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ZURICH – On Tuesday night, the ZSC Lions completed a mission that began almost one year ago: To achieve the highest accomplishment a European club can achieve – the Victoria Cup.
European clubs have been battling for the European crown since 1966, in different formats, but it was in 2008 when hockey took the next step, adding a transatlantic trophy into the mix.
Like last year in the inaugural Victoria Cup in Berne, the game between the European champion and the NHL challenger was a close one. Last year, the New York Rangers edged Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-3 coming back from a 3-0 deficit.
This year, the Victoria Cup stays in Europe after Zurich’s 2-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks. The ZSC Lions became the first-ever Swiss European club champion by winning the Champions Hockey League after a David vs. Goliath story in eight acts, and ZSC always playing the part of David.
The Victoria Cup was the bonus track, so to say. But for ZSC coach Sean Simpson it was just the continuation of the team’s successful international campaign. And preparation was his key to success.
“Winning the Champions Hockey League was the bigger success because it took months, and you had to win several games. Against Chicago it was just one game and anything can happen in one game if you believe in yourself and work hard. We had one week to prepare for this game and we used it,” Simpson said.
“We can play our game without special preparation in Switzerland because the teams play a similar system. But when you play at such a high international level, you need special preparation.
“When you play against Chicago, Magnitogorsk, Espoo, Linköping, Prague, it’s always a different style, so we always had to adapt our strategy a little. I think we were well prepared for Chicago’s style. We wanted to do our best even though we were not sure what it meant against Chicago. It meant a win, 2-1. I think the experience from the Champions Hockey League helped us because we won some great games there. It was a great performance of the whole team,” he said.
In the Swiss league, last season’s CHL winner got ousted in the quarterfinals. It seems like the Lions become better players on international stage.
“It’s also psychological. You get a new jersey without advertisement, you watch Chicago vs. Detroit videos as a preparation, and that gave us the self-confidence we needed,” said Simpson.
“Now we must get our feet back on the ground. It was just one game and now we have to get focused on our own league. You always have to be ready for your next task. I hope this will help us also in the National League A. It was a great evening for Swiss hockey.”
For Simpson, the Victoria Cup was an excellent calling card and it may not be surprising that, according to Swiss media reports, he’s one of the main candidates for the national team job next year.
“We were well prepared, our system worked well and you have to believe that you can win the game,” said Ryan Gardner.
“Chicago is a great team with some world-class players. We knew that they’d play hard and we had to be ready. We skated our butts off, tried to play our system and put them under pressure. We wanted to keep it simple, we wanted to forecheck and not to sit back. Maybe they weren’t ready for our pressure, maybe they thought they can beat us hard like they did against Davos. From the first line to the fourth line we had huge contribution from everybody.
“We put pressure on them all the time, we killed penalties, and battled ‘til the end. We made our country and Europe proud. It’s a special night to us and for everybody who worked hard on it.”
Swiss gold, European gold, the Victoria Cup. There’s not much more left to achieve in Europe.
“I would like to win a medal at the Olympics, or the World Championship,” Gardner said.
“But right now I’m just happy. We have a long season ahead of us. Everybody wanted to beat us last season because we won the Champions Hockey League and now they want to beat the team that beat the Chicago Blackhawks.”
Patrik Bärtschi won the Most Valuable Player award. He tied the game on a breakaway and had five shots on goal – including a missed penalty shot.
“I can hardly believe this. Something like that doesn’t happen every day. It was a huge performance. We had a good beginning and didn’t give up after their 1-0 goal,” the Victoria Cup MVP said.
“You could see that everybody believed in the team. We beat the Chicago Blackhawks, a team where our best players probably wouldn’t get any ice time, so we can be very proud of what we’ve achieved. Now we have to celebrate and let it sink in, get our feet on the ground and come back to our league.”
One of the cornerstones on the ZSC team was – same as during the CHL season – the Finnish veteran goalie Ari Sulander. The 40-year-old helped his team win with 34 saves.
“It was a weird shot, like a curveball where the puck fell down, and turned to the side,” Sulander said about the first goal. “It didn't hit anything on the way, it was just one of those things.
“I just had to refocus and get ready for the next shot. I knew that if I can stop the first shot, our guys would take care of the rest.”
And they did. Sulander was full of praise for his teammates.
“Our defencemen played really well, I haven't seen our guys block shots like they did tonight in a long time,” he said and confirmed reports that he will apply for the Swiss passport soon.
“If I get it early next season, I’d like to keep playing,” he said. “Otherwise I’m no sure what I will do.”
But for now he can enjoy another big win.