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Europe's Champions Hockey League driving in the right direction

Five years into the latest incarnation of the Champions League, organizers say they’re optimistic things are finally headed in the right direction.

Entering the fifth year of competition, the Champions Hockey League has something its predecessors did not: continuity.

There have been several efforts in the past to unite European teams in a tournament similar to soccer’s UEFA Champions League, but all fell short. Almost comically, one of the most recent endeavors failed because a Russian team lost in the final (more on that later), but the new CHL is growing. Prize money is increasing, and fan interest is coming, though the latter is a point of emphasis for the CHL’s chairman, who is also the CEO of the Zurich Lions. “Most of the games are more intense than domestic league games,” said Peter Zahner. “If you want to see the best, you should watch the Champions League, but that’s not the case right now. The biggest challenge is that fans don’t know the players. Europeans know their own league and the NHL.”

This past season’s final featured Finland’s JYP Jyvaskyla against Sweden’s Vaxjo Lakers. Vaxjo had Vancouver Canucks top prospect Elias Pettersson, but JYP won thanks to a balanced roster that, admittedly, didn’t have any names the casual fan outside of Finland would recognize. Nonetheless, JYP took home $300,000 in prize money, an appreciable sum for a European club. The pot is expected to increase in the coming years, as is the tournament’s profile. “It’s growing and it’s still growing,” said Tobias Salmelainen, sports manager (GM) of Finnish side IFK Helsinki. “They’re trying to learn every year. Finland and Sweden may be a little behind (in fan interest), but with JYP winning it, it has brought perspective in Finland.”

This past season, 32 teams took part in the tournament, which begins with a round-robin group stage in late summer and autumn followed by a round of 16 in November. The quarterfinals are held in December, the semifinals in January and the championship game is in early February. Groups are drawn soccer-style for the initial round robin and come from leagues across Europe, except Russia.

The previous attempt at a CHL came in 2008-09, with 22 countries involved. Zurich defeated Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the final, which turned out to be a crushing disappointment for the Russians. Gazprom, the industrial giant and prominent sponsor, used its out clause on a three-year commitment to the tournament, and investment for another season fell apart. On a happy side note for Zurich, the Lions made a net profit of $3 million over the course of the event.

Apparently old wounds can take a long time to heal, because when the CHL was resurrected in 2014-15, the KHL decided not to participate. “It’s complicated with the Russians,” Zahner said. “But it would be great to have them.”

The new CHL was formed by 26 clubs and six top national leagues: Sweden, Finland, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland. For the first three seasons, the founding clubs were guaranteed a spot in the tournament. “This was very much discussed, because we didn’t have much criteria,” Zahner said. “If you invested, you could play.”

Today, even the founders have to qualify. Teams can gain entry by winning their domestic league, being a top team in one of the six founding leagues, winning the IIHF’s Continental Cup (Belarus’ Yunost Minsk is the latest) or qualifying as a wild card. For 2018-19, newcomers include Poland’s GKS Tychy and Germany’s Thomas Sabo Ice Tigers, who play out of Nuremberg. The number of teams in the tournament has gone as high as 48, but now it’s at 32 and some members would like to bring it down to a more exclusive 24-team pool.

Ownership of the league is split between the 26 founding clubs (which include Zurich, IFK Helsinki and well-known Swedish teams such as Frolunda and Djurgarden), the six founding leagues as well as the IIHF. There is live TV coverage in every country and exposure is growing. More attention would be great, notes Salmelainen. “That’s what players want,” he said. “A bigger window to shine in.”

For Helsinki’s GM, the one wrinkle to still work out involves the schedule. European teams aren’t used to the same packed-in schedules as the NHL, so tacking on a game in another country in the middle of the week, only to return for key games against a domestic rival a couple days later can be arduous. Still, there are fringe benefits to the CHL besides money and glory. “It’s good for the team, because you’re on the road early in the season,” Salmelainen said. “It’s great for team-building.”

And the atmospheres in some of these arenas is impressive. Germany and the Czech Republic feature loud, packed rinks, even for the early games in the summer. Salmelainen cited Munich, home to the Red Bull franchise, as being particularly fun. Those types of road games can be great experience for youngsters, too, though Salmelainen said IFK won’t use the CHL for practice. “For us, we really want to do well,” he said. “If a young player wants to play, he has to show that he belongs in the lineup. There’s a real battle for playing time.”

There have been some good young names suit up in the past. Pettersson led Vaxjo in goals in this past season’s tournament, while IFK had Dallas Stars prospect Miro Heiskanen on their side. Back in 2015-16, future Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews got into a couple of CHL games when he played for Zurich.

In the history of the tournament, there has been one winner from Finland and three from Sweden – Lulea won the initial competition, followed by back-to-back titles for Frolunda. Is this the year a champion emerges from somewhere outside of the two Nordic nations? The games soon begin.

This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.



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