The dream of bringing together the top club teams from around Europe to compete in a high-stakes, high-profile competition dates back 43 years to the first installment of the old European Cup. But it wasn’t until the establishment of the new Champions Hockey League (CHL) that the four elements necessary for success were in place – the four Ps of prestige, prize money, parity and press coverage.
In order for any league to be successful, there has to be an incentive for teams and their fans to care about the competition. There have to rivals that rouse emotions and a reason to exult in victory. Otherwise, the matches get treated like meaningless exhibition games played in front of sparse, quiet crowds.
There have to be several legitimate contenders vying for the championship or else the competition is too lopsided to hold people’s interest. Likewise, it has to be worth teams’ while financially to participate, especially given the hefty expense of hockey travel.
European hockey fans, of course, have always had keen interest in the performance of their national teams. But loyalty to one’s favorite club team in the domestic league dies hard for European fans.
Winning local derbies or beating the domestic league powerhouse has often been of greater interest and concern to European fans than playing against teams from other countries – even lands where there’s a strong built-in national team rivalry such as Sweden versus Finland or Czech Republic versus Russia.
The predecessor leagues of the CHL each had their moments of world-class hockey and staged some classic games along the way. But there were also plenty of missteps, especially in the early years.European Cup (1965-1997): Doing the Time Warp
Inspired by FIFA’s European Cup in football, the original idea to organize an ice hockey version of the European Cup came from IIHF president Günther Sabetzki. At the 1965 IIHF congress in Finland, the first pan-European club team tournament was announced.
For better or for worse, the 31-year history of the European Cup is that it proved two things beyond a show of a doubt.
First, the tournament provided ample evidence of why the CSKA Moscow (Red Army) team was universally considered the world’s premier club outside the NHL. But the downside of that dominance is that it also showed it’s hard to sustain interest in a competition in which the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. In these years, most European countries’ top players were amateurs who worked other jobs. But the top Soviet and Czech players were essentially professional players for whom hockey was a year-round occupation. It showed on the ice.
Soviet teams did not participate in the first three installments of the European Cup. Their absence meant that 11-time Czechoslovakian league champions ZKL Brno – formerly the Ruda Hvezda Brno (Red Star Brno) army team, later called HC Kometa Brno – faced little challenge in winning the first three tournaments. In those early years, participating teams played four games against each other, two home and two away.
Beginning in 1968-69, the Soviet champions got involved, and the competition might as well have been renamed the CSKA Cup, because CSKA Moscow won the championship 19 times in 21 years, often pummeling their overmatched opponents by double-digit margins. While this certainly affirmed the breathtaking skills of CSKA, it didn’t exactly make for competitive hockey when the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
The purpose of the European Cup, after all, was not to stage a hockey version of the Harlem Globetrotters versus the hapless Washington Generals. But CSKA was often so much better than their opponents that the only thing missing was the “Sweet Georgia Brown” theme music as CSKA played keep-away with the puck and scored at will.
CSKA’s toughest competition often came from other Soviet clubs. When the Red Army won its second European Cup (1969-70), the finals were essentially an IIHF-sanctioned derby between CSKA and Spartak Moscow at the legendary Luzhniki Arena. Some 28,000 spectators witnessed the two final games, and were treated to some outstanding hockey.
Unfortunately, few teams outside of CSKA were even interested in trying to compete in the tournament. The prize money was minimal and the cost of travel was high. It was a constant struggle to find willing teams and to ensure that games took place as scheduled.
On a yearly basis, games were either postponed or simply canceled for logistical reasons. Teams often forfeited games willingly rather than travel to away games. They also double-booked dates at their home arenas– the European Cup games rarely took priority. Unfortunately, many potential participants actually considered their eligibility for the European Cup to be a drawback – not a perk – of winning their domestic championship.
