Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Puckarinen on 09/06/11 at 05:00 PM ET
The summer vacations are over, and kids are back in school, so the puck must be about to drop in Europe. And so it is. The KHL kicks off on Wednesday, the Swiss league on Thursday, and by the end of next week, all European major leagues will be under way for 2011-12.
The European Trophy has surely reached one of the main early objectives the founders had, which was to raise the awareness and prestige of the pre-season games. In five years, the eight-team strong (four from Sweden and Finland each) Nordic Trophy has grown into today’s European Trophy, a pre-season league with 24 teams from six different countries: Sweden, Finland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
The last games of the European Trophy group stage are played on Tuesday, but we already know that three Swedish teams (Frölunda, Luleå, and Linköping), three Czech teams (Mountfield, Plzen, and Pardubice), one Finnish team (Jokerit), and EC Red Bull Salzburg will play for the championship in the Red Bulls Salute, the final tournament that will be played in Salzburg and Vienna in Austria.
So it’s a bit difficult to describe the European Trophy these days. I did write, out of habit, that it’s a pre-season league, but now that the final tournament will be played in December, during the second national team break in the European leagues’ schedules, it’s taken a step beyond being a pre-season league.
It’s hard to see what it might, one day, become, but just the fact that eight European teams will be playing in their own tournament while the national teams play in theirs is surely a statement about the clubs’ strive for independence from the federations.
Team Sweden head coach Pär Mårts has already voiced his concerns about the “scheduling conflict”.
“Obviously, it’s not good. We’ll have to clear things up at an executive level,” he told Svenska Dagbladet in August.
While most of the club executives say that they would release any players Mårts picks to his team to the Moscow national team tournament, Djurgården’s GM Tommy Engström wasn’t as shy to voice his club’s line.
“The European Trophy is our highest priority. If we make the final tournament, of course we’ll want to have our best players with us there, and we hope that the federation respects that,” he said.
(They didn’t make it).
Finland’s head coach Jukka Jalonen replied to my email asking about the conflict saying that he hadn’t discussed it with the clubs, and that he wanted to see which teams, if any, would make the Red Bulls Salute.
Even the Finns have got involved in international hockey’s turf wars, though.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has been working on a new tournament for the national champions of the big six leagues. The President’s Cup would take the place of the Champions Hockey League that folded after just one season in 2009, due to financial reasons. The new format marks a return to the Super Six tournament of the early 2000s.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, Helsinki IFK, the reigning Finnish champions - with former Shark and Panther, Ville Peltonen and the Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund as their biggest stars - declined the invitation, citing a tough January schedule as the reason. Not even the prospect of getting their hands on the 500 000 dollars that the winner gets as prize money was enough.
And so the European club hockey is still full of question marks. While the European Trophy has the attention of the clubs and the fans, and the IIHF the authority, it’s still the KHL that has the money.
This season, the league that has been known as a league for teams from the former Soviet Union, breaks that barrier when Slovakia’s HC LEV Poprad joins the league. The expansion to former Czechoslovakia has been in the works a few years with rumors of a team going to Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, and then Hradec Kralove was announced to have reached an agreement with the KHL, which the Czech hockey federation then nixed, and the team’s management moved it to Poprad, Slovakia.
Even the Slovak federation refused to accept the expansion at first, even after the club proposed to pay each Slovak Extraliga clubs up to 50 000 euro as compensation for lost sponsorship money. The federation reversed their decision later, and now Poprad is ready to go.
Now there are two teams in Poprad. One playing in the KHL, and the other, their farm team, playing in the Slovak league.
The KHL team operates on a budget of about 14 million euro (USD 20 million) - in the lower third in the KHL - and will have its own plane for travel, while the average budget of a Slovak league team is a little over two million dollars.
The club’s main sponsor is CKD Group, one of the leading and oldest corporate names in the Czech machine manufacturing and electrical engineering sectors. Solid sponsorship is needed, with an arena that seats 5500 people and average ticket prices hovering around 15 dollars. Even if the capacity crowd - the there is excitement in the air so the arena will be packed - eats and drinks like never before, creating a strong cash flow will be a challenge when a beer costs 1.50, and a hotdog two dollars.
With six wins in eight pre-season games, including one over CSKA Moscow, and sponsors like CKD, though, Poprad is optimistic.
Surely somewhere in the European Trophy club executives’ dreams, Red Bull, the energy drink company with annual sales of over four billion dollars, gets behind the pan-European league and gives it wings.
- - -
Will this be the season when Djurgården’s new captain, Marcus Nilson, finally gets to hoist a championship trophy? Nilson has been on the losing side in a Swedish league final, a KHL final, a Stanley Cup final, and a World Championship final.
We’ll know that in about eight months.
* Risto Pakarinen wrote this in his home office in Sollentuna, Sweden, the home of Mats Sundin and Patric Hörnqvist.
* Follow Risto on Twitter
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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