They came, saw, – and reached the semifinals, at least. Now Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg is out to confirm its strong performance at its second consecutive Spengler Cup.
Barely anyone knew the city, barely anyone the club, barely anyone the players. That may sound slightly exaggerated – yet, the statement does have some truth to it. Truly, at last year’s Spengler Cup Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg was the big unknown. After appearances by numerous KHL heavy weights such as CSKA Moscow, SKA St. Petersburg, or Salavat Yulaev Ufa, to just name a few, it was a smaller representative of the world’s second-best league that started at this traditional tournament for the first time.
Today we definitely know who Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg is. The team of coach Andrey Razin sold themselves well in the Mountains of Grisons and fought its way into the semifinals with wins against HC Davos and Adler Mannheim. In the championship the primary goal was achieved: a seventh-place regular season finish in the Eastern Conference led to a third consecutive playoff berth. It was there, however, where – also for the third consecutive time – the season ended: the later champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk was simply overpowering.
Summer changed everything
The following summer general manager Oleg Gross overhauled the squad. 15 players left the club (including goaltender Jakub Kovar as well as the two forwards Ondrey Roman and Eero Elo), and 13 new ones came. Although it is still too early to come to any long-term conclusions, Gross’ transfer market activity has resulted in a reasonable start of the season. The seemingly “small” KHL club led by Czech star forward and captain Petr Koukal has been able to keep pace with the big competitors.
Though Avtomobilist may be a small club, Yekaterinburg is in no way a small town. With a population of around 1.4 million, it is not only Russia’s fourth largest city, but also the unofficial capital of the Ural region. Yekaterinburg, due to multiple important military bases was not accessible to foreigners during the Soviet era, is also a sports region, which in the past has produced many famous athletes, especially hockey players (Pavel Datsyuk, Alexey Yashin, Nicolay Khabiboulin, Vladimir Malakov, and more). Yet the local hockey teams has barely celebrated any success. At least Avtomobilist, which got its name from the local transport company Svardlavtrans, has participated in the KHL since the 2009/10 season. The team plays its home games at KRK Uralez, a venue that holds 5570 spectators. On the ice Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg is a middle of the pack team. Their standard is to reach the playoffs, but the big success –moving on to the next round – has yet to be achieved. Looking at the team’s continuous development (2010 playoffs, 2011/2012/2013 missed the playoffs, 2014/2015/2016 playoffs) shows it is time for the next step. And who knows, that step might already come at the Spengler Cup.
Arno Del Curto has overcome many challenges during his 20-year tenure as the coach of HC Davos. This season he faces a new one: the two rookie goaltenders Joren van Pottelberghe (19) and Gilles Senn (20) need to replace the big Leonardo Genoni.
It took 42 years for Davos to end its Spengler Cup title drought in 2001. That is more than an eternity compared to the 5-year dry spell Arno Del Curto’s team is currently going through after their last victory in 2011. That a half-decade still feels like a long time is a good sign – a very good one in fact. Since 1998, when HC Davos first reached the playoff finals under their cult coach, the team has always been good for a surprise.
New goalkeeper duo
Of course, that will be so this year as well – although there are two big question marks in this year’s season preview: One is the uncertainty whether the new goalkeeper duo Joren van Pottelberghe (19) and Gilles Senn (20) can adequately replace Leonardo Genoni. Genoni, one of the best and most consistent keepers in this country, not only led the club to three championships and a Spengler Cup tile. He was also the team’s life insurance when the club radically built on the youth and fought with some difficulties. In 2007, when the two talented young goaltenders Genoni and Reto Berra were brought from GCK Lions to the Landwasser valley to compensate for the loss of Jonas Hiller, the experiment was successful. Time will tell if it will be successful a second time.
However, van Pottelberghe is likely to miss the Spengler Cup, as he will be playing at the U20 World Championships instead. For the last week of year HCD will therefore integrate another goaltender, who will probably only be named shortly before the tournament, into its team.
Resource management requested
The second question mark is the heavy workload, with which the young team is confronted. With the cup and, especially, the Champions Hockey League, the Davoser are faced with two additional competitions that require well-planned resource management. Last year showed how hard that can be, when HCD, after a good regular season and an excellent international campaign, was unable to muster up the energy to withstand the hungry SC Bern squad in the playoff semifinals.
Aside from the goalkeeper and resource issues, HCD has a very solid and especially well-rehearsed squad. There were few changes in the offseason; defenseman Samuel Guerra left for Zurich’s lowlands and the foreign players Marcus Paulsson, Devin Setoguchi, and Alexandre Picard were compensated by the Swedish defenseman Daniel Rahimi and the Czech forward Robert Kousal. So the chemistry, technical constellation, and subsequent play has remained the same: A large, heavy, and young defense to clean up in the defensive zone and open the play with a quick first pass, the four centres will offer support as two-way players, and the wingers will put the opponents under pressure with quick transitions. In short, typical HCD Hockey: fast, intense, and attractive.
