The heavily awaited Champions Hockey League competition began with great fanfare in late August and four of the initial six game days have been concluded.
Amongst the biggest surprises thus far have been the outstanding performances and achievements of two of the competition’s three Austrian representatives, Red Bull Salzburg and Vienna Capitals. Each lead their respective groups heading into the final two crucial games, with Salzburg having collected 9 of 12 possible points while the Vienna Capitals have even managed to go undefeated.
Particularly the Vienna Capitals have had the international hockey scene curiously trying to figure out how an EBEL representative has been so successful thus far, especially considering the quality of their opponents.
“The EBEL league is better than its reputation in the European ice hockey scene and that’s why our performance has surprised people,” claims Austrian defenceman Florian Iberer, who is also a member of the national team. “The league features not only the best Austrian players, but also very good import players who enhance the level of play considerably.”
Vienna started off with a sensational 4-1 home victory over Farjestad of the SHL before then defeating Valerenga Oslo twice by a tight regulation score of 2-1 in both games. Facing a revenge-hungry Farjestad on the road, Vienna continued to impress with a 2-1 shootout victory.
One of the key factors for this success has been the outstanding play of Canadian goaltender Matt Zaba, who felt the team was primed to surprise heading into competition. “I definitely thought it was possible. We knew how hard and close the games would be and that we would be facing some very strong teams, so we would have to play our best to be successful.”
Entering his third season as Vienna’s unchallenged number one goaltender after two successful years playing in Italy, the 31 year old former New York Rangers prospect hasn’t had to regularly face the level of competition offered by the CHL. Still, this hasn’t stopped him in going about his business-as-usual approach in preparing for any and all opponents.
“I try to play the same way – no matter who our competition is. My main goal is to play with confidence and fun. It’s a great challenge to see how our team responds to playing against such high competition. It will only help us as we continue with our EBEL-season. It has been a lot of fun so far.”
For coach Tom Pokel, originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, there hasn’t been much doubt about what his club would be capable of internationally if it got rolling on all cylinders. “We’ve really played very well up to this point, but we were certain right from the beginning of CHL play that we could enjoy success, even in a group as impressive as the one we’re in. To beat Farjestad twice is naturally a bit of a surprise for many people, but it’s also the result of a strong EBEL league.“
The results of Red Bull Salzburg would certainly also go a long way in supporting that sentiment. The team has put together a group of players that features a ton of international experience. As the team’s name indicates, the financial power to make this possible has come from its sponsor Red Bull. The club not only features veteran Austrians of note such as Bernd Bruckler, Mattias Trattnig,
Thomas Raffl, and important youngsters on the rise such as Markus Pock and Konstantin Komarek, but also five Canadians, four Americans, one Czech, and one Slovene.
Opponents are on notice that Salzburg is playing for keeps and that the EBEL has more to offer than meets the eye. This is something Salzburg’s American defenceman Brian Fahey has no doubt about.
“First and foremost, this is an attest to the level of play in Austria and as a team in Salzburg. We have so many internationally capable players. Furthermore, it’s an attest to our coaching staff, which is top, and the level of skill possessed by our import players, which is as good as any other team’s. We know we can compete with anybody and we believe in ourselves, each and every one of us.
This past summer, the team also brought in Canadian coach Dan Ratuschny who had coached the Straubing Tigers of the DEL the past three seasons and had experienced a good bit of success for Olten of the NLB in Switzerland before that. He has already gone about instituting systems and game plans that he feels confident his players can understand, implement, and thrive with. The team’s success surely serves as proof of that.
“In the CHL, there are different challenges with different opponents, but we mainly have to focus on our play,” states the new head coach. “Sure, we have to be respectful of what the other teams are doing, but you have to do your own thing and focus on your own game and your own game plan, regardless of the opponent.”
