Inside the CHL: The Past, Present and Future of European Hockey’s Top League
On August 21st, 2014, a new era of European hockey was born when the Champions Hockey League dropped the puck on its inaugural season. What followed was five months of intense competition, thrilling playoff games, and a fantastic final between Lulea Hockey and Frolunda HC that was only fitting for the first iteration of the premier pan-European hockey league.
Now, the second CHL season is about to begin, and the league is set to improve even more, and evolve to meet the needs of their clubs, and fans.
Szymon Szemberg, COO and Communication Director of the CHL, spoke exclusively with INUK, and gave some insights into the way the league thinks, how they are approaching this season, and what the future could hold for the CHL.
For this season, the league added four new teams, and changed the group format from 11 groups of four teams to 16 groups of three teams. Szemberg said that this change was made to make the group stage games more meaningful, and get to the playoffs faster, further adding:
We got pretty quick feedback from our clubs than in the four-team groups we had last season, the last two game days, five and six, were a difficult sell, because most of the playoff spots were already decided. With this change to groups of three, we think that the excitement will remain to the end, because two teams out of three will qualify for the playoffs, so the last games will probably be of consequence no matter what. We think this will be better for the clubs and fans.
Aside from the group stage changes, a behind-the-scenes change that could make every game more exciting is a “prize money per point” incentive for teams. Each team will receive 1000 euro for every standings point they earn. So, if a team wins in regulation, they will receive 3000 euro for the three points they earned. This incentive could push teams to battle hard, even if they are mathematically eliminated. Even just stretching a game to overtime earns teams more money. Szemberg said this change will especially benefit the “Wild Card teams,” the ones from smaller leagues like in the U.K, France, and Denmark, who will likely be hungry just to get a victory.
When it comes to television coverage, not much will likely change from last year. Szemberg praised Premier Sports’ coverage of the CHL in the United Kingdom, as well as noting that the CHL is televised in every single country with participating teams. They are also adding the Polish state television network, Telewizja Polska (TVP), even though Poland doesn’t yet have a CHL team.
Poland is an incredibly important market in Europe nowadays. Even though their hockey is not at top quality yet, the interest in hockey in Poland is enormous. For example, with the IIHF World Championship, Poland is always among the countries with the best viewership, even though they don’t have a team in the top flight.
– Szemberg on the hockey market in Poland
The biggest European market that is not currently involved in the CHL is Russia. Szemberg spoke candidly about the CHL’s frustration with not having Kontinental Hockey League participation in the pan-European league.
Unfortunately, as long as Russian clubs do not participate in the CHL, hockey is the only European club sport where you don’t have all of the top leagues competing together, unlike sports like football. It’s a pity. In the UEFA Champions League, if you didn’t have Spain, Germany, or England, people would ask, ‘Why’s that?’ Obviously, we are hurting because we do not have Russian teams, and everybody who knows hockey knows that Russia is one of the prime nations in the game. The prestige and the quality of CHL would increase with Russian teams.
– Szemberg on the KHL not particpating in the pan-European League
Szemberg said that in the initial planning of the CHL, Russian representatives were an integral part of the process. However, when it came down to final planning and club participation, the KHL bowed out. Since then, the CHL has met with KHL representatives about participation, but nothing has happened. Szemberg believes that the KHL will eventually join the CHL, but he just doesn’t know when that will happen. He also explained their reluctance to join the CHL by explaining their self-image.
When they founded the KHL, they copied the NHL template in everything they do. They modeled this league after the NHL, including their vision of themselves as the top professional hockey league in Europe, like the NHL is the top flight in North America. If their teams participated in the Champions Hockey League, they would have to give up that position as the best league in Europe. They are not quite ready to do so.
– Szemberg on the KHL’s reluctance to join the CHL
He also noted that Russian participation in the CHL would help young European players, and maybe convince them to spend their time developing in Europe, rather than North America.
If we were to have a CHL that includes all the top countries, including Russia, it would mean a lot for young players. The added prestige of the Champions Hockey League that includes Russia might convince them not to leave for the NHL so early as many players do. We never want to stop any player from leaving for the NHL. It is a dream that many European players have, but they are leaving at 18 or 19 years old when they are not NHL-ready. If they saw a great CHL, they would maybe postpone their NHL signing for a few more years to continue developing until they are ready.
– Szemberg on Russian participation in CHL helping player development in Europe
On British participation in the CHL, Szemberg said he is incredibly happy with the way Britons have embraced pan-European hockey.
The model of the CHL is ‘Where Europe Comes To Play’. We always say that we are an elite league, but we are not elitist, meaning, we fully understand that the quality of British club hockey is not yet on the level of the Swedes and Finns, but we see enormous potential in hockey in the UK. People rally around the British teams and appreciate the fact that their teams will be playing in Europe. Obviously, we are very happy to include Britain.
However, Szemberg said that further expanding British participation in the CHL is unlikely, as the league, as well as the British Elite League, are satisfied with the two teams in the league now. For this season, the league added one more British spot, as well as another French spot.
The next league that the CHL is looking to see more from is Poland. Szemberg said that league officials are prepared to add a Polish club in the coming years, and have extended a provisional wild-card offer to the Polska Liga Hokejowa, the top hockey league in the country. If the CHL sees significant progress in the development of the league and Polish hockey as a whole, they will add the top Polish club to the league.
Another European hockey league that is not in the CHL is the Italian Serie A. Szemberg made it clear that the league is open to adding Italian clubs, and praised the enthusiasm and dedication of those involved in Italian hockey, but was concerned with the fact that the Serie A is concentrated in the Northern alpine areas of Italy, mostly in the Trentino-South Tyrol autonomous region. He was also concerned with the infrastructure and arena quality of the Serie A cities.
As the league continues to grow from its infant stage into the premier European hockey league, they will continue to evolve and improve the quality of the competition. One change that clubs requested at their latest general meetings, according to Szemberg, is an upgraded qualification system, similar to that of the UEFA Champions League in football.
In this proposal, just like in UEFA, every team in the league needs to accomplish something at home in their domestic leagues in order to qualify for European play. We have 26 owning, founding clubs, and they are ‘permanent members.’ We see a future change where you could remain as an owner, but you still need somehow to qualify in order to play in the CHL. So, participation would not come as a ‘gimme’ for anyone.
– Szemberg on the proposal to improve the CHL.
The CHL has nowhere to go but up, and the people involved are not afraid to take a few losses in the early going to be more successful later on.
Our goal isn’t necessarily to make a profit at first. It is to create a demand for the Champions Hockey League.