Blues bow out of CHL

23.1.2009

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Blues bow out of CHL

The International Ice Hockey Federation celebrated its centenary with a new competition for 2008-09. Finland’s last representatives went out at the semi-final stage, but the new competition looks set to rejuvenate European club hockey.

EGAN RICHARDSON

HELSINKI TIMES

FINNISH participation in the inaugural Champions Hockey league came to an end last week with Espoo Blues’ disappointing 4-1 semi-final second leg loss at home to Zurich Lions on 7 January. Zurich’s Finnish goaltender Ari Sulander saved 33 shots to keep Blues at bay, just one day after his 40th birthday.

Zurich were favourites to advance when they arrived to Finland, after a 6-3 victory in the first leg ensured they could not lose the tie without a penalty shoot-out, thanks to the points system in operation in the Champions Hockey League. The system awards three points for a win and one point for a draw, even in the knock-out stage, with teams equal on points after both legs of a knock-out tie going to penalties to determine the winner. Blues have an appalling record in shoot-outs, and would have needed to win the second leg in normal time just to get that far.

With 500 Zurich fans outshouting the home support at the LänsiAutoAreena, the atmosphere was raucous even when Blues went 2-0 down in the first period. Both goals came on the power play, from Espoo’s first two penalties, and it was clear that the cow bell winging ultras in the top tier were going to enjoy the night. They even sang rude songs about Espoo, endearing themselves to everyone who is not entirely sold on Tapiola, the “Garden City”.

Blues rallied in the second period, pulling a goal back through Ismo Kuoppala on 33:40, but they could not find a fluent offence, and when they did manage to get shots in Sulander was there to save Zurich. Blues were magnanimous in defeat.

Zurich Better

We played well tonight, but Zurich just played better,” said Blues Head Coach Petri Matikainen.

They skated well and they are a good organized team,” said Blues defenceman Dale Clark. “We showed a big difference from last game and I think it shows a lot of character how we battled back. We had a strong third, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.”

The competition has now established itself as a major attraction for Finnish and Swiss clubs, a gratifying result for Ovation Sports, the marketing company retained to give hockey its own version of the UEFA Champions League.

The parallels are clear to anyone who has watched both competitions. The rinks and jerseys are clean, with only two sponsors allowed to advertise in CHL arenas. The competition has a hard fought group stage, then a knock-out round and final. The best countries get to send more clubs to the tournament, which ensures a minimum standard is maintained, while the clubs that fail to qualify still get more in prize money than they did under the old European Cup.

No Demolition

The step change from the old days of European competition, when a weekend tournament would see a few teams playing at half pace, or the even older days, when CSKA Moscow would demolish everything in front of them, makes the CHL an attractive proposition for fans.

I am absolutely sure that it will be a big thing for Finnish clubs in the future, they all want to participate in it,” said CHL Media Officer Timo Walden. “Blues and Kärpät committed to the tournament this year and played at a high intensity, setting a good example and really boosting the competition here.”

While the reaction in Sweden has been more muted, mainly because both Swedish clubs performed badly in this year’s competition, Espoo have shown Finnish clubs that the excitement, full houses and prize money are an excellent way to lift a club in the middle of the season.

The first Blues game against HV71 was the most memorable game for me. Before that nobody really knew how the competition would be received, if the arena would be full or if we would get good media coverage. As it turned out, Blues beat the Swedish club and everybody was very excited – it really gave the competition a lift in Finland.”

Zurich will now face Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the final, over two legs. Zurich’s home leg will be played in nearby Rapperswill as their home arena is booked for a cycling competition, while the trip to the far side of the Urals will present its own challenges. The winner of the final will play against an NHL team for the Victoria Cup, as part of the IIHF marketing link-up with the NHL.

Finnish qualifiers for next season’s CHL will be the regular season winner and the play-off winner in the 2008-09 season. After Blues took a total of €700,000 in prize money this year (not including gate receipts and other spin-offs), the race for domestic success will have a little bit more spice than usual.