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?

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