It wasn’t until 1973-74 that all scheduled pairings and games were actually played, after interminable postponements. How interminable? The competition didn’t get finished until September 1975, two full years after the first game was played! The competition ended, as per usual, with a CSKA Moscow championship.
Likewise, the 1977-78 schedule still had not been completed by the time the 1978-79 competition was slated to get underway. In order to catch up, the IIHF declared that the winner of the 1978-79 finals – CSKA Moscow, naturally – would be credited as the winner of the previous year’s tournament as well. CSKA’s 3-1 won over HC Poldi Kladno is believed to be the only time a team has ever won two championships with a single victory.
From the early going, top Swedish teams showed a particular aversion to the tournament. For instance, in 1968-69, Swedish champs Brynäs Gävle forfeited both the home and away matches scheduled against East German team Dynamo Berlin (later reorganized as Eisbären Berlin, a participant in this year inaugural Champions Hockey League). However, Brynäs reached the finals in both 1971-72 and 1972-73, falling victim to the CSKA juggernaut.
In the 1970s, it was common practice for Swedish and Finnish teams to sell off their home games – receiving a fee from club teams abroad – to switch the venue. It was also common practice for the Swedish and Finnish clubs to rest their key players during European Cup games, often not even bringing the players along on the trip.
In retrospect, if tournaments had been restructured to pit certain Swedish or Finnish archrivals against one another – such as AIK and Djurgården in Stockholm or Tappara and Ilves in Tampere – it may have helped to build greater interest over the course of the tournament within those countries.
Whenever the European Cup drew strong interest, it was usually based upon an already-established rivalry being played out on the ice. Perhaps the most emotional European Cup games ever played was the 1976-77 meeting between West German champion Berliner SC and East German titlists Dynamo Berlin.
With the Berlin Wall still firmly intact and the country divided politically, the tension was further underscored by the fact that Dynamo Berlin was endorsed as the athletic clubs of the state police (VP) and secret service (MfS) of the socialist government of East Germany. The game sold out weeks in advance.
In the 1980s, the artistry of CSKA’s Great Five of Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, Vladimir Krutov, Vyacheslav Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov propelled the Soviet team to an even greater level of dominance. Every tournament in the decade was won by the Red Army. Finally, the fall of the Soviet Union saw Swedish (Djurgårdens IF, Malmö Redhawks) and Finnish teams (TPS Turku, Jokerit Helsinki) break through in the waning years of the tournament.European Hockey League (1996-97 to 1999-2000): Still not ready for prime time
The European Hockey League (EHL) started out with tremendous promise but fizzled out. During this period, a select handful of European clubs – such as Jokerit Helsinki, behind owner Harry Harkimo – began to wield greater clout and push for opportunities to move beyond their domestic league. In 1996, the IIHF and CWL Telesport established the EHL.
The league attempted to capitalize on existing rivalries while also formulating new ones. But the efforts were uneven, and the plan may have been a little too ambitious at a time when most participating European clubs and fans weren’t ready to embrace a season divided between domestic league and EHL games.
The league was better financed, better publicized and more accessible to television viewers that its predecessor. But it was also too big, too soon – and continued to suffer from the problem of some teams treating EHL games as more of a nuisance than an opportunity.
The IIHF invited the champions and some other top teams from the major European leagues to compete in the EHL. The EHL regular season was conducted simultaneously to the domestic-league seasons, with a condensed schedule of EHL games. The league started off with a number of preliminary groups (as many as four) in which each team in the group played each other home and away. This stage ran from September to December, followed by the medal round.
While the new league started out with high expectations, the inter-league play concept failed to catch on with the public. Many fans lacked exposure to (and interest in) teams from other Euro leagues and generally preferred their domestic leagues to the EHL.
For instance, although Sweden’s Elitserien clearly remained one of Europe’s top leagues the Swedish entries in the EHL inevitably played mediocre hockey with little sense of urgency until it was too late to rescue games. The games also drew spotty interest among fans and the press.
