For those unfamiliar, the CHL is a competition of 32 teams, each of which must qualify to participate, from 13 of Europe’s top national leagues. This includes the founding leagues from the Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland as well as champions from challenger leagues and the Belfast Giants as representative qualifying through the IIHF Continental Cup. The Russian-based KHL earlier decided to stay out from the pan-European club competition that is run in parallel to the national leagues.
For the preliminary round the teams are divided into eight groups of four, who play a double round robin within their groups and the top two-teams in each group advance to the playoffs. Following three rounds of two-game, home-and-away, total-goal series, a one-game final decides European hockey’s club champion in early February. This year, the group stage begins today and the final will be played on Tuesday, 4 February.
Over its first five seasons, the CHL has been dominated by Swedish powerhouse Frolunda Gothenburg. After last season’s 3-1 home-ice victory in the final over Red Bull Munich, the Indians have now won the event three times and lost in the final on one other occasion.
Frolunda is one of five teams that are appearing in the CHL for the sixth consecutive season. The others are Tappara Tampere from Finland, the Vienna Capitals from Austria and two Swiss clubs: SC Bern and EV Zug.
Bern and Zug are among five Swiss teams competing this season, with the other three all making their first appearances: EHC Biel, Lausanne HC and HC Ambri-Piotta. The latter club, which comes from a tiny mountain village from Switzerland’s Italian-speaking region, won the IIHF Continental Cup in back-to-back seasons in 1999 and 2000, and is making its return to international club competition after an almost two-decade-long absence.
In all, 10 teams are making their CHL debuts this season. Others include the EIHL and Continental Cup champion Belfast Giants from Northern Ireland, who bring the CHL to the Emerald Isle for the first time, and HPK Hameenlinna, the surprising champion of Finland, which had formerly competed in the IIHF European Cup and Euro Hockey League and made the final of the European Champions Cup in 2006/07.
Players to watchIt’s not surprising that Frolunda has a number of players that should be familiar to hockey fans around the world, starting with captain Joel Lundqvist – the identical twin brother of New York Rangers goalie Henrik – and American Ryan Lasch, the CHL’s all-time scoring leader. In the past, rising stars Andreas Johnson, Erik Gustafsson, Artturi Lekhonen and Rasmus Dahlin have shown off their talents in the CHL for Frolunda before going on to NHL success. Last season, Samuel Fagemo registered 10 points in 11 CHL games and was drafted in the second round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft by the Los Angeles Kings. This year, Fagemo returns to Frolunda and fans should get a chance to see another rising star, 17-year-old Lucas Raymond, who’s projected to be a top-three draft pick in 2020.
Other potential first-round draft picks to watch for are Alexander Holtz of Djurgarden Stockholm, Noel Gunler of Lulea Hockey, Tim Stutzle of Adler Mannheim. For Mannheim, also watch for 18-year-old Detroit Red Wings prospect defenceman Moritz Seider.
Returning to the Karpat Oulu fold is 21-year-old Jesse Puljujarvi, who re-signed with his youth club earlier this week. Puljujarvi previously starred for Karpat as a 17-year-old in the 2015/16 season, when the team made it to the CHL final. Also playing for Karpat is veteran defenceman Lasse Kukkonen and 36-year-old Jussi Jokinen, who played in over 1,000 NHL regular-season and playoff games combined.
The Cardiff Devils have a pair of players that played a role in their respective countries staying in the top group of the IIHF World Championship – British goalie Ben Bowns and Canadian-Italian defenceman Sean McMonagle, who scored the shootout-winning goal in Italy’s decisive victory in its last group-stage game over Austria.
Other recognizable names include a pair of Swiss goalies, Jonas Hiller of Biel and Leonardo Genoni of Zug, a pair of Czech defencemen, Ladislav Smid of Bili Tygri Liberec and Lukas Krajicek of Ocelari Trinec, Ambri-Piotta forward Matt D’Agostini, Bern forwards Andrew Ebbett and Marc Arcobello, Munich goalie Danny aus den Birken, defenceman Yannic Seidenberg and forward Derek Roy, Skelleftea AIK forwards Tom Pyatt, Joakim Lindstrom and Oscar Moller, and from Djurgarden defenceman Jason Garrison and forwards Patrik Berglund and Jacob Josefsson.
Last season was a breakthrough season for the CHL, with several firsts. While Frolunda again won the title, Red Bull Munich reached the final, becoming the first German team to make it beyond the round of 16. In the semi-finals, they beat Red Bull Salzburg, which was the first Austrian team to make it that far. As well, teams from Italy and France made it to the playoffs for the first time, with nine different countries represented among the last 16 standing – previous seasons had seen no more than seven and as few as five.
Last year 5,787 TV hours were broadcast to a cumulated audience of 136 million TV viewers in 63 territories. This year the website will be offered in new languages and fans can again join the fan challenge.
What does the 2019/20 Champions Hockey League season have in store? It all gets underway at 17:00 local time when the first game faces off: HC Skoda Plzen hosting HPK Hameenlinna.
For more information and to follow the games, visit www.championshockeyleague.com.