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Austrian league adds Croatian champs

by Bill Meltzer
Among the top leagues in the hockey world's secondary countries, only the Asia League of Ice Hockey is as ambitious and diverse as the Austrian-based Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL). While the circuit has felt the effects of the tough times affecting the economy worldwide, it has not been deterred in its goal to become a more stable and better-operated version of the defunct Alpenliga.

Recently, the EBEL further expanded its efforts to become a multi-national league. Medvescak Zagreb, the most accomplished club team in Croatia and the reigning champions of Croatian hockey, was added to the league for the 2009-10 season. Founded in 1961, the team has won a record 17 championships, including three Yugoslav Ice Hockey League championships, four Yugoslav Ice Hockey Cup titles and 13 Croatian Hockey League Championships.

The Croatian team joins Slovenian teams HK Acroni Jesenice (admitted in 2006) and HC Olimipija Ljubljana (added 2007) and Hungarian club Alba Volan Szekesfehervar (2007) as the non-Austrian entries in a circuit that also includes defending league champion EC Klagenfurt (EC KAC), Red Bull Salzburg, EC Graz 99ers, EV Vienna Capitals, EHC Black Wings Linz and EC Villach (EC VSV).

"We are happy to welcome Zagreb in our league," EBEL chairman Karl Nedwed said to "As the financial crisis hit our league, we introduced cost-reducing measures."

In the current decade, Medvescak Zagreb has won the Croatian championship every year but 2007-08 when it was upset by KHL Mladost. The team also competes in the Slovenian league. This past season, Zagreb won the regular season title -- the senior squads of Olimpija and Acroni were playing in the Austrian league -- but lost to Olimpija in the best-of-3 semifinals.

In an effort to keep team expenses under control, the EBEL has instituted stricter roster limits for next season. Teams may now only have 22 contracted players (skaters and goaltenders) on the roster for the entire season. After reaching the roster limit, only three in-season transactions are allowed. If replacement players are needed, teams can activate domestic-born players age 22 or younger, who will not count against the limit.

"Fans can count on team rosters changing only in case of injury or complete failed purchase (of a player)," said Nedwed.

In an effort to be competitive with the better-funded Austrian teams, Medvescak Zagreb has signed several notable players to join the club for next season. At the top of the list are goaltender Robert Kristan and Croatian-Swiss defenseman Goran Bezina. Kristan, the national team goalie for Slovenia, most recently played in Sweden for Mora IK. Bezina, a defenseman who played three games for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2003-04, has starred in Switzerland's Nationalliga in recent years and suited up for the Swiss at the recent IIHF World Championships.

The addition of Zagreb is bittersweet for the EBEL. The Croatian team is replacing HC Innsbruck, which was forced to pull out of the league for financial reasons. The club's main corporate sponsor, TIWAG, informed the team that it would no longer provide financing. As a result, HC Innsbruck will be demoted to the country's second-tier league.

The loss of the Innsbruck entry is an undeniable blow to the league and to Austrian hockey. Innsbruck is a major city that has hosted the Olympics and International Ice Hockey Federation sanctioned major tournaments. It is also one of Austria's more well-established hockey cities.

Throughout Austrian hockey history, this marks the second time the top domestic league has been without an Innsbruck entry. The former EV Innsbruck (a seven-time league champion) folded in 1993. HC Innsbruck took its place. The team was promoted to the top league after the 1999-2000 and remained there until this year.

The 54-game EBEL regular season will start on September 10, 2009. The playoffs will conclude by April 8, 2010. In the recently completed 2008-09 season, EC Klagenfurt captured the 29th Austrian championship in team history. The club upended two-time defending champion Red Bull Salzburg in a see-saw final series that went the full seven games. EC KAC was also the top team during the regular season.

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