Hockey at a historic crossroad

Round I: IIHF and CHL have the upper hand

11.10.2008
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Full house and clean branding: Eisbären Berlin (left) before their first CHL face-off against Kärpät Oulu. Photo: Getty Images/Bongarts

The Victoria Cup and the Champions Hockey League began with a bang. Fans and media loved both. In the ongoing power-struggle for European hockey dominance, the IIHF and the CHL won a clear decision in round I.

Coming off a banner year that began with IIHF 100th anniversary celebrations and ended with a spectacular Canada-Russia gold-medal game that was one of the finest in World Championship history, the IIHF started its 101st season in the enviable, and complicated, position of being arguably at the very crux of the game’s future.

This is a year that could define international hockey for generations to come, and René Fasel, the president who was just given an uncontested additional four years in office, will face some important challenges soon.

For starters, the IIHF is the driving force behind two new ventures, the Champions Hockey League and the Victoria Cup. The two are connected in that the winner of the CHL in January 2009 will represent Europe in the Victoria Cup game(s) in September/October 2009 against an NHL opponent. There is also significant financial reward for the CHL winner, indicative both of the importance of the tournament and the success of the venture through TV revenues across Europe and beyond.

Both events had impressive starts. The Victoria Cup was the first event to feature an NHL and a European club in a meaningful game in Europe. It was played on October 1, 2008, and the allure of the New York Rangers, an Original Six team, playing last year’s European champions, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, drew almost 14,000 fans for the game at PostFinance Arena in Berne.

The appetizer, NY Rangers vs. host SC Bern drew more then 16,000 fans to the same arena.

It was an impressive turnout considering that the game was played at a neutral venue. On the ice, the inaugural Victoria Cup couldn’t have started better. The Rangers won a thriller, 4-3 (after trailing 3-0 midway through the game) with Ryan Callahan’s game-winner coming only 20 seconds before the end.

The Victoria Cup promises to be the start of something very special, a way of bridging the two distinct worlds of the NHL and European leagues.

The Champions Hockey League started in an equally impressive fashion. Three of the first four games were sell-outs or at least close to capacity; 13,000 fans saw the Eisbären vs. Kärpät clash in Berlin (3-2), nearly 8,000 were on hand in Ufa for Salavat’s 7-1 win over Ceske Budejovice and 7,000 enthusiasts filled the Kinnarps Arena in Jönköping where HV71 defeated SC Bern, 6-2.

Just over 4,000 came to the O2 Arena in Prague for Slavia’s game against Linköping, but the game was played only a few days after the NHL’s season opener in the same arena, when Czech fans spent serious money to watch the Rangers and Tampa Bay play. There is only so much Czech fans can spend on hockey within a span of three or four days.

The European press was overwhelmingly positive in its reviews following the four Champions Hockey League games on Wednesday. Everyone loved the branding, the clean ice and the jerseys, which were free of advertising.

Mats Wennerholm, the hockey columnist for Sweden’s biggest daily newspaper, Aftonbladet, was especially enthusiastic.

“The new Champions Hockey League has shown what you can do to put new life into a forsaken and forgotten tournament like the old European Cup for club teams. The CHL has a great brand policy, professional TV broadcasts with appealing graphics, a brand new website with video streaming of highest quality and new, very nice jerseys for each team. And all this basically without any advertisement on the ice and on the boards.

“I had to look twice to believe what I saw when I entered the Kinnarps Arena prior to the HV71 vs. SC Bern game. It must have been sometime in the 60s when I last time saw a hockey rink so clean and jerseys which were not littered with corporate logotypes.

“The Champions Hockey League is beautifully packaged from the very beginning and you can immediately see that the same people who did the branding for the UEFA Champions League in the early 90s are doing the same job with the CHL.”
 
Those who follow international hockey know about the power struggle for European dominance that is going on right now.

The Russian KHL has expressed its desire to expand into Europe, and the NHL has ambitions to go in the same direction. The trouble is that neither side has a game plan that can work. Both have also obstacles for which there are no solutions, not at this time anyway.

An NHL expansion to Europe is basically impossible due to logistics (there will always be the Atlantic Ocean between North America and Europe). For the KHL, the obstacle is that the fans of the Swedish, Finnish, German or Swiss clubs, which they are reportedly courting, will never allow their favorite clubs to leave for Russia.  

With all due respect, a visit by Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk on a Tuesday or a road trip to Amur Khabarovsk (the same time zone as Tokyo) on a Friday is nothing that fans, officials or players of Färjestad, Adler Mannheim or HC Davos are dreaming about.

The IIHF has the upper hand because its CHL is a rational and well-structured tournament based on the very successful Champions League in soccer. Neither the NHL nor KHL realize that they have been beaten to “Europe” by the Champions Hockey League.

These are both exciting and challenging times for international hockey, and the IIHF is front and centre in the vision of the game’s future. Its clear things are changing, but perhaps the more they change the more they stay the same.

The NHL has been planning to expand into Europe for almost 40 years, ever since Bruce Norris started the London Lions as a Detroit Red Wings farm team in the early 1970s. Yet to date, there have been no meaningful events to suggest such expansion is inevitable.

In the end, the IIHF will rule the day because it has no ulterior motive. It only wants to see fair play, fair leagues, and quality play. It sees all arguments as good arguments – so long as they are contested on ice between worthy opponents. But it will have a challenge if it is to see this straightforward yet complex goal can be achieved.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

Andrew Podnieks is a hockey writer from Toronto, Canada, and contributor to IIHF.com. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the official views of the IIHF.

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