|Danish team AaB Ishockey Aalborg is a surprise finalist in the 2007-08 Continental Cup. The club has been runner-up in its home league in each of the last two seasons.
Each year during the European hockey season, there are two club-team championship tournaments sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). There’s the European Champions Cup and the Continental Cup.
The European Champions Cup is the better-known and more widely followed tournament. The tournament pits the previous season’s champions from the six most prestigious Euro hockey leagues -- the Russian Super League, Sweden’s Elitserien, Finland’s SM-Liiga, the Czech Republic’s Extraliga and Slovakia’s Extraliga -- against one other for the title of European champion.
But the Continental Cup is the more intricate tournament. The competition, created in 1997-98 and existing in its current form since 2004-05, features many of the top clubs from secondary European hockey countries competing over several phases until three clubs, joined by a non-champion from one of the top Euro leagues, reach the finals.
Almost inevitably, the tournament is won by a contestant from one of the top circuits. Four of the past winners have been from Switzerland’s Nationalliga -- Ambri-Piotta in 1999 and 2000, the Zurich Lions in 2001 and 2002. Three have come from Slovakia’s Extraliga, the inaugural winner HC Kosice in 1998, HC Slovan Bratislava in 2004, HKm Zvolen in 2005. One apiece has come from the SM-Liiga --Jokerit Helsinki in 2003 -- and Russia --Lada Togliatti in 2006. Only last year’s champion Belarusian team, Yunost Minsk, did not represent one of the top European leagues.
The process of getting to the final round is much less predictable. Upsets are not uncommon and the quality of skill on display varies widely from one match to the next.
This year’s final four will compete next month in Riga, Latvia. The field consists of overwhelming favorite Ak Bars Kazan -- last year’s European Champions Cup winner, from the Russian Super League -- the host team HC Riga 2000, Kazakh club Kazzinc Torpedo and Danish contestant AaB Ishockey Aalborg. The latter two clubs earned their way into the finals by successfully completing a three-stage qualification tournament against clubs from a variety of European countries.
AaB Aalborg, which lost in Danish championships last season to the Herning Blue Fox club, was not one of the favorites to reach the finals. The only reason the team gained a berth in the Continental Cup tournament was because Herning declined an invitation to participate. In mid-October, Aalborg hosted one of the preliminary Continental Cup rounds, in a field that also consisted of big-budget Austrian club Red Bulls Salzburg, the Coventry Blaze of Great Britain’s Elite League and Slovenian club Slavija Ljubljana.
On paper, Aalborg was the second-best team in the field. The club features former NHL player Chris Dingman, several players with national team experience and players who spent in time in a European elite league or North American minor league. The Aalborg roster lacked the star power and depth of the Red Bulls, whom many observers predicted would reach the final four.
Instead, the Danish team didn’t lose in the round-robin, blanking Coventry 3-0, doubling up Ljubljana by a 4-2 score and then upsetting the Red Bulls, 4-2.
In the final preliminary round, Nov. 16-18, AaB Ishockey traveled to Grenoble, France, home of defending Ligue Magnus – the top French league -- champions Bruleurs de loups Grenoble. The other clubs in the round-robin were Kazzinc Torpedo and a Dutch entry, the Tillburg Trappers. The top two finishers earned spots in the Continental Cup finals.
Kazzinc was the favorite to win the field in Grenoble, and didn’t disappoint. The team plays at the highest minor-league level in Russia, Vysshaya, as well as being the defending champions of the Kazakh league. The club does not feature players whose names are recognizable to most North American or European fans. The talent level is superior to the majority of the opponents they’ve encountered at the Continental Cup.
The top players on Kazzinc include the likes of 39-year-old left winger Aleksandr Koreshkov, who was a former Metallurg Magnitorsk scoring hero and a fixture on the Kazhak Olympic and World Championship rosters, offensive defenseman Oleg Kovalenko, another national team regular, promising young Evgeny Gaznikov, a standout at least year’s Division I World Junior Championships, and 20-year-old goaltender Sergei Khudyakov, who has played on both the junior and senior Kazakh national teams.
In their earlier preliminary round robin bracket, held Oct. 14-16 in Poland, Kazzinc competed in a field that included host team Podhale Nowy Targ, Belarusian club Yunost Minsk, and Romanian team Miercurea Ciuc. The Kazakh club was tripped up by the Poles in the opener by a 5-2 count, but bounced back to handily beat Yunost 5-1 and then shredded Miercurea in an 8-3 rout.
Kazzinc came out a bit flat against the hosts in the opener in Grenoble, but managed to nip the Bruleurs by a 2-1 game. They played better against AaB Ishockey and downed the Danes, 4-2. In the finale, Kazzinc demolished the Trappers by the most lopsided margin of any qualification-round game in the tournament, a 12-0 thrashing. AaB Ishockey grabbed second place and the last spot in the Continental Cup finals by beating the Trappers 4-2 and downing Grenoble 3-2 in a match decided by a shootout.
In a few weeks, Kazzinc and AaB will step up into a level of competition that is in another stratosphere from anything they’ve faced in their home leagues or the Continental Cup qualifiers. Likewise, host team HC Riga 2000 will have the home crowd on its side, but figures to be in over its head against Ak Bars Kazan.
While the Ak Bars are slogging through an extremely disappointing season in the Russian Super League, they’ve been one of the most dominant clubs outside the NHL in recent years.
Led by the prolific scoring line of former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Aleksey Morozov, Danis Zaripov and Vladimir Vorobiev and former NHL defenseman Ray Giroux, the team won the Russian Super League championship in 2005-06 and the European Champions Cup last year. Even in a down season, it would take a latter-day Miracle on Ice for the Ak Bars to fall to any of the other three clubs in the finals. The real battles will be for second and third place.