The need to do that as opposed to worrying about teams from more recognized and respected leagues clearly has played a role in the effort the players have been bringing. For them, it’s been important to stick to the game plan and to a belief that by doing so, they can beat anybody. Thus, their success isn’t as big a surprise as it has been to many fans and pundits across Europe.
“It’s no surprise to me,” claims Austrian winger Thomas Raffl. “We’ve shown over the past few years that we have a strong team that can compete internationally. For me, it’s an honour to be playing in this competition and we want to win this whole thing. We are taking things game by game and are continually putting an emphasis on playing our game and always doing what we and the coaching staff feel is necessary to win.”
Defenceman Fahey adds, “I think we knew how good we are coming in, what with our group of guys and all the skill and character we have in the locker room. Just doing what the coaching staff has organized and being properly prepared for the games has been the key. We’re very confident that when we stick to our game plan, we’ll get the results we want.”
Still, playing and defeating teams like HV71 of the SHL and Jyvaskyla of the SM-Liiga cannot be taken as a given for a team coming from the EBEL. Along with hard work and the proper execution of one’s systems, certain marbles have to roll into place.
“There’s never one magic bullet in answering why we’ve enjoyed the success we have and what we might be doing better than other teams”, says Fahey. “Different factors play various roles, for example, getting topflight goaltending. When we faced HV71, they had us on our heels for most of the first period, but our goalie Luca Gracnar stood on his head in keeping them off the board. That was key in our eventually defeating them.”
He continues, “We had big problems creating offence in the 3-2 loss to Jyvaskyla . We needed to get back to the drawing board after that. The guys are competing hard and focusing on what’s necessary to beat any given opponent on each and every game day, as was then evidenced in the victory over Jyvaskyla. We knew the strengths of the Scandinavians and along with sticking to our game plan, a mix of factors simply had to come together.”
For Austria as an ice hockey nation, the success of these clubs hasn’t been reflected in its national program. Although the national team managed to squeak into qualifying for last winter’s Olympics, it has often had immense problems sticking amongst the world’s top 16 ice hockey nations. Looking at the teams’ rosters, you’ll see a plethora of international players (both Salzburg and Vienna feature 11), which has traditionally meant that possible national team members haven’t necessarily been getting the ice time and responsibility in their own league to be ready for those corresponding roles internationally.
“This is my first year in Austria and I have no analysis of the national team in this capacity. I haven’t been around or close enough to the situation. I do have a good feeling about the direction the national team is moving in and certainly know there are some really good Austrian ice hockey players, but I can’t make any comparisons to what we’re doing and what the national team is looking to do,” states Ratuschny.
Vienna coach Pokel sees things as being a matter of depth. “Our league features the ideal combination of Austrian players and very good import players. That raises the level of play considerably. The difference for the national team is surely the depth. National team management simply doesn’t have the type of quantity to select from that many other nations have at their disposal.”
As a player involved with both a strong pro outfit and the national team, Iberer is very optimistic in his analysis, able to see things objectively. “Club-based ice hockey and the national team are simply two different things. I feel our national team has shown that it’s clearly on the right path – and that it’s on the right path with a much younger team that was able to gain promotion into the A pool on the strength of its youth. That will surely pay off in the long run.”
At this point, both teams are heading into their last two games of the initial round robin in the driver’s seat. Salzburg will face the Kloten Flyers, who are currently mired in last place in the group with just one point, while Vienna will have its hands full with the second place Zurich Lions, who have yet to lose in regulation. Both teams will be ready to proudly represent the EBEL and continue their success with their game-to-game mentality.
“We’re concerned about the here and now, not with things in the future. We always focus entirely on the next game. We’ve had EBEL games, and now we’ll focus on the first match-up with a very strong team in the Zurich Lions. Everything will be done step by step. We don’t concern ourselves with ‘what might happen’ scenarios,” reiterates Pokel.
The next CHL action for both teams continues on Tuesday the 23rd of September. You can be sure that both will be ready to strut their stuff and represent their league proudly against the strong NLA competition.