Zug wins longed-for championship
by Martin Merk|10 MAY 2021
After a long wait of 23 years EV Zug won its second Swiss championship.
photo: Philipp Hegglin
A season with turbulences due to COVID-19 ended in Switzerland’s National League. However, there’s no need for an asterisk for the Swiss champion of 2021 since EV Zug dominated the league from the beginning until the end to win the second championship in club history after 1998 the club had been longing for so many years.

Zug also became the first champion in 23 years outside of the “glorious four” as during more than two decades SC Bern, HC Davos, HC Lugano and the ZSC Lions Zurich had split up the titles among themselves. However, ninth-ranked Bern is in a crisis, Davos (8th) is rebuilding its team, the Lions were not in best shape toward the end of the season and dropped to fifth place and Lugano was only “grande” in the regular season it finished in second place.

Other teams took advantage of the situation. Tenth-ranked SC Rapperswil-Jona Lakers was the big surprise team as they entered the quarter-finals through the pre-playoffs against Biel, eliminated Lugano but lost in the semi-finals to Zug. Sixth-ranked Geneve-Servette eliminated Fribourg-Gotteron and the ZSC Lions Zurich with strong playoff hockey in the first two rounds before challenging regular-season winner Zug in the finals but eventually the regular-season winner proved too strong and had the better energy level after a dense season.

While EV Zug had to wait for 23 years, the club is a logical champion. With the improved infrastructure, hunger for the trophy and yearly reinforcement for the team it only seemed a question of time. In 2010 the club replaced its dated Herti ice rink with the 7,200-capacity, state-of-the-art Bossard Arena that in the upcoming years will be extended to accommodate 9,000 fans. The venue was host of the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship and will serve as primary venue for ice hockey at the 2021 Winter Universiade.

Since 2015 multi-millionaire Hans-Peter Strebel chairs the club. Although he doesn’t present himself as an investor in high salaries in the tax-heaven town, he invested into the future of the club with a new academy, a farm team in the second-tier league and the recently opened sports centre On Your Marks in the suburb of Cham, which also became home to the Swiss national teams.

Key signings shaped the new champion

On the sports side the club tried to satisfy the hunger for the second championship by constantly improving the team and form it into one that could win the championship following losses in the final series in 2017 and 2019 and a second-place finish last year when hockey stopped with the end of the regular season due to the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.

The biggest of all transfers happened in 2019 when Zug lost the finals to Bern and hired the opponent’s goaltender Leonardo Genoni. Since then Bern has been moving down in the rankings while Zug made the extra step from a runner-up to a champion. Genoni didn’t have an easy start in Zug and needed a while to get used to the new system in front of him but in his second year he became as reliable as in the past and continued his streak of winning final series. It was his sixth championship in six final series he had played in with Davos, Bern and Zug.

Around the time Zug got Genoni there were also other key signings. Czech centre Jan Kovar was the scoring leader of the National League both during the regular season and the playoffs but didn’t only shine with great passes and goals but also for his physical work. Swiss national team players like Gregory Hofmann, who scored the two important goals in the last game, joined at the same time and Dario Simion, who scored important goals in the first two games against Geneve-Servette, came one year earlier.

And then there’s Dan Tangnes, the Norwegian who became head coach in 2018. At first his hiring looked like a surprise as he was little known in Switzerland and didn’t continue the tradition of Canadian coaches behind Zug’s bench. The last head coach without a Canadian passport was Rauno Korpi from Finland in 2000.

Tangnes silenced the critics with a second-place finish in the regular and post season in his first year and promised after the lost final series that next time the team would be on the winning side in the final. A promise that became true at the first opportunity.

“I felt already then that we will get more opportunities and I know the feeling that Geneva has on the other side; we had it two years ago. We used that feeling for motivation, for inspiration and the work these guys have put in. We have putting them out of the comfort zone. I’ve not been the most popular guy in the room all the time but I guess it’s all worth it tonight,” Tangnes told SRF after the game.

