Players and management from the New York Rangers and Metallurg Magnitogorsk were joined by the mayor of Bern and the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland at the unveiling of the IIHF’s newest trophy, proving it is, in fact, a big deal.
The Rangers, though, didn’t need to see or touch the trophy to know all that. There has been enough buzz around this city and enough talking coming out of Magnitogorsk’s dressing room for them to realize Wednesday night’s game at PostFinance Arena isn’t just another one on the preseason schedule.
“I don’t know if you can sit here and compare it to an NHL playoff game, but I can tell you that you can’t compare it to an NHL preseason game either,” Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky said. “Where it fits in between I’m not sure, but I know it’ll be an intense game and both teams will be fighting to win. You can’t expect anything less than that.”
The IIHF created the Victoria Cup, a winner-takes-all game, to help celebrate the Federation’s 100th anniversary. It is named after the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, where the first organized hockey game was played on March 3, 1875.
The idea is to have an annual game between the best club team from Europe and an NHL challenger, and the eventual goal is to one day have the Stanley Cup champion play the champion of the newly formed European Champions League. The ECL is an ongoing competition between the top club teams in Europe. This season, there are 12 teams from seven countries making up four divisions. The champion will be crowned Jan. 28.
“The best in the world happens at the end of the season,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said, “and maybe one day we can find out for sure with the European champion and the NHL champion playing.”
While Renney’s quote sounds like a great plug for the IIHF’s newest pet project, one it believes can blossom into a special international competition, Renney really doesn’t care too much about the future of the Victoria Cup right now. He’s in the business of preparing his team for the NHL regular season, which for the Rangers begins Saturday in Prague against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Victoria Cup presents a rare opportunity for his team to play in a meaningful preseason game.
The Rangers will have to ratchet up their intensity Wednesday night, because Magnitogorsk has clearly stated that it is playing to win.
“For us it’s not an exhibition game,” said Magnitogorsk defenseman Karel Pilar, a former player for the Toronto Maple Leafs who is from the Czech Republic. “Maybe it is for the Rangers because they still have training camp, but we are taking it very seriously. We are representing the European clubs and it’s a big thing in Russia. Our management and owner let us know they are taking it real seriously also, so that’s how we’re going to play (Wednesday).”
By choosing to play Henrik Lundqvist against Magnitogorsk even though the Rangers regular season begins three days later, Renney may be sending a subtle message to his team that the Victoria Cup is for real and they better take it seriously.
“From what we have heard and everything that is going on in the city, they’re taking the game pretty seriously and we have to come with the same attitude or we’re going to get beat. It means a lot to us, too. We don’t want to come over here and get embarrassed. We want to come here and win and play really well doing it. It’s definitely not an ordinary exhibition game."
-- Marc Staal, New York Rangers
Added Dubinsky: “It’s a great thing because it’s going to force us to be intense and to treat it like a regular-season game or a playoff game. Playing with the mindset that it’s a must win, that's the mindset we need to be in as we go into our season.”
Of course, the natural pressure to win comes with representing the NHL in an international event. The Rangers admit they’re feeling some heat because a loss would give European clubs everywhere, specifically in Russia, a chance to brag about beating the big, bad NHLers, who are supposed to be the best players in the world.
“From what we have heard and everything that is going on in the city, they’re taking the game pretty seriously and we have to come with the same attitude or we’re going to get beat,” Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. “It means a lot to us, too. We don’t want to come over here and get embarrassed. We want to come here and win and play really well doing it. It’s definitely not an ordinary exhibition game.”
Especially considering Magnitogorsk plays in Russia’s newly formed Kontinental Hockey League, which is trying to model itself after the NHL and this season gained even more notoriety this summer when former Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr signed with Avangard Omsk.
The Rangers will be up against a puck-possession team based on a combination of speed and skill, Pilar said. That combination led to Magnitogorsk winning the Russian Super League and European Champions Cup last season. This season, Magnitogorsk is 6-5 and is coming off a 5-1 loss at home to Salavat Yulaev Ufa on Sunday. Former Nashville Predators forward Alexander Radulov had two assists for Salavat.
The Rangers, though, didn’t see any of that game and they don’t care about it. No matter the records, Metallurg Magnitogorsk presents a challenge for the Rangers.
The Victoria Cup isn’t the Stanley Cup, but the hockey world is watching.
“It’s a chance to showcase ourselves against the world and to get a chance to play against a team in a league that is talking about how they want to compete with the NHL,” Dubinsky said. “We’re excited for it. We’re ready to go.”
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.