Sunday, August 24, 2014

Some thoughts about the CHL and European ice hockey

In recent years, there have been attempts to have inter-European ice hockey matches and create a pan-European league. That would be important to grow hockey in Europe. With more money in European hockey, Europe would be more attractive for top players. The latest attempt for a pan-European league is the second incarnation of the Champions Hockey League (CHL).

The 2008-09 season saw the first incarnation of the CHL; 12 clubs from the top European leagues in a competition reminiscent of the UEFA Champions League. For the following season, there were plans to increase the number of teams by including clubs from smaller hockey countries' leagues. But the future editions of the CHL were cancelled because of lack of financing.

Since 2010 there was another tournament for European leagues' clubs, the European Trophy. That was expanded from Finnish and Swedish clubs' pre-season Nordic Trophy. The European Trophy was mostly a pre-season event but since 2011 its playoffs were played in December. Starting from 2014, the European Trophy was replaced by the new Champions Hockey League.

Champions Hockey League and European Trophy haven't been the only ways for teams to go international. The Russia-based KHL has expanded to West, with Jokerit from Helsinki, Finland as their latest new foreign team. They have also had teams from e.g. Slovakia, Latvia, and the Czech Republic, even though the Czech team Lev Prague withdrew from the league after the last season, despite having made the finals.

The difference between the CHL and the KHL is that the CHL is played alongside national leagues whereas the KHL is the only league for its teams. The CHL's format is like the UEFA Champions League whereas the KHL's format is like the NHL.

The critics of the CHL say it is like a pre-season exhibition competition. I wouldn't say the teams take it as exhibition matches but the timing of the CHL is difficult. The CHL season must be started before the national leagues begin, so the level of hockey isn't at its best. And as the national leagues finish with playoffs, unlike in football, the hockey season cannot finish with the Champions League final like in football but the CHL final must be played before the national playoffs. That makes it more difficult to make winning the CHL the pinnacle of the season as there are still the national playoffs ahead.

Some critics also say that the CHL is no true Champions League as not all teams are national league champions or even top 4 clubs. I don't think it is such a huge problem. Obviously some clubs with commitment were needed. And in my opinion it is good to have many teams from the big hockey nations. I think the big number of e.g. Finnish, Swedish, or Czech teams helps to generate interest in the CHL. With two teams from each country, the fans of non-CHL clubs might be ignorant towards the CHL whereas with more teams from each country, a bigger part of the fanbase in each country has their favorite clubs playing. I think it is better to have more teams from strong hockey countries than to have teams from more leagues that are weaker. Winning the title by beating top European clubs adds to its prestige in comparison to winning the title by beating clubs from weaker leagues.

One big point of criticism is the absence of KHL teams. It may devaluate the CHL title's status as the European club championship but I don't see it as a problem as the KHL teams have way bigger budgets than the teams in other European top leagues. I don't think it makes sense to have teams with so different budgets playing in the same competition. Also, as the KHL aims to be the pan-European top league, I think the inclusion of KHL teams would undermine the CHL's aims to be the pan-European top competition.

It is obvious that the national leagues are still the priority of the CHL teams. The national leagues make the most of their season and the national playoffs are the culmination of the season. But if the CHL gets going also after this season, it will help to establish the tradition of international club matches in European hockey. That might make it easier to abandon the national leagues in the future to play in a pan-European league.

As for Jokerit, the Finnish team that didn't go the CHL route but instead joined the KHL, I think they are taking a risk. Can the higher level of KHL hockey attract their fans as much as the familiar opponents from the Finnish League, especially their local rival HIFK? And can they afford the higher budget of KHL, especially remembering the first non-Russian finalist team, Lev Prague, had to withdraw from the league after their finalist season because of financial difficulties. Besides, I think it is hard for existing teams to increase their fanbase by joining the KHL as they used to be rivals of other teams and will remain as that even after joining the KHL. Then again, a brand new KHL team might not be a rival for existing teams but it wouldn't have an existing fanbase to start with.

The CHL format reminds me of football in Europe. There are the national leagues with familiar opponents and long-time rivalries as well as the inter-European matches. I think any football fan in e.g. England or Italy would be upset for a suggestion to abandon the national league for an international league. That is how I think it is also in European hockey. Then again, if Jokerit have success in the KHL, I think more Western European teams might be willing to join the KHL, especially if the international CHL matches are well-welcomed but they don't see enough potential in the CHL.