In the inaugural 1996-1997 season, the EHL had 20 clubs organized into five groups. That grew to 24 teams and six groups the following year but contracted to 16 teams in four groups by 1999-2000.
The inaugural winners, TPS Turku, were not a big surprise to anyone. But the second winner, VEU Feldkirch – which beat Russia’s Dynamo Moscow in a 3-2 final – was an unexpected champion. The IIHF suspended league play after 2000, in which Dynamo dropped its third straight final, losing to Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the final.
The IIHF decided to suspend the EHL after 2000 and study ways to boost visibility and interest around Europe. For instance, the IIHF consult with European broadcasters starting from the 2001-2002 season. An international club competition, in the tradition of the previous European Cup, was staged by the IIHF for the 2000-2001 season, but there was no official EHL season.Then-Lugano player Christian Dubé (now SC Bern) during a EHL game.European Champions Cup (2005 to 2008): A small step toward a giant leap
The IIHF European Champions Cup was created into become a stepping stone to an extended European club competition. This time around, the tournament was limited to the champions from the different leagues and the tournament was conducted in whirlwind fashion with a bigger prize budget to reward the championship team.
Participation in this tournament was determined by the current IIHF national team rankings. The top six European countries were eligible to send their reigning champions to compete in the ECC. The six teams were divided into two divisions of three teams each. After a two-game round robin, the winners of each division face off for the championship. The winners divide 45 percent of the prize money.
The prize money itself grew substantially. By 2007, the total purse was 800,000 Swiss francs (about $700,000), with the second-place team splitting 25 percent, the third- and fourth-place finishers getting 10 percent and the fifth- and sixth-place teams dividing 5 percent. The victor also received the Silver Stone Trophy, the prize formerly awarded to the EHL champion.
The final tournament was played at the New Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, from Jan. 10-13, 2008. The competing teams were then-reigning Russian Super League champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk, 2006-07 Czech Extraliga titlist Sparta Prague, Elitserien’s MODO Örnsköldsvik, SM-Liiga victor Kärpät Oulu and Slovakian Extraliga winner Slovan Bratislava.
Throughout the tournament’s brief existence, Russian teams dominated from the outset, with a Russian Super League team winning every tournament. and this year was no exception. Metallurg won the 2008 Silver Stone Trophy, defeating Sparta 5-2 in the championship game. The previous tournament victors were Russian Super League teams Avangard Omsk (2005), Dynamo Moscow (2006) and Ak Bars Kazan (2007).
One negative was the continued underachievement of the Swedish entries. In the final tournament, MODO was unable to break the jinx, getting shut out by Metallurg and then losing to Slovan in a 4-1 upset. As the new Champions Hockey League launches, 2007-08 Elitserien champions HV71 Jönköping and Linköpings HC will attempt to make a better showing.Champions Hockey League: Beginning of a new era
The stage is now set for the Champions Hockey League. There is now plenty of incentive for the participating teams to strive for victory, between the prize money and the opportunity to play an NHL opponent in the Victoria Cup.
The 12 CHL teams have been seeded in four groups of three clubs, which will receive 300,000 Euros (approximately $415,000). The teams, which were grouped by a random drawing held at the IIHF's headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, will play a double round-robin (home & away) for a total of four games per team.
Each win in the group stage will be worth 50,000 Euros. The four group winners will advance to the semi-finals, receiving an additional 200,000 Euros. The champion will collect a 1,000,000 Euro prize with the runner-up receiving 500,000 Euros. The tournament is backed by several deeply committed sponsors, the most notable of which is Russian energy company Gazprom.
The participating clubs will take a break from their domestic leagues to play games in their Champions League groups Oct. 8, 22, and 29, Nov. 12 and 19 and Dec. 3.
The new league, like all circuits, will likely require some adjustments over time. The sailing may not always be smooth. But the time and the organization finally seem to be right for a successful and sustainable pan-European league.
BILL MELTZERClick here to see past winners of European club competitions.