HC Lugano will make its third overall and second consecutive Spengler Cup appearance. The question is: Can they capture their first tournament title?
HC Lugano is one of the most interesting clubs in Europe. The hockey enterprise has the means and charisma to attract talented players to the Resega year after year. In that regard the Bianco-Neri are the perfect guests for the Spengler Cup: The invitational tournament with its festive surrounding provides the opportunity for players to celebrate hockey rather than working. They showed that they could do so successfully during their first appearance in 1991 and the second at last year’s edition. They reached the final both times, exciting with their style of hockey. Only, it has not been enough to win a title. However, there are many reasons to believe that could change this year.
The most striking argument is probably that the once dominant club (seven-time Swiss champion) has finally returned to the its winning ways in the national championship. Between 2006 (their last championship title) and 2015 they had not won a playoff series; but now they have solved the puzzle. After a fantastic Spengler Cup campaign the Ticinesi turned up the gas, powering their way into the playoff final. It was rare bad luck that SC Bern, themselves on a formidable run, were waiting for them there. But Lugano has tasted blood. A season with two second-place finishes shows how close they are.
They are good enough
Further arguments that lift Lugano into the role of favourites at the traditional tournament? Well, one would be the Spengler Cup-proven coach Doug Shedden, who will be behind the bench for his eighth consecutive year and won the tournament with the NHL lockout team in 2013. Another is the impressive roster: from fast-climbing goalkeeper Elvis Merzlikins to creative defenseman Daniel Sondell to artists Damien Brunner and Linus Klasen, or the ice-cold scorer Patrik Zackrisson – the potential of this team is vast. One question mark comes from the strain on the Ticinesi this season. A successful preliminary round in the Champions Hockey League makes further high-level games likely. In the cup, too, the team is expected to get far. The management of strength is therefore not to be underestimated.
Yet Lugano is expected to handle it. The organization’s depth has increased thanks to its farm team in cooperation with Ambri and HC Biasca Ticino Rockets in NLB. And the Ticinesi, whose staff and players thoroughly enjoyed last year’s excursion to Davos, clearly understand how to turn the strain of the Spengler Cup to their advantage: it appears last winter the team copied Servettes’ and its head coach Chris McSorley’s approach, who used their three appearances for team building before the decisive part of the season.
HC Dynamo Minsk
Dynamo Minsk will make its second Spengler Cup appearance this year. The Belarusians seem to like this tournament: They won the title during their first appearance in 2009.
Belarus is a proud ice hockey nation. Hockey is the most popular sport in the country, that gained its independence in 1991; and since the Belarusians hosted the World Cup in 2014 and received perfect reviews in regard to infrastructure, organization, and enthusiasm, everyone in the hockey world is aware of that. So it was even more painful when the national team lost the Olympic qualifier against Slovenia on home ice in early September. It was the first major defeat of the year – not just for the Belarusian federation, but also for their flagship team Dynamo Minsk; the KHL team Dynamo has no fewer than 14 national team players on its roster.
Truly, Dynamo Minsk – founded in 2004 from Tivali Minsk, which had been disbanded 3 years prior – is considered somewhat of an unofficial national team. Since the KHL was founded in 2008 the club has represented the country in its neighbouring brother country Russia. Dynamo plays at Minsk arena, which opened in 2010 and holds 15,000 spectators, making it one of the biggest and most modern arenas in the KHL. The on-ice success has been limited. In eight seasons, Minsk qualified for the playoffs just three times (2011, 2012, 2015) and was eliminated in the round of 16 each time.
They came, saw, and conquered
However, is their track record at the Spengler Cup is quite different: Dynamo Minsk’s first and last appearance was in 2009 – immediately winning the tournament. Its squad then included hockey stars such as the two Finns Ossi Väänänen and Ville Peltonen, and the Slovak Richard Lintner. Aside from the Belarusian national title in 2007, it was that biggest success in their young club history.
Obviously the team would like to repeat that success. But it will not be able to count on any experience. Not surprisingly there are but four players remaining of the winning team: defenseman Ilya Shinkevich, the forwards Yevgeni Kovyrshin and Alexander Kulakov, and the former goaltender Andrey Mezin (now goaltending coach). Thus the face of the team now looks completely different, with stars such as Canadian goalkeeper Ben Scrivens, tenured defensive giant Lukas Krajcek, and former SC Bern offensive defenseman Marc-André Gragnani as well as Belarusian star forward Sergey Kostitsyn. Craig Woodcroft, who experienced the Spengler Cup last year as the assistant coach of Adler Mannheim, now coaches the team. All in all the Canadian can rely on a solid team that looks to figure in the middle of the KHL standings. Time will tell if that is sufficient to reach for the stars between Christmas and New Year. Yet it is certain that the former title winner is to be reckoned with.
