An American Review of the Inaugural Champions Hockey League Season
In August of 2014, a new era of European hockey began, as the first pan-European competition got underway. The Champions Hockey League promised to be a quality tournament to decide the best hockey team in Europe. And it did not disappoint.
Teams from Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Norway, Germany and Slovakia competed in a lengthy competition, starting with group play in August. The top two teams from each group advanced to the knockout stage.
The knockout rounds were decided in two-games series’ by goals on aggregate (just like the
soccer football equivalent). The CHL Final was a one-game playoff between Lulea Hockey and Frolunda Gothenberg on February 3rd, with Lulea coming out on top following an incredible third-period comeback.
Let’s grade the inaugural CHL season, and take a look at how they did in certain categories from an American perspective:
TV Availability: A-
Most of the competition was available on TV in the U.S. on One World Sports, a new international sports network on many providers. They did not show all of the games, but they did show the good ones. I was able to catch many games, including the championship game.
The American TV availability distinguished itself from many other international hockey competitions, like certain IIHF World Championships, that are not usually available in the U.S. Of course, the game was on TV all across Europe, but it was great to see the competition get some exposure in the States.
It might’ve been nice to see it jump to a bigger network like NHL Network or Fox Sports 1, but TV is TV.
Thrill Factor: A+
In order for a competition to succeed, it has to have some thrilling contests, comebacks, and beautiful goals. The CHL had all three of those. Especially once the knockout stage started, the competition really picked up.
One first-round matchup I watched closely was the Red Bull-Salzburg vs. Lulea bout. Red Bull took the first game 4-2, and went up 4-1 in the second leg. But, Lulea would go on to score six unanswered goals before Salzburg added another to send the game to a shootout to decide the series. Lulea won the penalty shootout to cap off a massive comeback.
I thought it was over once Red Bull went up by three in the first period of the second leg. It was incredible to see Lulea put up such a strong finish on the road, and steal the series from Salzburg. When thrills like that come from the first round, it means your tournament is doing something right.
But, it wasn’t just the Lulea-Red Bull series. Four of the eight first-round series’ were decided by one aggregate goal. Two of the four quarterfinal series’ and both semifinals were decided by just one aggregate goal as well. The games were close, and it was a fun tournament to watch.
Championship Game: A+
Americans love their winner-take-all games. The NFL’s Super Bowl is the biggest event of the year. Any sports fan salivates at the thought of a playoff Game Seven. The CHL Final was a one-game, winner-take-all showdown between two Swedish teams, Lulea Hockey and Frolunda Gothenberg.
Frolunda took a 2-0 lead into the third period, but after an ill-advised check to the head by Frolunda’s Oscar Fastenberg, Lulea stormed back and took the lead. They added an empty-netter in the final minutes to take the inaugural CHL crown.
The one-game-playoff pressure made the Final that much more exciting. The crowd in Lulea was going crazy, and following the game, came down onto the ice to celebrate with their team, something unheard of in American professional sports.
Overall Grade: A
The tournament provided thrills, great competition, and great exposure for European hockey. If there is one drawback, it’s the timing and spacing of the tournament. Pool play started in August, when North American hockey fans were craving any hockey to watch. Once the NHL got underway, CHL took a back seat.
The tournament went on through the entire first half of the NHL season because there was a lot of time in between games and in between rounds. If they could find a way to shorten those gaps to keep fans interested, it would go a long way.
Hopefully, more teams will join the competition next year, and the second year will be even better than the first.