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Premiere's European teams have storied traditions

by Bill Meltzer
Over the course of the 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere Challenge, which will be played in various European locales leading up to the regular season Premiere Games in Stockholm, Helsinki and Berlin, the four participating NHL teams will face seven European clubs, each with its own unique story.

Following is a primer to get know a little more about the European teams the the New York Rangers, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres will play in the week to come.

HC Sparta Prague: A century of excellence

HC Sparta Prague will oppose the Rangers in Prague on Thursday. Founded in 1903 by Canadian expatriate Lyle O'Connor, HC Sparta Prague is one of the most enduring and famous teams in the modern-day Czech Republic from a domestic and international standpoint.

Sparta Praha's David Vyborny scores behind Jokerit goalie Mika Jarvinen. (Getty Images)
The team has won eight championships in the former Czechoslovakian and current Czech Extraliga, including four championships since the start of the new millennium. The franchise is perhaps best known for its spirited "derbies" -- in its soccer and hockey divisions -- against intra-city archrival Slavia.

Many of the most famous players in Czech hockey history suited up for Sparta at one time or another during their careers. The team was the source of a host of players on the Czechoslovakian national team, including old-time stars such as Frantisek Tikal and Karel Gut, and 1960s and 1970s goaltending star Jiri Holecek. In modern times, a host of future and former NHL players wore Sparta's uniform, although many of the better-known players among North American fans only passed through briefly (such as longtime NHL player Petr Nedved), or played a couple seasons (such as Martin Rucinsky) in the latter stages of their careers.

Current squad: Sparta has a glorious history, but is coming off a disastrous season in which it finished 12th in the 14-team Extraliga. Sparta is off to a slow start again during the early phases of the 2011-12 regular season, going winless in its first three games. Among the players on the roster, NHL fans mostly likely will be familiar with goaltender Tomas Popperle, right wing Petr Tenkrat and American import Alex Foster. Petr Ton has been a mainstay on the club for many years.

Frolunda Indians Gothenburg: Breeding ground for NHL success

The Gothenburg-based hockey club known interchangeably as Frölunda HC, Västra Frölunda or as the Indians will take on the Rangers on Friday at the city's 12,044-seat capacity Scandinavium. A three-time Swedish champion (most recently in 2004-05), Frolunda has been one of the hockey world's most prominent sources of talent for the annual Entry Draft. Although its top junior team has been a frequent national champion in recent seasons, the senior club generally has been an also-ran in the Swedish Elite League (Elitserien) over the corresponding period.

Much of the intrigue surrounding their upcoming game with the Rangers lies in the return of superstar goalie Henrik Lundqvist to the city where he got his start as a junior and professional player. He will face his identical twin, former Dallas Stars forward Joel Lundqvist, who currently serves as the Indians' captain.

From a historical perspective, Frölunda's most famous alumni include the likes of IIHF Hall of Fame inductees Ulf Sterner and the late Ronald Pettersson. More recently, the club is perhaps most famous as the pre-NHL training grounds of Lundqvist and Daniel Alfredsson. Former NHL forward Niklas Andersson is the leading scorer in franchise history. Former New York Rangers and Swedish national team defenseman Ronnie Sundin suited up in the most games in club history.


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Current squad: The Indians missed the playoffs last season, finishing ninth in the 12-team league. However, the team is off to a strong start this season, winning four of its first five regular-season games to take the early lead in Elitserien. As with many teams in the top Swedish league, Frolunda's current roster includes numerous players who formerly played in the NHL. Their ranks include P.J. Axelsson, Joel Lundqvist, Christian Backman and Mika Pyorala. Center Mikael Johansson is Frolunda's early scoring leader, while 21-year-old Carolina Hurricanes goaltending prospect Frederik Andersen has been outstanding between the pipes so far with a pair of shutouts and only three goals-allowed in his first five starts of the regular season.

HC Slovan Bratislava: Slovakia's most internationally famous club

On Oct. 2, the Rangers will travel to the capital of Slovakia to take on HC Slovan Bratislava. Although HC Kosice has been Slovakia's top club in recent seasons, HK SPC Porpad boasts its own hockey history dating back 85 years and HC Dukla Trencin experienced a dramatic wave of success in the mid-1990s to early 2000s, Slovan is the country's most famous team from an international perspective.

Founded 90 years ago, Slovan's history has overlapped with massive change within the sport and in the political power structure of its home country. During the existence of Czechoslovakia, the Bratislava team was the lone Slovakian team to compete successfully against Czech-based teams, winning the championship in 1978-79. In the modern Slovak Extraliga, Slovan is a seven-time champion (most recently in 2007-08) to rank tops among all teams in the league.

During the country's period of communist rule, Slovan's most famous products were Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Peter Stastny and his brothers, Marian and Anton. The brothers defected from the country and went on to enjoy varying degrees of NHL success. In more modern times, now-retired players such as Zdeno Ciger and still-active standouts such as St. Louis Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak have donned the club's familiar eagle-crested uniform.

