ZURICH – The off-season is usually a quiet time in the Swiss National League A. Not so this summer, and especially not in Zurich where the ZSC Lions and the Kloten Flyers had to go through very different challenges.
The Lions, who won the championship after a seventh-place finish in the regular season, woke up from their championship celebrations without their coach.
Despite a second year remaining on the contract, it soon became pretty obvious that Bob Hartley would not stay. He had verbally agreed with the Zurich club management that he would leave, but only if the Calgary Flames, managed by his friend Jay Feaster, or the Montreal Canadiens – despite his Anglophone name, Hartley is French-Canadian – offered him a contract.
After leading the ZSC Lions to the championship in his first year, Hartley was coveted by both clubs, but opted for the Flames at the end of May, and he took his assistant Jacques Cloutier with him.
Hartley goes, Crawford comes
Bob Hartley agreed on dissolving the contract with the Zurich club, ending an turbulent period with plenty of rumours. The management started immediately to scan the market and eyed Marc Crawford, who was invited to Zurich in June.
After other NHL teams like Montreal, Washington and Edmonton also had found their coaches, Crawford remained free to join the team and signed a two-year contract during the last weekend.
Same as with Hartley one year ago, the Lions get in Crawford a long-time NHL coach who led the Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup win. He later coached the Vancouver Canucks for many years, followed by two-year stints in Los Angeles and Dallas.
Crawford also has international experience as the head coach of Canada’s first Olympic team with full NHL participation in Nagano 1998.
Last year, without a job in the NHL, he was working for the Canadian sports broadcaster TSN and also coaching Team Canada at the Spengler Cup in Davos, Switzerland. In Zurich he will be assisted by Rob Cookson, who was already in Crawford’s coaching staff in Nagano, and who was an assistant coach for Canada in two World Championships and three World Junior Championships.
With Crawford the Lions have solved their problem by having another highly-respected coach behind the bench of a team that has a reputation of being too satisfied, at least until Hartley’s taming of the Lions.
Kloten Flyers close to grounding
However, compared to the challenges regional rival Kloten Flyers have had recently, Zurich’s issues with Hartley’s departure can be described as luxury problem.
When the club, after several delays, presented its financial figures at the end of May, it was virtually clinically dead. More than half of the annual budget was not funded, causing a record loss of 7.9 million Swiss Francs (€6.6m) and an increase of the debt to 10.9 million Swiss Francs (€9.1m).
The club from Kloten, a Zurich suburb mostly known for the international airport, had its primetime in the ‘90s when it won four straight championships between 1993 and 1996, and in the process getting the nickname “Flüger”. It later made it to the official club name when it was Americanized to Kloten Flyers rather than the old EHC Kloten.
But the club has been going through difficult times ever since the end of the ‘90s when its main sponsor Swissair folded. A retired hotelier, Peter Bossert, saved the club in 2001 before selling it to Jürg Bircher, a real-estate businessman, in 2008.
Already during Bossert’s era the owner was complaining about an annual “base loss” of up to one million Francs he had to cover each year. The club’s trademark was developing many young players, but the payroll was constantly too high.
Under Bircher the situation got worse with a careless payroll increase over the years. It resulted in two final appearances, but not in healthy finances. In the end the Bircher imperium seemed to fall apart while the stream of red ink was becoming a river.
Bircher tried to sell his shares to a potential new owner, who later claimed being cheated with false numbers indicating financial stability. That made the disastrous economic situation public.
The news was a shock not only for the fans in this region around the city of Zurich, but also for Swiss hockey in general. Kloten has been an important contributor of talent both to the league and the national team, and it’s the club that has been in the top league for more consecutive years than any other, since gaining promotion in 1962.
With the mountain of debt, the club became a case for the bankruptcy court and it was close to expulsion from the league. There were two choices: Try to rescue the organization financially and continue playing in the league under the same legal entity, or to restructure with a new entity, which would mean that Kloten would have to start from the bottom tier league.
Despite the gloomy prospects, several people and groups in and around the club fought a battle almost as hopeless as the Greek financial crisis to avoid the Flyers’ imminent grounding. Fan clubs collected money, as did the players themselves (while waiting for salaries since April), also assisted by local entrepreneurs. They came together in a task force led by former club owner Bossert, who co-ordinated all efforts.
Federation President Gaydoul at the rescue
In June, very unexpectedly, a new investor was found in billionaire Philippe Gaydoul, who on top of everything suddenly found himself in a severe conflict of interest as he has been the President of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation for the past three years.
Together with banker Thomas Metter, the duo announced they would be willing to take over the club if a massive debt reduction could be reached and the shares, or at least the qualified majority of voting rights, be transferred to them.