“[My feelings are] overwhelming. It’s like a deflated balloon right now. I’m proud of the work many people have put in for a long time. We have been waiting for this for a long time.”

40-12 record in regular season, 10-3 in playoffs

Zug entered the post season as odds-on favourite after having won the regular season with a 27-point cushion. But playoff hockey is different hockey. The team had to overcome resistance in the first two rounds against a battling SC Bern side (4-2) and upset team Rapperswil-Jona (3-1). And although they won the best-of-five finals in three games, Geneve-Servette didn’t make it easy to them. The first games were 1-0 and 2-1 wins for Zug. Game 3 was tied 1-1 after two periods but ended in a 5-1 victory with four unanswered goals in 11 minutes.

“I had my chances in the playoffs with less luck, but this time everything worked out,” said speedy Hofmann, who scored the championship-clinching goal. “We have invested so much in the last years and now we can celebrate with the fans, with the entire city.”

Only 50 spectators were allowed according to Swiss COVID-19 regulations but thousands of fans celebrated the players in front of the arena as if there were no tomorrow.

They also said good-bye to captain Raphael Diaz. The 35-year-old son of Spanish immigrants grew up next to the arena and hadn’t played for another organization except during a five-year stint in the NHL. He didn’t get the multi-year contract extension he had hoped for and will play for Fribourg-Gotteron but used his last games in Zug to make his dream come true of winning a championship with his hometown club.

Geneva in the meantime has to wait again for its first championship. Switzerland’s second-largest city won five silver medals between 1966 and 1971 and then again in 2008, 2010 and 2021. In an era where bigger and smaller clubs are building state-of-the-art arenas, the club plays in one of the oldest ice rinks of the league but despite a limited budget it often manages to compete with the top teams and during the 20 years in the highest league has also improved its youth department. Under Patrick Emond as head coach the club won back-to-back U20 championships in 2018 and 2019 after which he was promoted to coach the pro team with success.

Tough season for league

For Europe’s league with the highest average attendance the COVID-19 pandemic was a tough time. The clubs of the National League were debating whether it would make sense at all to play the season. Eventually with restrictions loosened after the first wave and players from many teams accepting salary cuts, the league had a delayed start in October when they were allowed to use two thirds of the arena capacities with masks, no standing rooms and no fans from visiting teams.

The rules seemed to work out and up to 7,582 spectators came to the hockey arenas in October 2020. However, with the second wave starting, regional governments added more severe restrictions only three weeks later followed by the federal government. For the biggest part of the season the teams had to play without attendance and hope that government grants for professional sports clubs would at least partly compensate the loss in income.

At the same time COVID-19 spread among the players. The teams in the league were quarantined multiple times by the cantonal health authorities causing a nightmare for the organizers and standings with a big gap in games played. While games could be moved during the regular season and the standings be calculated on a per-game basis, the league wouldn’t be able to afford lengthy quarantines during the playoffs. Players had to commit to a “team-home bubble” during the post-season and luckily for the league there haven’t been any known cases during the playoffs that were played slightly shortened with best-of-5 series in the semi-finals and final.

Ajoie joins as 13th team

Another COVID-19 related novelty was that the battle against relegation was scratched to avoid financial pressure for the less cash-rich teams during the pandemic. At the same time the league was not closed allowing the champion of the second-tier Swiss League to be promoted if it applied for it and fulfilled the outlined criteria on finances and infrastructure.

Two teams with ambitions reached the final with long-time NL team EHC Kloten and HC Ajoie – and it was the small-town club HC Ajoie from the western canton of Jura that earned promotion by winning the final series 4-2.

That means Ajoie, which hit the national headlines in 2020 for winning the national Cup competition as a second-tier team, will enter the National League as 13th club next season. The standstill of relegation continues for one more year meaning that the league could grow to 14 clubs by 2022.

In the meantime the clubs hope that most restrictions for indoor sports will be lifted in time for the new season as infection numbers go down and the vaccination rate up. For the last three weeks of the season the remaining clubs in contention enjoyed a baby step with 50 instead of 0 spectators allowed at the arenas.