Taking a backseat during the holidays to the always-popular World Junior Championship is the relatively ignored and often underappreciated Spengler Cup.
Having the world juniors in the Western Hemisphere is great not only because it lines up nicely in prime time, but it also frees up mornings for a Team Canada Spengler Cup match, without consequence of overlap.
The Spengler Cup is the world’s second oldest club tournament, next only to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s debatable just how good the competition is versus the American League, or how enthralling the action is against the WJC, but starting your day with one of these games builds up your appetite for the dinner hour main course.
When was the last time you heard from the likes of Hnat Domenichelli, Ric Jackman, Janne Niinimaa, Dmitry Afanasenkov or Jim Waite? They’re all in Switzerland for the annual event hosted by HC Davos, the Montreal Canadiens of the Swiss league with their 28 league championships. However, the five-team, round-robin tournament has, for the most part, been dominated by Team Canada since the 1980s.
The Canadians are the only team not involved in any sort of league play. The team is made up of Canadian players, specifically for this tournament, who are scattered in Europe as mercenaries for various club teams. Canada has won the Spengler 11 times and appeared in the final an additional seven times since their first invite to in 1984.
For North American audiences, the height of Spengler Cup familiarity came during the 2004-05 NHL lockout season. That year, the host Davos team had a trio of NHL superstars wearing their bright gold and blue – Martin St- Louis, Joe Thornton and Rick Nash. The team was thought to be untouchable and primed for a Spengler Cup championship, especially with the Canadians electing not to use locked-out NHL players.
But it was the underdog Canadians, led by Randy Robitaille and Alex Auld, who fought to a memorable upset of powerhouse Davos in a shootout. Auld made seven saves in the deciding showdown, turning away each of Nash, Thornton and St-Louis. Canada went on to lose to Sparta Praha of the Czech League and Davos ended up recovering to claim the Spengler that year.
Davos and Canada had another epic showdown this past weekend. Canada twice looked to be down and out before unlikely goals – the worst of which coming off a horrendous giveaway by Niinimaa – sent the game into overtime and eventually, the shootout. It was there former Toronto Maple Leaf Johnny Pohl brought down the house with a beautiful backhand.
The Spengler Cup is a neat tournament that gives us on this side of the ocean a taste of the European game – from the foreign style and rules to an atmosphere of endless chanting and flag waving – while supplying us with a team we can relate to so there is something familiar to root for. Will the band of Canadian mercenaries battle past the round-robin with a win over Dynamo Moscow Tuesday? Can host Davos recover from a loss to the Russians and treat the hometown crowd to an appearance in the final?
This Christmas delicacy is storied in its history, rich with recent rivalries and wrapped in a unique regard. And with its quick, all-or-nothing method of elimination, the Spengler Cup is a tasty festive breakfast that won’t be available for long.
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