
The mountain at the border to Italy inspired early mountaineers in the 19th century and it has been rebuilt as a chocolate version (Toblerone), as a 1/100 replica in Disneyland, California, and in the Japanese comic version of Heidi.
It was only fitting that the Zermatt community and the local railways are partners of the club.
It’s close to this almost sacred place, where EHC Visp planned the high-sky game against EV Zug, a National League A team that began to travel to the region for climbing and teambuilding in the pre-season a year ago.
Of course, the game was not played on the peak itself, but nearby at Klein Matterhorn and its glacier palace at 3883 metres. Three cable car connections bring people up there from the village. There’s no higher point in Europe accessible by cable car and therefore no better place for Visp’s record ambitions.
In comparison: Switzerland’s HC Davos, the professional club that plays at the highest altitude in Europe, has their arena at 1,560 metres. Denver, the city of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, is at 1,609 metres and Mexico City, which has hosted several international tournaments, lies at 2,310 metres.
The oxygen-deficient mountain air is a challenge for doing sports. “I felt a bit dizzy at the beginning but eventually I could get ready for the game,” said 1993 Stanley Cup winner Paul DiPietro, who also became famous for scoring both goals in Switzerland’s 2-0 win against his native country Canada at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. “It’s fun, it’s something very different.”
It was not an Olympic-sized rink the teams played on, but the organisers nevertheless brought out the best of the glacier palace, a natural crevasse, creating an 18-metre long rink that was between 4 and 12 metres wide. The temperature was -2°C but coolers brought the ice to -7°C. Guests kept warm by mulled wine and tea. Plexi-glass protected the glacier palace from shots.
The game, officiated by former referees Reto Bertolotti and Willy Vogtlin, was played 3-on-3. Both teams showed up with their pros but EHC Visp boosted its roster with three regional legends who took the first shift: Aldo Zenhausern, who had the first face-off against DiPietro, Gaston Furrer and Walter Salzmann.
Not all of them could be easily convinced to take part as they retired a long time ago. “I haven’t been skating since 1981,” said Salzmann, 72, a former Olympic and World Championship participant. The trio played in a retro-jersey that commemorates the only Swiss championship title of EHC Visp in 1962, before making way for their younger teammates.
The game on the hard-to-skate ice ended 6-6 after two periods of five minutes each. A penalty shootout determined the winner as Fabian Schnyder scored the 3-2 game-winner for the guests with the 12th shot. But it was not all about winning, and when the teams went back to the Zermatt village for dinner, the players had plenty of time to talk about this new experience on eternal ice.
Click here for the photo gallery of the glacier event.