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Victoria Cup champs ZSC Lions cap year to remember

by Bill Meltzer
Switzerland may not collect medals in international play, but the country has one of Europe's most fervent ice hockey cultures. The Swiss National League may not get as much notice as Russia's KHL or Sweden's Elitserien, but the caliber of play in the league is strong, with dozens of former NHL players competing each season. For the second time in a year, ZSC Zürich has sent a loud and clear message to the rest of the hockey world that they have a high-quality team.

Earlier this year, head coach Sean Simpson's squad shocked the European hockey world by capturing the Champions Hockey League title against Russian powerhouse Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Tuesday, of course, the Lions captured the Victoria Cup by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks.

In so doing, the Lions became the first European team to defeat an NHL club in head-to-head play since Dynamo Moscow defeated the former Quebec Nordiques (now Colorado Avalanche) by a 4-1 score on Jan. 15, 1991. In the meantime, NHL teams had gone undefeated in 20 games against Euro teams, including Chicago's 9-2 rout over Swiss champion HC Davos Monday and the St. Louis Blues' 6-0 win Tuesday over Elitserien club Linköpings HC.

Entering the Champions Hockey League (CHL) season, few international hockey pundits paid much attention to six-time Swiss champion Zürich. With Simpson in his first season behind the ZSC bench and fewer big-name talents on the roster than some of the other defending European league titlists, the Lions were not among the favorites to compete for the CHL title. The Lions opened eyes by downing Finland's Espoo Blues in the semifinals and then dismantling Metallurg in the finals.

ZSC was unable to defend its 2007-08 Swiss championship in the National League playoffs, watching HC Davos go on to take the title. But as the CHL winners, Simpson's team got an automatic berth in the Victoria Cup tournament and made the most of it.

Although the Lions' Victoria Cup winning lineup is somewhat different than the squad that won the Champions Hockey League, the team's key leadership components are all still in place. The team has had remarkable stability in recent years.

Ageless goaltender Ari Sulander is still capable of cranking out excellent performances. The 40-year-old netminder, a former Finnish national team goaltender and a longtime favorite among Jokerit Helsinki fans, has now been with ZSC for 12 seasons. Canadian center Ryan Gardner is back for his 13th National League campaign and third with the Lions. Gardner led the team in scoring last season with 25 goals and 53 points in 50 games. Forty-year-old French Canadian Jan Alston is in his ninth season with the Lions and 18th in Europe.

Slovakian left winger Peter Sejna, who spent parts of four seasons with the St. Louis Blues, has returned to the Lions for a third year after tallying 16 goals and 42 points despite missing nine games due to injury. Internationally, he ranked second in scoring in the CHL last season. In addition, former NHL player Domenic Pittis (who goes by Domenico in international play) is in his third season with the Lions and sixth season in Switzerland, while one-time Phoenix Coyotes and Minnesota Wild winger Jean-Guy Trudel is also back in the fold and former Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Radoslav Suchy has returned for a fourth season with the Lions.

Among the Lions' returning players who are Swiss natives, the most accomplished is former Florida Panthers prospect Adrian Wichser. The 29-year-old forward had a breakout season in 2007-08, ranking No. 12 overall and first among Swiss players in the import-dominated National League with 10 goals and 50 points in 46 games. He was outstanding in Champions League play, racking up 10 points in his first five games. He didn't do quite as well in National League play last season, scoring 7 goals and 38 points, but remains one of the Lions' key offensive performers.

The club also has a prominent new Swiss recruit this season. Former Pittsburgh Penguins draftee Patrik Bärtschi, 25, is a regular on the Swiss national team. Joining the Lions after five seasons with EHC Kloten and three with SC Bern, Bärtschi scored a dozen goals last season in a campaign limited to 33 games. His best season was 2006-07, when he scored 22 goals and 39 points for Bern. Bärtschi has paid an immediate dividend for the Lions, tallying one of the Lions' two goals in Tuesday's 2-1 win over the Blackhawks.

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