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Across the Pond

Melbourne captures first Trans-Tasman championship

Wednesday, 07.18.2012 / 9:35 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

While it is the off-season in North American and European hockey leagues, the ice hockey season is in full swing in Australia and New Zealand. Recently, Australia played host to the first annual Trans-Tasman Championship League tournament. The event pitted last season's playoff finalists from the Australian Ice Hockey League against their counterparts from the New Zealand Ice Hockey League.

The Melbourne Ice and Newcastle North Stars represented the Aussie league, while the Botany Swarm and Southern Stampede represented the Kiwi circuit. As expected, the two teams from the more established AIHL defeated both of their NZIHL opponents. Next year's tournament is slated to take place in New Zealand, with the tournament venue alternating in each successive year.

"I think it's a great competition. It's a big step forward. It can only get bigger and better," Melbourne Ice forward Lliam Webster told Australia's Back Page Lead.

Kukkonen set to continue career in Sweden

Thursday, 07.12.2012 / 10:19 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Lasse Kukkonen, who played the past few seasons in the KHL, has signed a two-year contract with Rogle Angelholm in Sweden's Elitserien. (Photo: Getty Images)

It's often said of defensive-minded defensemen that they are at their best when their place is hardly noticed. Veteran defenseman Lasse Kukkonen has made a career out of being the sort of set-and-forget blueliner who may not play a flashy style or compile lofty statistics, but who excels in paying attention to the small, unglamorous details that go into playing winning hockey.

Kukkonen's NHL career was relatively brief, playing 159 regular season games in two stints over parts of four seasons (2003-04, 2006-07 to 2008-09) with the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. In the NHL, his shot-blocking prowess and positional smarts were ultimately not quite enough to make up for his average-at-best speed and lack of size. However, in international competitions and European league play, the Finn has long been considered a top shutdown defenseman and a team leader.

Ancient Roman amphitheater to host outdoor games

Thursday, 07.05.2012 / 12:34 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

On Friday, Sept. 14, and Sunday, Sept. 16, the EBEL will hold "Arena Ice Fever -- Pula MMXII," a pair of games at the Pula Arena. (Photo: Getty Images)

The success of the annual Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic has spawned a wave of outdoor games each season throughout the professional ice hockey world. Many of the European games have been successful in their own right. Come next season, the Austrian-based Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL) will stage one of the most ambitious and unique events yet.

On Friday, Sept. 14, and Sunday, Sept. 16, the EBEL will hold "Arena Ice Fever -- Pula MMXXII," a pair of games at the Pula Arena, a nearly 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater located in what today is the nation of Croatia.

The site in the city of Pula is one of the world's six largest surviving arenas (and 200 surviving amphitheaters) built during the time of the Roman Empire, and the only arena to remain fully preserved to this day. Constructed between 27 BC and 68 AD, four side towers and three Roman architectural orders are all still preserved. Some sections were restored in the 1800s. In 1932, the amphitheater was adapted for public and military ceremonies and well as theatrical and musical productions.

Krueger built impressive resume in Europe

Wednesday, 06.27.2012 / 1:08 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

During Ralph Krueger's long tenure as the head coach of Team Switzerland he turned the Swiss national team from an afterthought on the international hockey scene into a team capable of pulling upsets. (Photo: Getty Images)

Although new Edmonton Oilers head coach Ralph Krueger has a limited body of work in the NHL, the 52-year-old forged the reputation as one of the most astute coaches in European and international hockey prior to serving on Tom Renney's staff in Edmonton the last two seasons. A native of Winnipeg with dual Canadian and German citizenship, Krueger spent two decades playing and coaching in Europe before joining the Oilers in 2010.

Under Krueger, a once directionless Swiss program found a team-wide identity. On a team that boasted little in the way of explosive offensive talent, Krueger instilled an often-airtight defensive system that took advantage of the team's assets: above-average goaltending and numerous smooth-skating and defensively aware players on his roster.

Six Finnish sleepers in upcoming NHL Draft

Wednesday, 06.20.2012 / 11:29 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

In recent years, Finnish hockey has been in a bit of down cycle in terms of producing highly-touted players selected in the first round of the NHL Draft. Dating back to 2006, a grand total of three Finnish players have been selected in the first round.

In 2006, the Tampa Bay Lightning chose Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL) goaltender Riku Helenius with the 15th pick. There were no Finnish first-rounder selections in 2007, 2008 or 2009. Two years ago, the Minnesota Wild picked HIFK Helsinki center Mikael Granlund at No. 9. Last year, Buffalo used the 16th pick to choose Assat Pori right wing Joel Armia.

This year, there is likely to be a pair of Finns picked in the first round. Jokerit Helsinki left wing Teuvo Teravainen (ranked second among European skaters by Central Scouting) could go within the top 10, while London Knights (OHL) defenseman Olli Maatta is ranked eighth among European skaters and is expected to be chosen in the middle or latter stages of the opening round.

