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Champions Hockey League to start in October

by Bill Meltzer

Kärpät Oulu, reigning champions of SM-Liiga in Finland, will be one of teams participating in the new Champions Hockey League, which will match the top European clubs against one another in tournament-style competition.
Through the years, there have been various efforts to create a league that pits the top European club teams against one another. The new Champions Hockey League, which will begin play during the 2008-09 season, is the most ambitious effort yet, with a total prize pool of 10 million Euros (roughly equivalent to $15.9 million US) designed to make both tournament participation and victory something teams around Europe will covet.

The tournament, sanctioned by the IIHF, will bring together a dozen teams representing the seven top-ranked countries in Europe: Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Germany and Switzerland.

The defending champions from each country have earned automatic berths into the league, which will commence play Oct. 8. Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic also have a second automatically qualifying club team in the Champions League, represented either by their domestic leagues' 2007-08 regular season champions (if different from the playoff victor) or the league runner-up. Meanwhile, the regular-season winners or regular-season runners-up from the other three countries' leagues will compete in a qualifying round for one wild-card spot in the Champions League.

The 12 teams have been seeded in four groups of three clubs, which will receive 300,000 Euros (approximately $476,500 US). The teams, which were grouped by a random drawing held at the IIHF's headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, will play a double round-robin (home & away) for a total of four games per team.

Each win in the group stage will be worth 50,000 Euros ($79,400 US). The four group winners will advance to the semifinals, receiving an additional 200,000 Euros ($317,700 US). The champion will collect a 1,000,000 Euro prize ($1.6 million US) with the runner-up receiving 500,000 Euros ($795,000 US). The tournament is backed by several deep-pocketed sponsors, the most notable of which is Russian energy company Gazprom.

The participating clubs will take a break from their domestic leagues to play games in their Champions League groups Oct. 8, 22, and 29, Nov. 12 and 19 and Dec. 3.

Group A will consist of Kärpät Oulu of Finland's SM-Liiga, Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Continental Hockey League and Eisbären Berlin (the Berlin Polar Bears) from Germany's DEL.
Kärpät has become a dynasty in the SM-Liiga, winning four of the last five championships. Last season, it breezed through the regular season in first place, seven points ahead of the Espoo Blues. Kärpät then barreled through the playoffs, taking out Espoo in five games in a best-of-seven final.  Metallurg, a three-time Russian champion, won the final IIHF European Champions Cup last year to earn a berth in the Champions League. Eisbärern Berlin is coming off a season in which it won its third German championship in four years, but is the underdog in the group.

Kärpät has a new head coach, Matti Alatalo. It also faces the prospect of trying to replace the SM-Liiga's top scorer, Janne Pesonen, who has signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Metallurg, meanwhile, also has a new head coach in Valeri Belousov and has lost high scoring Nikolai Kulemin to the Toronto Maple Leafs, as well as having to replace goaltending ace Travis Scott. Tomas Rolinek, formerly a solid scorer for Czech team HC Pardubice, has been added by Metallurg. 

Group B is comprised of Swedish Elitserien champions HV71 Jönköping, Finnish runner-up Espoo Blues and a qualifying team. A round-robin qualification tournament will be held in Nuremberg, Germany, from Sept. 12-14. The host club is the Sinupret Ice Tigers, the DEL runners up from last season. They'll take on Slovak Extraliga club HC Kosice and qualification favorite SC Bern of Switzerland's Nationalliga A.

The winners of the qualification bracket are in for a tall order. Although Swedish club teams have often not fared well in the Champions League predecessor competitions, the teams have also not been particularly motivated to play to win. This time around, there should be plenty of incentive. HV-71 had balanced scoring, strong goaltending and stingy defense last season, and figure to remain formidable in 2008-09. The club, however, has lost some of its agitators and grit.

Eisbären Berlin, aka the Berlin Polar Bears from Germany's DEL, will compete in Group A when Champions League play begins in October.
Espoo, meanwhile, gets it done by winning low-scoring games. Austrian goalie Bernd Bruckler has emerged as an elite keeper in the Finnish circuit. The club's modest offense lost offensive defenseman Arto Laatikainen (winner of the SM-Liiga's best defenseman award last season) to Swedish team Färjestads BK. The attack may have been strengthened somewhat by the addition of Calgary Flames prospect Juuso Puustinen.

Group C is slated to feature defending Russian champion Salavat Yulaev Ufa, Slovak Extraliga champions Slovan Bratislava and Czech regular season winners HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice.

The Russian team is the prohibitive favorite in the group. However, the team's status has been clouded by its signing of Nashville Predators wing Alexander Radulov, who has one year remaining on his NHL contract. Pending an IIHF investigation and potential disciplinary action, if Radulov does not return to the NHL to fulfill his obligations to the Predators, he may be barred from participating in the Champions League. The IIHF could also potentially sanction Salavat Yulaev.

Even without Radulov, the Ufa club would likely be too much for either Slovan or Ceske Budejovice to handle. Former NHL goaltender Roman Turek would have to play spectacular hockey for new coach Ernest Bokros' Ceske Budejovice squad to have any shot of upsetting Ufa. The Czech squad is much more likely to handle an outmanned Slovan when they meet head-to-head.

Group D is comprised of Czech Extraliga champs Slavia Prague, Swiss champions ZSC Lions and Swedish runner-up Linköpings HC. On paper, this is the most evenly matched bracket in the tournament.

Linköping has had significant player turnover since the end of last season, with four starters leaving for the Continental Hockey League and Jaroslav Hlinka (who played with the Colorado Avalanche last season) the most prominent addition. ZSC has a new coach in Sean Simpson, but a relatively stable roster. Slavia has lost Extraliga playoff standout and former Washington Capitals forward Jakub Klepis to the Continental Hockey League, but added former Pittsburgh Penguins center Milan Kraft.

After group play, the winner of Group A will play the Group C victor in the semifinals, while the top team from Group B draws the best squad from Group D. The semi meetings will be played Dec. 10 and Jan. 7. The finals will take place on Jan. 21 and 28.

In the years to come, the Champions Hockey League is slated to expand from the inaugural format. The qualification process will greatly expand to include champions from all around Europe. Participation will expand to 30 teams from 24 countries with a total of 60 games played over five stages.

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