For only 3 years has Hradec Kralove been able to enjoy top Czech ice hockey. Now its team, Mountfield HK, will already make its first Spengler Cup appearance.
When beer displaces hockey clubs
This is how the story goes: As the Czech Extraliga for the season 2012/13 agreed on an exclusive contract with the brewery Radegast, which stipulated that no other beer be served at the arenas, HC Mountfield was put in a tough situation. The city had a contract of its own with Budweiser Budvar prohibiting serving any other type of beer at Budvar Arena. Because the two parties could not reach an agreement, the Extraliga licence as well as all player and employee contracts were sold to a newly founded operating company in Hradec Kralove 220 kilometres away. Mountfield HK was born.
The club, still carrying the name of its main sponsor – the Czech gardening equipment retailer Mountfield -, is starting the fourth campaign at its new location, Zimni Stadium holding 7700 spectators. The university town of around 92,000 inhabitants in the northern part of the country had experienced top Czech hockey once before: 1993/94 the team played in the Extraliga for one year under the name HC Stadion Hradec Karlove, before being relegated again at the end of the season.
New head coach, new luckiness?
Things are going better now and the team’s performances have been very consistent. They reached the playoffs in each of the three seasons, although the team was subsequently eliminated in the quarterfinals. There have been many changes leading up to this season, none of which were ground breaking, though. The most important new hire is that of the head coach – Vaclav Sykora has now replaced Vladimir Kyhos, who took over during the past season after the German Peter Draisatl was released. The 63-year old has been a professional head coach since 1988, coaching in Finland (Rauma, Tampere) and the KHL (St. Petersburg, Lev Prague, Cherepovets), and has won the Czech championship with Sparta Prague and Pardubice in 2002 and 2010, respectively.
On the roster, which contains few big names, one name stands out: Yaroslav Bednar, champion with HC Davos in 2011 and SC Bern in 2013, captains the team. The 39-year old does is still a threat in front of the net: In 2014 and 2015 he was the most productive forward of Slavia Prague, and HK Mountfield’s top scorer the year before.
In the meantime the Canadians have become a fixture at the Spengler Cup. This year will mark their 33rd consecutive participation.
Hockey is Canada’s game. That statement says it all. Although other nations have caught up, although even the best Canadian team can be beaten by the Swedes, Russians, Finns, or Americans – even now in 2016 Canada is the hockey nation on this planet. Over 50 percent of all NHL players originate from there, they are the defending world and Olympic champions. Yes, they are that good that their European mercenaries could soon steal HC Davos’ distinction as the Spengler Cup’s record titleholder. They currently sit at 13 titles overall, after having defeated HC Lugano 4-3 in the final last New Year’s eve – HCD has 15. And all that after “only” 32 participations.
So this will be the 33rd consecutive appearance for the Canadians. In the meantime they are as much a part of the Spengler Cup as the idyllic winter landscape or the high-spirited party atmosphere – they have become an establishment. What in 1984 began as experiment (and tournament victory), has truly become a tradition that defines the character of the tournament both on and off the ice. Athletically the team is a reliable force. It offers tempo, toughness, and spectacular play that is always good for a tournament win. Team Canada has already provided numerous hockey highlights, such as the NHL lockout team of 2012, a collection of world superstars (amongst others Tyler Seguin, John Tavares, or Patrice Bergeron) that had the spectators ecstatic. Off the ice the Canadians have managed to help lift the Spengler Cup to a new dimension – on the one side, through their on-ice performances, of course, and their popularity amongst the fans and sponsors, but on the other hand, their mere presence which has made the tournament available on live TV in Canada since 2002.
With each team a title contender
Interestingly it does not matter that much which players are there. Who will be starting in Davos and coached by whom will, as usual, only be released shortly before the tournament begins. Because Canada’s recipe for success lies in the Canadian hockey philosophy rather than a well-rehearsed team, the players barely need any time to settle in. Every child in the motherland of hockey learns to play the Canadian way early on. So there is no need for the coach to experiment or go over tactics for days: He can rely on his players to know how to play. At the same time the friendly atmosphere and a “fairy-tale Christmas” with the entire family ensure that the feel-good and fun factors are always high. That in turn motivates the Canadian players to not just honour the maple leaf on their chest at the Spengler Cup, but also offers the unique opportunity to present themselves to the hockey nation watching on TV at home.