Europe gets set for Continental Challenge
by Andy POTTS|19 SEP 2023
The HK Nitra players celebrate after being awarded the 2023 IIHF Continental Cup winners' plate and gold medals.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Theo BARILLER-KRINE
It’s back – and there’s nothing quite like it. The IIHF Continental Cup gets underway this weekend, pitting 19 clubs from all corners of Europe against each other.

The unique tournament gives teams from Europe’s emerging leagues a chance test themselves on the international stage. Since 1997, when the Continental Cup was created to fill the void left by the European Cup, the event has promoted club competition from Iceland’s North Atlantic shores to the Kazakh steppe.

It’s anyone’s game

Best of all – there’s no such thing as a hot favourite in this tournament. The old European Cup was dominated by Soviet teams, while in more recent times the Champions Hockey League has seen six Swedish winners in eight seasons.

The Continental Cup is different. Last season was the 25th edition. In that time, 20 clubs from 13 nations have claimed gold, with just four (Ambri-Piotta, ZSC Lions, Rouen Dragons and Yunost Minsk) winning more than once. HK Nitra came out on top last January, giving Slovakia its fifth title and lifting the country to the top of the all-time medal table.

And the list keeps growing. Since 2015, we’ve seen seven different winners in seven completed editions. Four of them – Nottingham Panthers (GBR), Arlan Kokshetau (KAZ), SonderjyskE (DEN) and Cracovia (POL) – were the first champions from their country.
On-Ice celebrations of the HK Nitra players after being awarded the 2023 IIHF Continental Cup winners' plate and gold medals.
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Theo BARILLER-KRINE

Why does it matter?

Prestige: now in its 26th season, the Continental Cup is recognised as a leading European club tournament. While clubs in Europe’s top leagues strive for glory in the Champions Hockey League, this is a rare chance for teams in the next tier to enjoy international success. After his team won in 2023, HK Nitra’s president Miroslav Kovacik, said: “We looked at it as a diversification of our schedule. It might look like we played six unnecessary extra games, but I’m happy that we did. We won an internationally recognized trophy. From the club’s point of view, it was a success.”

Showcase: after reaching last year’s final, Angers Ducs head coach Mario Richer was quick to talk up the benefits of welcoming the world to Anjou. “It’s very important for our organisation, and for the Ligue Magnus, to show that we have a good league and our competition is very good.”

Variety: many of the competitors come from small leagues. In Iceland, for example, the national championship has just four teams. So Skautafelag Reykjavikur’s first-round trip to Spain immediately brings new opposition, new experiences, exposure to different styles of hockey and a chance to make new friends. That’s great for players and fans alike: last year’s final group stage in Angers, France, saw more than 15,000 spectators attend during the weekend, including visitors from Wales, Slovakia and Italy.

Team-building: three games in three days, and often an extended road trip, gives Conti Cup weekend the feel of a pre-season camp. That was certainly one of the attractions of last season’s final weekend, as Cardiff Devils head coach Brodie Dupont told the BBC: "It'll be good for team-building. You're spending so much time with each other, you can't help to become a closer group.

"You look to do this in training camp, to try to bond the team together as quickly as possible. So to get this opportunity mid-season, especially with how close our team has come together, I think it's only going to add to our strength."

The format

For the teams entering this week’s first-round groups, it’s a long road to the finals. Over the weekend, Jaca, Spain, will host three-team round robin contests and Kaunas, Lithuania will host four-team, round robin contests. The winner in each section advances to round two, scheduled for Oct. 13-15 in Jelgava, Latvia, and Belgrade, Serbia.

November sees the semi-finals. Bruleurs de Loups Grenoble hosts one group, welcoming Cardiff Devils (GBR), Nomad Astana (KAZ) and the qualifier from Jelgava. The other semi-final group takes place in Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy, in the rink that hosted the 1956 Winter Olympics. Hometown team Hafro Cortina welcomes Herning Blue Fox (DEN) and GKS Katowice (POL), plus the winner from Belgrade. The top two teams in each section will advance to January’s finals, where the last four will contest the medals in a decisive round robin group.

You can check out the 2023/24 schedule at IIHF - Continental Cup.