Current squad: Slovan sits in first place in the Slovak Extraliga in the early going of the 2011-12 season, with 13 points in six games. The team leads the league with 20 goals scored. The most accomplished player on the team is long-time NHL scorer Miroslav Satan, who has 8 points through the season's first six games. Although relatively few of the players' names are well known to North American fans, Bratislava has a solid veteran core with numerous former members of the Slovak national team, such as forwards Michal Macho and Slovan's leading scorer, Michal Hudec (9 points in six games).

EV Zug: Celebrating its first game against an NHL team

One day after playing in Bratislava, the Rangers head to Switzerland to take on National League A team EV Zug at Bossard Arena. The game marks the first time an NHL team has visited the picturesque town of 25,000.

EV Zug was founded in 1967. In its 44-year history, the club has won one Swiss championship (1997-98). The title was accomplished after the team had twice reached the final the previous season, and also had lost in the championship round in 1994-95. As with most teams in the Swiss National League, much of the top recent talent on EV Zug has been imported, but the vast majority of its roster consists of Swiss-born and -trained players.

Although they have not been the top team in National League in recent seasons, EV Zug is a solid, playoff-caliber team. They finished fourth in the 12-team league and made a run to the playoff semifinals last season before getting swept by eventual champion HC Davos.

Current squad: EV Zug sits in first place through its first seven regular-season games this season. Former NHL forward Glen Metropolit, whose inspirational story was featured in a recent installment of Across the Pond, is in his second season with Zug. At the Nationalliga A level, he is a dominant offensive player. The team also features former NHL forward Josh Holden and defenseman Andy Wozniewski. The is coach by former NHL player Doug Shedden, who has been a coach in various European leagues for much of the last decade.

Jokerit Helsinki: Familiar foes for foreign squads

They’ve had their ups and downs throughout their colorful history, but Jokerit Helsinki has established itself as one of the few European-based teams whom even many casual hockey fans in North America recognize by name.

The team has played against visiting NHL squads in past visits to Finland, and has been the club that produced Finnish hockey's two greatest icons: Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne.

When the Anaheim Ducks and Jokerit play at Hartwall Arena on Oct. 4, the biggest cheers will be reserved for Selanne. When playing outside the NHL, the future Hall of Famer exclusively has worn the Jokerit crest. Selanne is considered a national hero throughout Finland, to the point that he's long since earned the admiration of even Jokerit's arch-enemy, HIFK. But nowhere is the "Finnish Flash" more beloved than he is within the Jokerit organization and among its fan base.

Jokerit enjoyed its greatest periods of success in the early 1970s and in the 1990s and early 2000s. From 1991-92 to 2001-02, Jokerit captured five championships in Finland's SM-liiga. The club often has been a contender in subsequent seasons, but has not been able to duplicate its success of the previous decade. Today, the club is steered by its second-year general manager, former NHL player and St. Louis Blues assistant GM Jarmo Kekalainen. The club reached the playoff semifinals last season, but was defeated by HIFK in a seven-game war of a series.

Current squad: Jokerit is in first place through the first five games of the 2011-12 SM-liiga regular season. The team features several former NHL players, including its captain, defenseman Ossi Vaananen. However, its best player may just be one of its youngest members: Detroit Red Wings prospect Teemu Pulkkinen. After a breakout season in 2010-11, Pulkkinen ranks among the top scorers in the league so far, with 3 goals and 6 points.

Hamburg Freezers: Looking to heat up DEL

When the Los Angeles Kings play the Freezers at Hamburg's O2 World Arena on Oct. 4, it will mark a meeting of two clubs that are owned by Philip Anschutz. The German team has been a member of the country's top league, the DEL, since 1999.

As with most teams in the DEL, the Freezers make heavy use of talent imported from North America and elsewhere in Europe. The club has missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons; the best season in club history came in 2003-04, when they finished in third place during the regular season and reached the semifinals in the playoffs.

Current squad: After finishing 11th of 12 teams last season, the Freezers made efforts to beef up the talent on the team during the offseason. Among others, the club lured high-scoring Czech forward Tomas Dolak away from the Hannover Scorpions and former AHL player Rob Collins. So far, the club seems to be improved, collecting nine points through its first four games, putting Hamburg in an early five-way tie atop the standings. The club's best-known current NHL alumnus is one of its new additions, veteran center Serge Aubin.

Adler Mannheim: Eagles continue to fly

For the first time in history, two DEL teams will be in simultaneous action on their home ice against NHL teams. A half-hour before the puck drops on the Kings-Freezers game the Buffalo Sabres will oppose the Mannheim Eagles (Adler Mannheim).

Adler has a longer and more successful history than the Freezers. Founded in 1938, the team has won six German championships, most recently capturing the title in 2006-07. Earlier this season, Adler entered into a cooperative relationship with the Toronto Maple Leafs similar to the one Finnish team JYP Jyvaskyla created last season with the Boston Bruins.

Current squad: The Eagles are 3-1-0, the same as Hamburg. Former AHL defenseman Chris Lee, a new addition this season, paces the team with 3 goals and 5 points. One of the team's most popular players is its veteran goaltender, former NHL player Fred Brathwaite, who is in his fourth season with Adler. Former NHL center Craig McDonald is a returning veteran.
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