Party town Berne
by Martin Merk|22 APR 2019
The SC Bern players celebrate with the trophy after beating EV Zug for the Swiss championship.
photo: Alexander Raemy
There were some upsets in Switzerland’s National League but the final ended up being a clash between the top-two teams of the regular season – with regular-season winner SC Bern as new champion. It was the third championship in just four years for the club that has been internationally known as the European club with the highest attendance figures for many years.

The small capital of Switzerland doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being a party town due to its calm character and many jobs in the government and diplomacy areas. If one thinks so, then the month of April can be called a big exception from the rule. For the first time in 60 years the city of Berne is champion in both football and ice hockey, the two most popular team sports in the country by far. In both sports Berne left the two bigger cities of the German-speaking area behind. The Young Boys ended a series of eight championships by FC Basel last year and defended their title in high-speed this season. One week later SC Bern dethroned the ZSC Lions from Zurich as Swiss ice hockey champion to start the next party thanks to a 4-1 victory in the final series against EV Zug.

“I’m very proud that we came back in the deciding part of the season. We had many players who played a good series. This title is very beautiful and unique. We are looking forward to celebrating with our fans. It was an incredible series against a very strong Zug team,” Swiss national team defenceman Eric Blum, who scored the championship-clinching goal, told “Hats off to [Zug’s] performance during this season. We had to offer a lot of resistance and we eventually made it.”

When the final series started, SC Bern wasn’t everybody’s favourite though. Zug seemingly easily made it to the final with eight wins in just nine games against Lugano and Lausanne. SC Bern had to work much harder to get that far with six games against underdog Geneve-Servette in the first round and even seven in the semi-finals against EHC Biel. Both times they had to fight back a deficit.

When Zug started the final series with a 4-1 victory in Berne, there was the talk of the end of an era where only four clubs – SC Bern, HC Davos, HC Lugano, ZSC Lions Zurich – can win championships since 2000. EV Zug, which won its only championship in 1998, has high ambitions with a long-term plan. Being located in a tax oasis helps luring and finding great players, they have a new arena with three ice sheets and a self-made billionaire who swears not to invest in the pro team but in the youth with a new academy, a farm team and a new academy facility currently being built outside the city. That’s material of a great future but for now it didn’t prevent them from losing a final series for the third time – like 1997 and 2017 against SC Bern.

SC Bern had something Zug didn’t have. Experience in winning championships. And experience in fighting back from the previous series this season – and previous championships. That paid off. Gaetan Haas, who returned from injury, gave SCB the lead in Zug and another national team player, Gregory Sciaroni, become the overtime hero to tie the series. On home ice SC Bern restored the old order with a 4-1 win and the team’s scoring leader Mark Arcobello waking up in time with two goals.

That meant the Zug players had their backs up against the wall last Thursday on home ice. Continue the unlucky streak and being 3-1 behind or tying the series at two. That was the question. And there are not many reasons to blame the team. Like in the three previous games EVZ had more scoring chances than SC Bern and outshot their opponent 11-3 in the first period. But they failed in front of the net and against an excellent Leonardo Genoni in the goals of the “Bears”. That’s the only big silver lining for Zug as Genoni will transfer to Zug this summer. He will do so with five championships including two during the last three years with SC Bern.

“These play-offs were very special. All SCB teams of the last three years were very different. If you win the last game, you have made everything right. I’m very proud of my team and what they reached today,” Genoni said. “This year we needed more time to see how the opponents play. It was a very useful experience to come back after being back 2-0 against Geneva and to come back against both Biel and Zug.”

Having Genoni on their own team is good news about the future in Zug. The present was good news for SC Bern. The team withstood the pressure and was lucky enough to win 3-1 against a Zug team that had more chances and a goal disallowed due to goalie interference. On Saturday on home ice SC Bern broke the opponent’s resistance with an early goal from Haas and the 2-1 game-winner from Eric Blum to start the next celebrations that will continue with a parade next Saturday.

Surprises and disappointment

In the Champions Hockey League the two finalists will be joined from Switzerland by Lausanne, Biel and Ambri-Piotta. Ambri was one of the rural-area surprise teams together with sixth-ranked SCL Tigers from Langnau in Emmental that made the playoffs, however, their seasons ended in the quarter-finals as the top-four teams advanced.

Two surprise teams in the playoffs meant two teams that played below expectations. And both teams have legendary Swiss coach Arno Del Curto as a parallel. The long-time coach of HC Davos for the first time missed the playoffs, and this even twice. He resigned in Davos when the team was 11th in autumn and then in January accepted the job at the ZSC Lions Zurich. The defending champs missed the playoffs too and ended up in ninth place with Del Curto.

The Lions are now looking for another new coach while Davos, after an intermezzo with Latvian coach Harijs Vitolins, hired Christian Wohlwend, who recently led the Swiss U20 national team to fourth place at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, as a new coach. They also hired the new sports director from the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. Raeto Raffainer will continue to serve as director of national teams only for a short time including the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship before moving to Davos.

For the first time in many years there was no relegation battle in Switzerland’s National League. Recently promoted SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers can stay despite only 10 wins in 50 regular-season games and losing the play-out series against Davos 4-1. The reason is that SC Langenthal, the champion of the second-tier Swiss League, withdrew from playing the qualification series for promotion against the Lakers. The club’s application to play in the National League was accepted only under certain conditions including having to play at an arena outside of town as Langenthal’s aging hockey barn didn’t fulfil the criteria for playing in the National League. After winning the final series of their league and the right to challenge Rapperswil-Jona for a place in the top league, they said No.

That means the league will continue with the same 12 teams next September. And with another chance to end the era of the “Big-4” as teams like Zug, Biel and Lausanne are upgrading their rosters.