I doubt the CHL could challenge the KHL; there is more money in the KHL unless the KHL faced some crisis. But if the CHL is here to stay, with more tradition it could become a meaningful European title for fans. If there were a serious European title, I am pretty sure fans would appreciate it. If football has League, Cup, and European titles, why couldn't hockey have national and European titles?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My preview of the 2014 men's US Open

The field at this year's men's US Open may seem weak. Rafael Nadal is injured and aside. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic underperformed in the two pre-US Open Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati. Roger Federer had great success in Toronto and Cincinnati, yet isn't playing his best game. Andy Murray is having a difficult season and hasn't won any titles or even achieved finals. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Toronto Masters but lost on the first round of the the Cincinnati Masters. The Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka has been very inconsistent this year and anything between a title and a first-round loss is possible. David Ferrer and Milos Raonic have been having good runs in the previous weeks, yet they seem unable to win big matches.

Then again, the struggles of big names make this US Open maybe the most unpredictable Grand Slam tournament in years. None of Djokovic, Federer, and Murray are unbeatable, so this is a big chance to get a non-Big Four Grand Slam champion. If Tsonga can bring his form from Toronto, he is in the contention, and Wawrinka showed in Australia he can win a slam. And unless the big names improve their games, there will be more players who could beat them.

Roger Federer has obviously been in the best form in recent weeks. A final on Wimbledon's grass, then a final in Toronto and a title in Cincinnati in Masters events on DecoTurf. But he isn't way above the field, as shown by his loss to Tsonga in the Toronto final as well as by some tight matches in the recent weeks. We have seen this year that he isn't unbeatable. Then again, his performances in Toronto and Cincinnati show he can win the US Open.

Novak Djokovic hasn't been too impressive after winning Wimbledon. Both Toronto and Cincinnati ended with a round-of-16 loss, to Tsonga and Robredo. I think it all comes down to if he can find his best level; if he can, he is the favorite as he is the most consistent player on the top. But if he can't find his best level, there will be players with the abilities to beat him.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the Masters event in Toronto but lost on the first round in the Masters event in Cincinnati the following week. The title in Toronto showed he can still succeed, something one could doubt after his poor first half of the season. When he is playing his best tennis, he can beat anybody on the tour. He definitely has a chance to win the US Open. Then again, he isn't the most consistent player on the tour so we must see if he can bring his best game. Also, he still lacks a Grand Slam title, so winning the US Open might be a big task mentally.

Stan Wawrinka has been very inconsistent this year. After his Australian Open title, he had difficult tournaments before winning the Masters event of Monte Carlo, propelling him to the top of the Race to London. After that, he has been unable to win titles and the French Open was a huge disappointment with a first-round loss. At Wimbledon, he made the quarterfinals, which was his career-best result there. His performances in Toronto and Cincinnati were mediocre, round of 16 and quarterfinals. He needs to play better at the US Open if he wants to win there. If he could bring his best game, then he would be one of the biggest favorites to win the title; he has been great in the hardcourt slams in the last two seasons. And the Australian Open and Monte Carlo titles show he has the mental abilities to win big titles.

A few words about Andy Murray. His level after the back surgery hasn't been on the level it used to be. His best performance so far has been the semifinal at the French Open. I believe he will go through the early rounds with his consistency but at some point in the second week, he will face a player who is better than him. Let's face it, he is only ninth in the rankings, there are players who are playing better than him. I just can't see him winning the US Open.

David Ferrer made the final in Cincinnati. With the big names underperforming, Ferrer might have a chance to win a slam at the US Open. Unfortunately, he seems to lack the ability, or maybe just the faith, to win big matches against big names. Of the nine significant finals he has played in his career, he has won only one, the only one without a Big Four opponent. I wouldn't be surprised if he made the final in New York but I would be (very positively) surprised if he won the title.

Milos Raonic has been playing a solid season. Then again, he seems to be able to make the most of his draws but is unable to beat the best players. That's why I think he isn't ready to win a slam. Grigor Dimitrov is another youngster who has made the top 10 this season, yet also he doesn't seem able to beat the best players yet. Besides, Dimitrov has been more inconsistent, so a first-week exit by Dimitrov wouldn't be as much of an upset as by Raonic.

A player who might have abilities to trouble big names is Marin Cilic. His current ranking of 16 means harder draws for him, though, as seen recently. He lost on the round of 16 in Toronto to Federer and in Cincinnati to Wawrinka. Both times he lost in three sets. In the Wimbledon quarterfinals, he lost in five to Djokovic. Also at the French Open, his tournament ended against Djokovic; four-set loss on the round of 32. Cilic might have the skills and the form to succeed at the US Open but the question is if he has the mentality. He is still to prove he has the mental abilities to win big matches. That is what he needs to do if he is to win the US Open. Plus he may have a tough draw.

So, I think Federer and Djokovic are the favourites at the US Open. Tsonga and Wawrinka are the players who have the abilities to challenge and even outplay them; then again they may underperform badly. And if Federer and Djokovic underperform, there are lots of players with a chance to win the title.