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Meanwhile, the European Trophy…

August 12, 2011

Slavia Praha fell to HV71 yesterday. But should we care?

Ongoing in Europe is the European Cup–hockey’s answer to the UEFA Championship for soccer. But, less glamorous, seemingly less relevant. Supposedly, this is the hockey equivalent of seeing Bayern Munich face Real Madrid, Ajax against Barcelona, AC Milan against Manchester. It seems like a brilliant kind of idea; have the best club team from around Europe, Frolunda, Skelleftea, Slavia Praha, Eisbaren Berlin, TPS, etc. face-off in a tournament-style affair. It seems really awesome, doesn’t it? Like something you’d really want to watch. So why does it fall so flat?

When I first started encountering news of the event, I had to verse myself in the genesis of the current European Trophy and the history of pan-European hockey competition in general. It followed a sordid and winding tale. Just have a quick peek at this these two Wikipedia pages, one on the Champions Hockey League, the other on the IIHF European Champions Cup. The lineage, the sponsorship, NHL involvement, even when and where the events were held differs, but the model has remained roughly the same: having top-tier teams play against each other. I nearly gave myself a headache trying to sort through which cup replaced which, which were still ongoing, had been made redundant, etc. But the current iteration came from the Nordic Cup, which existed between 2006 and 2009 and involved only Sweden and Finland. Today, it is much bigger.

Here’s the official Cup website and an interactive map of the teams involved. There are 24 team, divided into four geographic divisions. It is important that it describes itself as a pre-season tournament. This is summer hockey. Which, given the dearth of other options, you’d think this would be a positive. But it also lends it a certain lack of legitimacy. Matches of the regular round-robin part of the tournament are held in arenas across the participants’ countries. Except, making it even more confusing, the final rounds or playoffs are held in the December in Salzburg. Not in September, but in December.

But it’s important–fostering competition among Europe’s teams, squaring off, growing talent in the off-season–it’s all good. European hockey doesn’t quite have such a following in North America, but perhaps it should. After all, scores and scores of NHL players came from teams which are competing in this event. But even that’s not particularly compelling, and it is too self-serving a view. What’s relevant is that this competition provides a glimpse of European hockey across the board. Why is the UEFA Cup so awesome? Because it’s a wild kind of fantasy match-up of spectacular teams in unlikely games, with stars from all over. The European Trophy should really bill itself in the same way. Maybe the fact it takes place in August, when so many people are on vacation across the Continent, when hockey lies dormant, has inhibited the same kind of enthusiasm UEFA garners. Only in the third year of its current format, this European Trophy probably has a long way to go in its marketing and TV rights deals.

Still, this is an event, that if it can hold on, deserves life. Unlike all other international competition, which entails teams aligned on the nationalities of its players, this tournament prizes the club team above all else. After all, players spend the bulk of their careers playing on their clubs, not internationally. This provides the best of both.

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