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Victoria Cup a step toward regular international play

by Dan Rosen

The Victoria Cup may be in its infancy, but the International Ice Hockey Federation is dreaming big. If the IIHF gets its wish, the newest international competition will become an annual event pitting Europe's best vs. the Stanley Cup champion.

"If you ask any European hockey fan anywhere, he's always thinking my team is best here now, but how would my team would matchup if it played the Detroit Red Wings?" IIHF Communications Director Szymon Szemberg told "This is the great question they are asking all the time, and hopefully the Victoria Cup can answer that question in the future."

The inaugural Victoria Cup will be played Oct. 1 at PostFinance Arena in Bern, Switzerland between the New York Rangers and Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. Magnitogorsk is the reigning European champion.

It will be an exhibition game for both teams. Metallurg Magnitogorsk will have already began play in the KHL, while the Rangers open their regular-season slate three nights later in Prague against the Tampa Bay Lightning as part of the NHL Premiere.

While the NHL is hopeful for a lasting involvement in the Victoria Cup, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly told it's still too early to tell if that will happen.

Szemberg said the idea for the Victoria Cup was conceived during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy during a meeting between representatives from the NHL and IIHF. It came up in discussions about how the IIHF would celebrate its 100th anniversary, which is this year, and how to honor the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal, where the first recorded organized indoor ice hockey game was played on March 3, 1875.

"We wanted to commemorate the Victoria Skating Rink and we wanted to have a matchup between an NHL team and a European team," Szemberg said. "We said, 'Let's go ahead with this.' "

The NHL and NHLPA signed off on the Victoria Cup during the 2007 World Championship in Moscow. Szemberg said they have a one-year contract, but "as soon as this is over we will sit down with the NHL and the NHLPA and see what we can do in the future."

"The idea to have some kind of a matchup at the summit between the best European team and the best NHL team has been around forever," Szemberg added. "But it's only in the last years that the cooperation between the IIHF, the NHL and the NHLPA has grown to the point where we were able to discuss it in tangible terms."

"The Victoria Cup is very much an experimental competition," Daly said. "We think, certainly, it has potential to be something bigger and better, but we'll have to play it by ear. It's something we have discussed with the IIHF regarding the long term and the goals for this, but we're committed to taking it one step at a time."

In order to foster the best competition, Szemberg said a provision was added to the contract stating how many rookies or minor-league players the Rangers would be allowed to play. That alleviates any concern that New York would treat the exhibition as a showcase for some of their up-and-comers while resting some of their regulars.

"This is specified so a team can't come with their America Hockey League lineup," Szemberg said. "When discussing this, the Rangers and the NHLPA people said, 'We are not bringing over a minor-league team.' We realize that if the Rangers want to test a promising rookie, why shouldn't they? But, they not test 11 promising rookies."

Before the Victoria Cup could be formatted, Szemberg said the IIHF had to create a European Champions League, which they have done successfully.

Metallurg Magnitogorsk won the first annual European Champions Cup in January, but this season the IIHF has expanded it to a 12-team Champions Hockey League, pitting the best club teams in Europe against one another in a double round-robin format.

"Now it makes so much sense to take the team that wins the Champions Hockey League and play them every September or early October against the Stanley Cup champion," Szemberg said. "This is definitely our goal and we're sure that eventually we will reach that."

If they do, Szemberg said it's possible the IIHF adds more teams to make it a four-team tournament. He mentioned the possibility that if the Stanley Cup champion is from the United States, then the best NHL team from Canada could be added. It's also possible that the site for the Victoria Cup alternates between North America and Europe.

"We realize the NHL brand is much stronger in Europe than what the European club brand is in North America," Szemberg said. "Every European fan can name all 30 NHL teams, but once we get this under way and European club hockey gets more known in both Canada and the United States, then we are sure the market is there to play alternate years in Europe and North America."

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