|Slovenian-born Anze Kopitar and the
Los Angeles Kings will take part in a
two-game exhibition tournament in
Austria prior to opening up the 2007-08
season in London against the Ducks.
The NHL’s debut in London is just 10 days away. But the Los Angeles Kings
will be taking a short excursion en route to their season-opening two-game set in the U.K. against the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks
After playing their first five pre-season games in North America, the Kings will fly to Salzburg, Austria, to participate in the Red Bulls Salute, a two-game international mini-tournament taking place on Sept. 25-26. In addition to the Kings, the tournament will feature the host EC Red Bull Salzburg of Austria’s Erste Bank Eishockey Liga, Färjestads BK from the Swedish Elite League and HC Davos from Switzerland’s Nationalliga A.
On the first day of the tournament, the Kings will play the Red Bulls while Färjestads takes on HC Davos. The next day, the winners of the first games will face off for first place while the losers play for third. All games will take place at the Salzburg Eisarena.
The tournament in Salzburg is now in its third year, but this marks the first time an NHL club has participated. The tourney also has a new name — the Salzburg hockey team is sponsored by Austrian energy drink company Red Bull, which also funds Salzburg’s pro soccer club).
In recent years, Austrian hockey has taken significant steps forward. With the exception of Denmark, no second-tier hockey country has come further in the new millennium than Austria.
Austria’s top young hockey players typically leave as teenagers for North American junior and/or college hockey. Sabres star Thomas Vanek, Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael Grabner, Philadelphia Flyers prospect Andreas Nödl and former Flyers draftee and current top SM-Liiga (Finland) goaltender Bernd Brückler all followed this path. A few, such as Nashville Predators 2001 draftee Oliver Setzinger, head to Finland or other top hockey countries during their formative years.
Nevertheless, there is a widening talent pipeline in Austria and the Erste Bank Liga has taken major strides in securing the funds and leadership necessary to become a professional showcase for domestic, neighboring country and imported talent. The league's ultimate goal is to model itself on DEL, but with a stronger reliance on young players than the veteran-driven and import-heavy German league.
The Red Bulls are the reigning league champion. This year, the expanded league will feature seven holdover Austrian clubs (Vienna Capitals, Salzburg, VSV EC Villach, Innsbruck EV, Klagenfurt AC, Linz ECH and the Graz 99ers), one holdover (HK Jesenice) and one newly admitted Slovenian entry (HDD Olimpija Ljubljana) and a new Hungarian addition (Alba Volan Szekesfehervar).
EC Red Bull Salzburg is one of the major players in the movement to expand the profile of the league and of Austrian hockey. Owned by Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz (the owner and president of the Red Bull company), the team has been transformed into a deep-pockets club that can compete for talented players who would not have considered playing in the Austrian league in the past.
There has been semi-pro and professional club-team hockey in Salzburg since the 1970s. While it had a loyal local following, the Salzburg club was a blip on the hockey radar screen until recently.
Things began to change in 2000, when Mateschitz’s company took ownership of the hockey team. In 2000-01, Salzburg won Austria’s lower-league (Oberliga) championship to earn a promotion to the top league. Three seasons later, the rechristened EC Red Bull Salzburg played Villach for the Austrian national league (Österreichische Nationalliga) championship. In 2006-07, the Red Bulls won the Erste Bank Liga crown.
Building a bond with the Kings
The first Salzburg season kickoff tournament was held in 2005. In addition to the host team, there was one team apiece from Germany (ERC Ingolstadt), Sweden (Södertälje SK) and the Czech Republic (HC Ceske Budejovice). The German club won, with Salzburg finishing last.
The following year, the field expanded to six teams, with the hosts and ERC Ingolstadt joined by the ZSC Lions Zurich from Switzerland, HC Sparta Prague from the Czech Republic, Jokerit Helsinki from Finland and Skellefteå AIK from Sweden. The Lions won, with Salzburg finishing fourth.
This year’s field is the most prominent yet because of the participation of the Kings. But Färjestads and HC Davos are two of the most prominent teams in Europe and feature numerous former NHL players and draft picks.
According to tournament organizers, the Kings and Red Bulls have formed a sister club relationship that will extend beyond the NHL club’s participation in this year's tournament. Kings coaches and scouts will also work with the Red Bulls organization to provide NHL training method know-how via joint training sessions and conferences.
For the Kings, the relationship offers a chance to work with a successful Austrian franchise and get a leg up in bringing Austrian hockey — which already provides the early hockey foundation for a sprinkling of high-quality NHL prospects — to the next level.
In addition to the working with the Red Bulls’ junior coaches, Los Angeles will invite a few selected players from the team's junior program to participate in the Kings’ rookie development camp each summer.
Of course, the relationship also provides financial opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the relationship with the Kings is a boon to the Red Bulls and the Erste Bank Liga in general.
The Salzburg Eisarena is a small facility, holding about 3,600 spectators. The organizers expect a contingent of Slovenian fans to cross the border for the game to see native son Anze Kopitar play in the tournament. While Kopitar will get the loudest fan reception, the Kings’ appearance in general has created excitement throughout the hockey community in the region.
Storied Swedish and Swiss hockey traditions
Though the Kings will get the lion’s share of the media focus at the tournament, the Swedish and Swiss entries evoke strong emotions in their native countries and generate instant name recognition among hockey fans throughout Europe.
Färjestads is the most successful and — in cities outside Karlstad — envied and reviled team in Sweden’s top league. That’s what happens when a team reaches the championship finals six seasons in a row (2000-2001 through 2005-06), wins two championships during that period (2002 and 2006) and captures four championships in the last decade (1997, 1998, 2002, 2006). Färjestads finished first in the regular season in 2006-07, but had its bid for another championship derailed in the semifinals.
HC Davos is one of Switzerland's oldest hockey clubs, dating back to 1921. The team has won 28 Swiss championships, including last season.
Davos also plays host annually to Europe’s oldest ongoing hockey tournament, the Spengler Cup. The 81st installment of the Spengler Cup will be played between Christmas and New Year’s. Davos won last year’s tournament by defeating a Team Canada squad coached by Pat Quinn.
With the start of the NHL season right around the corner and European leagues either under way or set to start, it remains to be seen how much ice time the top regulars from each club will see in the tournament. No one wants to incur preventable injuries so close to when the games start to count, but there are also practical and logistic issues to consider with the rosters, as well as pride and competitiveness.