Thanks to a 3-1 Game 5 victory for Ritten Sport, the first full season of the Alps Hockey League has concluded and the team from the Bolzano region of Italy can proudly call itself the league’s historic initial champion.
The league was founded this season and includes the best club teams from Austria, Italy and Slovenia not competing in EBEL, the top Austrian-based cross-border league.
The all-Italian final pitted Ritten against Asiago. For Ritten’s “Buam” (“boys” in the local German dialect), it was a fitting conclusion to a season that saw them finish first in the 30-game preliminary phase, the 10-game master round and also in the official Italian championship. The team then walked through the AlpsHL playoffs defeating Neumarkt 3-0 and Cortina 3-1.
For Asiago, the season was a string of steady progress, seeing the team finish fifth in the preliminary phase and third in the master round. They then did away with Feldkirch 3-0 in the first round of the playoffs before managing to decide a tight tooth-and-nails battle against Slovenia’s Jesenice with a Game 5 4-2 home victory.
Throughout the season and in the playoffs, heroics were provided by Asiago’s, and the league’s, top goalie Frederic Cloutier, a 35-year-old Quebec native who played an undeniable part in his team’s success thanks to a 92.8 save percentage over 51 games. He was clearly the league’s top workhorse in goal.
The finals themselves opened with a fairly close 4-1 victory for Ritten, including an empty-net goal, before Asiago tied up the series with a 4-2 home victory of their own. Ritten then took Game 3 with a hair-thin 2-0 victory and squeaked by Asiago in dramatic fashion with 4-3 OT victory in Game 4. This set the stage for an uphill battle for Asiago, which entered Game 5 knowing it would have to win three in a row to become Champions.
Despite facing regular phases of pressure from Asiago, and having been behind 1-0 at the 30 minute mark, the “Buam” managed to tie the game up in the second period and enter the third with a 1-1 tie. On the strength of a 5-on-3 power-play goal by Fabian Ebner in the 55th minute of the game, the Buam took a 2-1 lead with just minutes to go. A late empty-net goal in the 59th minute by Thomas Spinell, who had assisted on the game-winning goal, finished things off as Ritten took Game 5 and with that, the league’s initial championship.
An assistant captain of the team and native of the Bolzano region, Spinell has been faithful to the club his entire career. He is also one of five brothers who play competitively at the pro or junior levels. Thanks to six goals and 13 points in 12 playoff games, including a hat trick in the Game 4 OT victory, Spinell arose to the occasion like no other once the playoffs started. With 15 goals, 40 points, and a +21 rating over 51 games, this championship capped off what was clearly the best season to date for the 26-year old.
An absolute power in the Italian hockey scene in recent years, Ritten was coached by Finn Riku-Petteri Lehtonen, a long time defenceman who spent his last three active seasons playing for Milan. He is the team’s 20th coach since the 1984/85 season, which has been run by coaches of eight different nationalities in that period of time.
Over the course of the season, Asiago’s Anthony Nigro, a former draft pick of the St. Louis Blues, was the league’s top player, collecting 26 goals and 70 points over the course of 51 games. Helping him considerably in this endeavor was late acquisition, and former NHLer, Krys Kolanos, who himself managed 22 goals and 42 points in just 22 total contests, including 20 points in 13 playoff games.
The league itself was put together to kick off the 2016-17 season and consisted of a whopping 16 teams from three countries, namely Austria, Italy, and Slovenia. More or less a conglomeration of Italy’s Serie A and Austria’s International League, the teams were spread out throughout the Alps of central Europe. It also included some interesting projects such as the Red Bull Salzburg Juniors, who wound up finishing the regular season ranked 10th overall, and Klagenfurt’s second team, which ranked last overall once all was said and done.
Now that the first champion has been crowned, the league will assess its initial product and may even look to contract and expand as interest from other clubs within Austria, Italy, and Slovenia, as well as neighbours such as Croatia and Hungary has been shown and could open the door to new profits and possibilities.
But what was the league like for the players? How did its level of play compare to that of other European leagues? What were the fans and sponsors like? Was the experiment a success?
For forward Dustin Parks, a Swede whose father hails from Vancouver, Canada and played pro hockey in Sweden, the Alp Hockey League served as his fourth international station, something not uncommon for many of the league’s players. Suiting up for fifth-place Feldkirch, the 25-year-old centre was fifth in scoring on his team with 30 points in 40 games. Having tasted life in various lower leagues around Europe and North America, his assessment of the Alps Hockey League is an amicable one.
“As a player with one club, you don’t have all the business details, but I was really happy with the league. It’s quite organized and professional. I was really impressed with the overall media coverage,” states Parks. “The league website provides very good information before and after the games. The league has a lot of potential and I think it has a good future ahead of it.”
Having played competitively with Linkoping’s U18 and U20 programs before spending a number of seasons in either Norway, the U.S. or Germany, Parks has a gotten a taste of hockey life on the road and how things compare. “I think the standard of play in the Alps Hockey League would probably slip in between Norway’s 2nd (Division 1) and 1st (GET-ligaen) leagues. From my experience in Germany, my feeling is that the Alps League seems to be a stronger than, for example, the German [3rd-tier] Oberliga.”
Still, one would think that challenges abound with the inclusion of various junior squads or B-teams as well as participants from several countries, all of which could lead to various misunderstandings, but Parks says that wasn’t necessarily the case.
“At the beginning of the season, I might have questioned junior teams at that level, but throughout the season you could see that they were quite competitive considering they are developmental teams. There also weren’t any lingual problems. I think that nowadays, in all leagues around world, there are always players from different countries and lingual problems no longer play a role. If worse comes to worse, everything can be dealt with in English.”
“Related to that, the calibre of hockey is improved in any league when it takes in import players, should the various teams not have enough products of their own. This league itself is trying to improve the quality of hockey. The fans want a strong team and a strong league and from what I gathered, the imports are quite welcome. I think the league will develop and improve and get better and better each year.”
One thing the league can surely be ecstatic about is the overall fan support. Stadiums were relatively full for a number of the most important locations in the league, even if capacity often widely differed. Coming from towns with hockey histories at various levels, knowledgeable fans were a welcome site around the league. In addition, they showed a good understanding of the game while sites such as Pustertal, Asiago, Bolzano, Jesenice, Lustenau, and Feldkirch, to name a few, proved to have very strong fan bases that were passionate about their teams and the players donning their jerseys. Having several arenas in the league that can welcome a capacity of about or more than 5,000 spectators is a welcome treat as well.
Now that Ritten has clearly established themselves as the team to beat, the league will look to reassess, plan, and then prepare for the upcoming season. Teams may come or go and thoughts may be given to splitting them up into divisions. Some thought may be put into establishing certain guidelines with respect to import or age limits to ensure more competitiveness from several of the lower ranked teams.
Yet if Parks’ thoughts are any indicator, then plenty of players will be looking forward to remain or even become part of the action next season. “Yes, I would like to continue playing in this league and I would definitely recommend it. It is a strong league with a lot of good, experienced players who have been around and know how to play a good brand of hockey.”
This has to music to the ears of the many passionate ice hockey fans throughout the Alps.