Originally called the Nordic Trophy and contested between 2006 and 2009 as a preseason tournament between teams in Sweden's Elitserien and Finland's SM-liiga, the European Trophy has grown considerably in size, scope and multi-national flavor since its 2010 inauguration. The 2012 edition of the invitational tournament consists of a record 32 teams (an increase of eight teams since last year), representing seven top European leagues.
During the regular season, the teams are divided into four divisions with eight teams apiece. Each team plays eight round-robin games – two against the closest geographical team in its division, one apiece against each of the other six – spaced between July 31 and late November. The two highest-ranked teams from each division, with 2012 playoff hosts Vienna and Bratislava earning automatic berths in the playoff quarterfinals regardless of their placement in the round-robin phase.
Come December, eight teams will participate in the single-elimination playoffs during the annual Red Bull Salute tournament. Last year, a beefed-up Red Bull Salzburg roster – which included a just-signed Marty Turco and several NHL-affiliated players loaned from farm teams – captured the 2011 European Trophy Championship at the conclusion of the eponymous playoff tournament.
The first round-robin game of the 2012 tournament took place on Wednesday. Slovakia's HC Slovan Bratislava downing new Czech Extraliga club Pirati Chomutov via shootout, 6-5.
Michel Miklik scored the winning goal in the extra frame for Slovan, which also received goals from Mario Bliznak, Martin Bakos, Michal Vondrka, Miroslav Preisinger and Andrej Stastny. The Pirates' goals were scored by David Hruska (power play), Milan Prochazka, Brett Palin (even strength and power play) and Radek Hrbak. Branislav Konrad (Slovan) and Milan Rehor (Pirati) started in goal for their respective teams.
Slovan battled back from an early one-goal deficit to build a 4-1 lead. The Pirates fought back in the third period to tie the game with 10:11 remaining in regulation, only to fall behind again less than three minutes later. Immediately thereafter, Slovan got in penalty trouble, and Palin made it a 5-5 game during a 5-on-3 power play, ripping a slap shot past Konrad for his second goal of the game. Earlier in the third period, Palin pinched in, received a pass from Stepan Hrebejk and ripped a shot high in the top corner.
Slovan's opening-game victory marks the start of a crucial season in the team's 91-year history. After serving as a fixture in the Slovak Extraliga from the time of its foundation, the eight-time champions have left the domestic league and have been added as an expansion team to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). They will also serve as one of the host teams in European Trophy playoff quarterfinals during the Red Bull Salute. Last season, Slovan won its final Slovak Extraliga championship, defeating HC Kosice in the seventh and deciding game of the finals.
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Long-time NHL sniper Miroslav Satan played a crucial role in Slovan’s championship. He led his team in regular-season scoring and ranked fifth in the league with 52 points (23 goals, 29 assists). In the playoffs, Satan led all players with 22 points (8 goals, 14 assists) despite missing four games. Currently in contract limbo, Satan has considered a return to the NHL, but may ultimately remain with Slovan for the 2012-13 season.
The 2012 European Trophy season is Slovan's second year of involvement in the tournament. Pirati Chumatov is new both to European Trophy and to the Czech Extraliga. The Pirates were promoted to the Extraliga this season after winning the Division I (FNHL) championship this season. Originally, Extraliga fixture HC Slavia Prague was slated to play in the European Trophy tournament, but withdrew earlier this summer. The Pirates were invited to the tourney as a substitute for Slavia.
In this year's European Trophy regular season, the South Division consists of Slovan, Pirati, Sparta Prague (Czech Extraliga), Linkopings HC (Elitserien), HV 71 Jonkoping (Elitserien), KalPa Kuopio (SM-liiga), JYP Jyvaskyla (SM-liiga) and the Vienna Capitals (EBEL).
The North Division consists of defending champion Red Bull (EBEL), Lulea HF (Elitserien), Karpat Oulu (SM-liiga), Eisbaren Berlin (DEL), Hamburg Freezers (DEL), Kometa Brno (Czech Extraliga), HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice (Czech Extraliga) and HC Plzen (Czech Extraliga).
Five leagues and four countries are represented in the East Division: Brynas IF Gavle (Elitserien), Djurgardens IF Stockholm (Allsvenskan), TPS Turku (SM-liiga), Tappara Tampere (SM-liiga), Bili Tygri Liberec (Czech Extraliga), HC Pardubice (Czech Extraliga), SC Bern (Swiss National League) and HC Fribourg-Gotteron (Swiss National League).
The West Division contains of Farjestads BK Karlstad (Elitserien), Frolunda Indians Gothenburg (Elitserien), Jokerit Helsinki (SM-liiga), HIFK Helsinki (SM-liiga), ZSC Lions Zurich (Swiss National League), EV Zug (Swiss National League), Adler Mannheim (DEL) and ERC Ingolstadt (DEL).
There has yet to be a repeat champion in the brief history of the Nordic/European Trophy tournament. During its Nordic Trophy years (2006-2009), the chronological winners were Farjestad, Karpat and Linkoping. In 2009, there were separate concurrent Swedish and Finnish tournaments won respectively by Djurgarden and Tappara. German team Eisbaren Berlin captured the inaugural European Trophy in 2010 before Red Bull captured the title last year.
The Slovan-Pirati game on Wednesday was the lone match in any of the Divisions. Slovan will next play two games at home, hosting Vienna on Aug. 10 and Sparta on Aug. 14. The tournament will start to heat up in earnest on Aug. 17, with 15 games taking place across the four divisions.