ZURICH – It all began almost 100 years ago. The 1910 European Championship in the Swiss village Les Avants in the canton of Vaud was the first-ever IIHF tournament. Other tournaments were hosted in idyllic venues in the Eastern part of the Swiss Alps in the following years: the 1922 European Championship in St. Moritz, the 1926 European Championship in Davos, the 1928 Olympic Winter Games in St. Moritz, and the 1935 World Championship in Davos.
The 1935 edition was historic. Not only did the Swiss win their only World Championship silver medal on senior level, but it was also the last time the event was held in a small town. A new era began in Switzerland. It was the era of artificial ice rinks which conquered the cities, from London to Milan. It was also the year HC Davos won the last championship in a seven-year streak. Hockey came to the valley, to the big cities.
HC Davos is the only “original club” which has remained in the highest Swiss league until today (apart from a few years in lower divisions). The other eleven NLA clubs were founded later, thanks to artificial ice rinks built between the ‘30s and ‘60s in almost every bigger Swiss town.
The first cities to challenge Davos, Arosa, St. Moritz & Co. on and off the ice were Zurich and Basle. ZSC broke Davos’ championship series by winning the trophy in 1936 and 1949, while Basle’s biggest success was the silver.
However, both cities were more successful off the ice. They became the stage of world class hockey when Switzerland hosted the World Championship in 1939 and 1953, two groundbreaking tournaments for the country.
The 1939 Worlds were not played in the Alpine region, but on then-brand-new rinks in the cities.
The St. Margrethen rink in Basle was the main venue. It was there, where Canada, represented by the Trail Smoke Eaters, won the title once again in the last tournament before World War II. The rink, with an ice area of 6,000 square metres, could easily accommodate three Olympic-size fields, and was therefore not only used by professionals, but also popular for ice skating, hockey practices and schools.
The tribunes around the rink were built like a classic football stadium of that time. On one long side it had a roofed tribune with wooden benches. Behind the nets there were concrete standing areas. And on the other long side, where the ice continued to the other rinks, there was a temporary tribune. Beside the other ice fields, there was space for additional locker rooms and a restaurant. The capacity during the World Championship was 16,000.
The second venue, the Dolder rink in Zurich, was set up exactly the same way, and had space for up to 13,800 fans. The area of the ice was 6,000 square metres, making this and the Basle rink the largest artificial ice rinks in Europe.
Fifteen years later, the roles were swapped. Basle was the second venue while Zurich was ready with an indoor arena, the Hallenstadion, used both for the 1953 and the 1998 World Championship. It took ZSC many years to convince the Swiss Ice Hockey Association that games could be played under a roof like in the NHL – at the time, ice hockey was considered an outdoor sport in Europe.
In 1950, 11 years after the arena was built, ZSC got the green light, and in 1953, the World Championship arrived to Hallenstadion. Up to 15,000 spectators saw the games, and saw Sweden win its first gold medal. The arena was reconstructed in 2005, and it's still the home of ZSC, the reigning European club champion.
However, despite all the modernity, both these old-school, XXL-size, open-air rinks are still alive and still popular among recreational teams, juniors, school classes and families. Despite the big size, it can be difficult to find space on a sunny winter Sunday on the two historic rinks.
But the development of Basle and Zurich as hockey towns couldn’t be more different.
The Dolder rink lies above downtown Zurich on the Dolder mountain, reachable by a winding road or cable car. And there’s not much that has changed since 1939. After ZSC found a new home downtown with Hallenstadion, Dolder became a place for recreational sport. And there’s no better place to enjoy the old spirit of former Zurich hockey legends than at this place--if the weather is on your side.
The St. Margrethen rink lies at the foot of the noble Bruderholz hill and despite being well-hidden there, it’s just a ten-minute walk from the central station. And it was used for professional hockey until 2002. Yes, 2002. Until then, EHC Basel had to wait for a closed arena, built outside downtown as part of the sport district St. Jakob.
The club lost its place in the highest league, had financial troubles and was mostly playing between the second and fourth division (apart from four years in the new millennium which are over since the relegation in 2008). In 1984, the club was forced to build a roof over the main rink in order to play in the National League B. Ventilators under the roof help reduce the fog. The striking roof is the only noticeable change since 1939, apart from the plexiglass. One side of the standing room got overgrown by weeds. The capacity was just 4,000 when the team moved out.
Both rinks are open from October till March for fans of historic hockey rinks or those who simply prefer to skate in fresh air like Bibi Torriani and other Swiss Hall of Famers did 70 years ago.
Zurich’s Dolder rink hasn’t changed much since hosting the 1939 World Championship. Photo: Martin Merk
A third-tier league game of EHC Basel at St. Margrethen in the ‘90s. Photo: hockeyfans.ch