Five famous finals
by Andy POTTS|22 SEP 2023
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Svend Christensen
As the IIHF Continental Cup returns for the 26th time this weekend, we’re taking a trip down memory lane. The competition’s rich history has thrown up some great storylines over the years, and here are some of our favourites.

1997/98 – How it all began

The first Continental Cup final was in Tampere, Finland in 1998. Hometown heroes Ilves and Russian powerhouse Salavat Yulaev were the favourites, but unfancied Kosice (SVK) shocked them all to lift the inaugural trophy. In hindsight, perhaps it wasn’t so surprising. Kosice’s team included three players – Ladislav Nagy, Peter Pucher and Ivan Droppa – who went on to win the 2002 IIHF World Championship, Slovakia’s first. Nagy later played 435 games in the NHL and ended his illustrious career playing for his country in his native Kosice in the 2019 World Championship.

In the final group, Kosice made a good start with a comfortable win over Eisbaren Berlin. Then came a 2-2 tie against Salavat Yulaev, a result that ended the Russians’ hopes. Meanwhile, Eisbaren beat host club Ilves, putting three teams in contention on the final day. The permutations were complicated, but Kosice knew that beating Ilves in the final game would secure the trophy. It took some brave goaltending from Miroslav Simonovic to thwart a Finnish offence led by Raimo Helminen, but after a roller-coaster clash Kosice grabbed a 5-4 verdict.

Those Slovaks weren’t the only notable players to feature in the inaugural Continental Cup. Future IIHF Hall-of-Famer Cristobal Huet could not backstop his Grenoble team to the final, but he was named top goalie for his performance in the semi-final. This was an early international appearance in a career that took in two Olympics, 13 World Championships and seven seasons in the NHL.

2000/01 – A Canadian king of Europe

Larry Huras was born and raised in Canada and, as a player, made it all the way to the NHL. But, after moving to play in France in 1980, he settled into life in Europe so well that it became his home. By 2001, Huras had led Ambri-Piotta to back-to-back Continental Cup wins, and was behind the bench at ZSC Lions looking for a personal three-peat.

As host for the final, the Lions qualified automatically. The opening game, against the London Knights, was a tight 1-0 victory that owed much to Finnish goalie Ari Sulander. He finished the tournament with a 98.31% save ratio after backstopping a 4-1 win over Munich in game two. That gave Zurich an unassailable lead, and a heavy 1-5 loss to Slovan Bratislava in a dead rubber could not deny Huras his triumph. The Lions won the trophy again a year later, but the coach had been replaced earlier in the season.

After so much Continental Cup success, Huras rates the tournament highly. In a 2020 interview with the Gotmyteam hockey portal, he said: “In Europe, I was always observing, watching and studying. I think one of the greatest parts about playing .... in the Continental Cup is that you get to play and coach alongside coaches and teams from all over Europe. That also had a very big influence on the way that I look at things, the way I see the game, and this is something positive.”

2004/05 – Lock-out legends

In 2004/05, with the NHL out of action, many top stars headed back to Europe to get a game. And we saw some stellar names featuring in the Continental Cup that season. The final stage brought the likes of Pavel Datysuk and Andrei Markov to Hungary with Dynamo Moscow, but it was Slovakia’s Michal Handzus who left with the big prize. He was named best forward of the finals after helping Zvolen claim the cup.

Handzus had played in the NHL for seven seasons before this tournament. However, his Zvolen team was not expected to overcome a Dynamo roster strong enough to leave a young Alexander Ovechkin at home. After two games each, both contenders had defeated Milan (ITA) and Alba Volan (HUN) and went head-to-head to decide the champion.

Zvolen absorbed the early pressure, with goalie Karol Kristan in fine form and the defensive duo of Rastislav Stork and Stanislav Jasecko keeping Dynamo at bay. Then, 14 seconds before the intermission, Handzus broke the deadlock. The Muscovites recovered in the second period, and a power play goal from Vadym Shakhraichuk, currently head coach of Team Ukraine, tied the scores. But Handzus repeated his trick of scoring in the last minute of the frame, delivering Dynamo a psychological blow from which it could not recover.

Like his compatriots from Kosice before him, Handzus would go on to bag another major trophy: the highlight of his 1,000+ NHL games was a Stanley Cup success with Chicago in 2013.

2013/14 Dragons halt Donbas

In 2013, Donbas Donetsk won the Continental Cup, becoming the first Ukrainian team to do so. As a result, it was invited back for 2014, despite being a KHL club at the time. Naturally, expectations were high. The KHL was stronger than the other leagues involved in the Conti Cup, and the Donbas roster featured the likes of NHLers Yevgeni Dadonov, Ruslan Fedotenko and Randy Robitaille, plus Czech 2010 World Champion Lukas Kaspar.

But this tournament loves an underdog, and in Rouen the underdogs showed some bite. In the opening game, Stavanger Oilers took Donbas all the way to a shoot-out. The Ukrainians won, but failed to heed the warning. It came down to the final game: host club Rouen Dragons against Donbas. The French had suffered two heavy losses and could not win the trophy, but a Donbas defeat would give Stavanger the prize.

Three times, Donetsk led. Three times, Rouen responded. On 55:18, Clay Wilson made it 3-2 to Donbas, and the cup was within reach. But only for 11 seconds. French forward Julien Desrosiers tied it up, to the delight of the home crowd and the traveling Norwegian contingent in Normandy. In the shoot-out, Fabrice Lhenry silenced the Donbas forwards. Anthony Rech beat Michael Leighton at the other end, the Dragons had the win, and the Oilers took the cup.

2021/22 – Poland on the rise

The past few years have seen several new countries join the list of Continental Cup champions. One of the most striking successes was Poland’s Cracovia Krakow in 2022. Two years earlier, the Poles reached the final but struggled to make an impact. Experience absorbed, lessons learned, they returned to Denmark to put that right.

Unfancied in the opener against Saryarka Karaganda of Kazakhstan, Cracovia pulled off a shock 2-1 win. With the final tournament reduced to three teams after Belarus was suspended from international competition, it all rested on a game against tournament Aalborg Pirates. Once again, Cracovia was the underdog: Aalborg had home ice advantage and featured Julian Jakobsen, not long back from the 2022 Winter Olympics, plus three of his international team-mates.

Not that Cracovia was worried. A convincing 4-0 victory, sealed by Polish international Damian Kapica, delivered the cup. Players and coaches talked up the win’s importance for Polish hockey and were quickly proved correct. A month later, in April 2022 the Poles hosted Division IB in Tychy and dominated the group to win promotion. Twelve months on, Robert Kalaber’s team was at it again, with a memorable victory over Mike Keenan’s Italy helping to secure back-to-back promotions and a return to the top division for the first time since 2002.