After weeks of fighting for the club with the fans not knowing if they would have a team to cheer for, the biggest rescue operation in Swiss hockey history concluded with a happy end last week.
2.9 million Francs (€2.4m) were raised by various supporting groups, and several parties were willing to write off bad debts totalling 5.2 million Francs (€4.3m), half of it from a former board member who lent the club money.
But also regional authorities participated in the rescuing plan with a reduction of tax debts, knowing that getting part of the debts paid would serve them better than the club’s bankruptcy.
The efforts paved the way for the new investors, who now have the two-third majority they need in order to devalue the old shares and pump in new capital.
Dismantling of a Kloten legend
While most of the players, astonishingly, were kept during the crisis, it was decided to part ways with long-time coach Anders Eldebrink from Sweden as his contract was considered as too expensive. Players Niklas Nordgren, Roman Wick and Arnaud Jacquemet were also let loose.
The investors installed a new CEO in Wolfgang Schickli, who sacked his predecessor Jürg Schawalder and assistant coach Felix Hollenstein. Schickli wanted a fresh start, meaning that there was no room for nostalgia.
Player-legend and long-time assistant coach Hollenstein, who had been with the club for 28 years, was shown the door and the lesser known Czech coach of Kloten’s junior team, Tomas Tamfal, was promoted to lead the elite league team.
It will be an uncertain future on the ice for the team when the season kicks off on 12th September, but at least one with the certain backing of the new investors. Gaydoul’s entry in Kloten will also mean the end of his presidency of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation.
For now he passes on being on Kloten’s board and the federation’s committee accepts the temporary continuation of his presidency while being Kloten’s owner for a transitional period until his succession will be arranged.
- Same as Kloten, also troubled mountain-village club HC Ambrì-Piotta can count on a new investor. Samih Sawiris, an Egyptian businessman with domicile in Switzerland, is building a new resort in not far away Andermatt and he wants to support the main sport teams in this Alpine area. After investing in football team FC Luzern, he will subscribe to Ambrì shares for 1 million Swiss Francs and join support organizations for the club.
- The ZSC Lions Zurich not only have a new coach, but they also want to solve the issues with the city’s busy multifunctional Hallenstadion by building an own arena. The new sport complex would include an ice arena for 12,000 fans, a practice rink and a 3,000-seat volleyball arena. The complex in the Altstetten district would cost 193 million Swiss Francs and because a substantial loan from the city is foreseen, the local parliament has to vote on the plan, and probably also the citizens in an eventual referendum. Meanwhile the architecture competition is going on and the club hopes to move to the new arena in 2017.
- One year after defenceman Raphael Diaz (Montreal Canadiens), EV Zug loses another player to the NHL as the league’s scoring leader Damien Brunner signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings. Brunner announced his intention to move to the NHL very early and he impressed GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock when they scouted him at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Helsinki.
- The Swiss Ice Hockey Federation confirmed Sean Simpson as the head coach of the Swiss national team. Although Simpson has an ongoing contract, his position was put into question after the 11th-place finish at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
- Swiss coach Jakob Kölliker didn’t enjoy the same kind of backing in Germany. The German Ice Hockey Association decided not to extend his contract as the German national team coach after the 12th-place finish and missing the direct Olympic qualification. A successor has not been named yet.
- Kevin Lötscher, the player who was involved in a life-threatening accident a few days after coming home from the 2011 IIHF World Championship with several weeks in artificial coma and severe head injuries, will attempt a comeback in the upcoming season. The other clubs agreed on an exception to allow him to represent his club SC Bern in the junior league in order to start playing in a less physical competition.
- The Spengler Cup organizers announced the teams that will participate in the traditional tournament between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Apart from host HC Davos and the usual guests from Team Canada, the tournament includes KHL team Salavat Yulayev Ufa. The Spengler Cup will be kind of an exile as Ufa’s two main ice arenas will host the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship, 26 December 2012 to 5 January 2013. Fribourg-Gottéron (SUI), Adler Mannheim (GER) and Vitkovice Ostrava (CZE) are the other participants in the six-team tournament.
- Davos was also in the spotlight when the members of Swiss Olympic voted in favour of a candidacy for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games with St. Moritz as the main venue and Davos as a second venue and a host for ice sports. Women’s ice hockey would be played in the current rink while a bigger arena would be built at the lake for the men’s ice hockey tournament. The applicants will be known by September 2013 and the 2022 Olympics will be awarded at the 127th IOC Session in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in June 2015. The next Winter Olympics will take place in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, and in 2018 in PyeongChang, Korea.