Cup caps Kopitar's journey from Slovenia

Wednesday, 06.13.2012 / 3:43 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Wherever Anze Kopitar's hockey travels have taken him, he has symbolically carried the torch for hockey in his native Slovenia.

Now the Los Angeles Kings' standout center is the first Slovenian to hoist the Stanley Cup and the fourth athlete from his homeland to win a championship in one of the major North American team sports. The Jesenice native joins NBA basketball players Raso Nesterovic, Beno Udrih and Sasha Vujacic among the ranks of Slovenian champions.

Along with Detroit Red Wings forward Jan Mursak, Kopitar is one of two Slovenians to play in the NHL this season. The 24-year-old Kopitar by far is the most prominent player to come out of the small Slovenian hockey community. While hockey is popular in Slovenia, it is a small country with a correspondingly small pool of serious hockey players. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the country of two million citizens has only 943 registered players.

Dansk the latest product of Brynas goalie factory

Wednesday, 06.06.2012 / 10:56 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

NHL Central Scouting ranks Brynas IF goaltending prospect Oscar Dansk as the No. 2 European goalie available for the 2012 NHL Draft. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the junior- and senior-level programs of Finnish team TPS Turku was the developmental hub of a string of goaltenders who went on to play in the National Hockey League. Nowadays, Swedish club Brynas IF Gavle has become one of the NHL's prime sources for drafting and signing highly-regarded goaltending prospects.

Oscar Dansk, whom Central Scouting ranked second among European goaltenders eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft, is the latest goaltender in the Brynas system to emerge as a candidate for future NHL play. When Dansk is selected, he will become the sixth BIF goaltender since 2008 either to be picked in the draft or to sign an NHL entry-level contract after joining the Brynas organization at the Elitserien level -- Jacob Markstrom, Anders Lindback, Joacim Eriksson, Eddie Lack and Niklas Svedberg.

Hockey world remembers Marjamaki

Wednesday, 05.30.2012 / 12:22 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Ice hockey became a fully professionalized sport in Finland in 1975, with the creation of the SM-liiga. Not surprisingly, the Finns did not emerge as a major power on the international hockey scene for almost another 15 years, as there was a steep drop-off in its talent depth beyond NHL-caliber stars such as Matti Hagman, Jari Kurri and Pekka Rautakallio when compared to the mighty Soviet Union, Canadian, Czechoslovakian and Swedish teams.

During the transitional years of Finnish hockey, few stars burned brighter than Tappara Tampere defenseman Pekka Marjamaki, who died earlier this month at the age 64 after suffering a fatal heart attack. While he was later surpassed by Teppo Numminen as the greatest defenseman to emerge from the city of Tampere, "Marja" enjoyed a sterling career of his own.

Swedish contenders retool rosters

Wednesday, 05.23.2012 / 3:38 PM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Now that the IIHF World Championships are complete, the European offseason has begun. Several top teams in Sweden's Elitserien already have seen major changes to their rosters. Among the league's title-contending clubs, the lineup for defending champion Brynas IF Gavle will look significantly different next season, as will that of playoff semifinalist AIK Stockholm. Meanwhile, regular-season first-place finisher Lulea HF has made a surprise addition to bolster its offensive attack.

Brynas nucleus breaking up

It often has been said that the only thing tougher than winning a championship is defending it the next season. If Brynas is to repeat as Swedish league champion next season, the club will have to do it without the services of two of its top three young forwards, its starting goaltender and two of its starting defensemen.

Worlds: Thoresen leads Norway's explosive attack

Tuesday, 05.15.2012 / 11:44 AM / Across the Pond

Bill Meltzer - Correspondent

Former NHL forward Patrick Thoresen has 10 points in his last two games at the 2012 IIHF World Championship. Norway has 18 goals in that span. (Photo: Getty Images)
Over the course of the last decade, Norway's once-maligned hockey program has made slow but steady progress. More than once in recent years, Norway has thrown scares into Canada and Russia at the IIHF World Championship. These games usually were low-scoring affairs in which Norway heavily relied on their goaltending and team defense to keep them close in games against powerhouse opponents.

Last year, however, Norway appeared to be on the brink of a breakthrough in the international hockey world. They handled the lesser teams with relative aplomb. More impressively, Norway pulled off a huge upset in the preliminary round, downing eventual silver medalist Sweden 5-4 in a shootout. Later, Norway managed a milder upset of favored Switzerland with a 3-2 win.

Just a few short years removed being a team viewed as one that only could beat archrival Denmark and avoid the relegation phase of the tournament, Norway reached the medal round at last year's World Championship, and gave eventual gold-medalist Finland all it could handle for nearly half of the game. After an evenly played, scoreless first period, Ken-Andre Olimb scored on a penalty shot to give Norway the lead. But the advantage was short-lived, as Finland scored four goals to take over the game and eliminate Norway.

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