Tournament a 'baby step' for European hockey

The European Trophy tournament is a month-long competition in August featuring the top 18 club teams in Europe and it could be the precursor to a pan-European league to rival the NHL. Or it could bomb and never be heard from again.

European Trophy tournament could galvanize a continent-wide league

COLOGNE, Germany — Raise your hand if you've ever heard of the European Trophy hockey tournament.

Thought so, but you might want to take note of it.

The tournament is a month-long competition in August featuring the top 18 club teams in Europe and it could be the precursor to a pan-European league to rival the NHL. Or, it could bomb and never be heard from again.

This isn't the first time someone, most notably the International Ice Hockey Federation, has tried to organize a pan-European competition. The IIHF suspended its efforts last year to form a Champions' Hockey League after one year of operation because of the lack of interest by European federations and clubs.

The European Trophy competition is different in that the clubs themselves are organizing it. There is no involvement by the IIHF and its member federations. And Russians clubs in the renegade Kontinental Hockey League have not been invited to participate.

The chief organizers are former NHL star Hakan Loob, who is president of the Swedish club team Farjestad, and Ottawa native Peter Lee, a former first-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens who is president of the Berlin Eisbaren.

The teams are from Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, the Czech Republic and Austria and are divided into two nine-team divisions. Each team plays four home games and four away, and a championship tournament is planned for Salzburg, Austria, featuring the top four teams.

"Our fans love the German [league] championship and they'd love to see Swedish teams and Swiss teams, and Sweden wants the same thing, so does Switzerland. They do not want to get away from their league," said Lee. "But they want to see other club teams."

Hockey is big in Europe and recent surveys have shown that hockey is the No. 2 sport in most countries, behind soccer. According to Lee, Europe, with 300 million people, is basically an untapped market.

NHL interested in European market

The NHL has a presence in Europe and is trying to get a bigger foothold by having teams start the season overseas for the past couple of years.  Six teams — Carolina, Minnesota, Columbus, San Jose, Boston and Phoenix — will open their 2010-11 season in Europe in the fall.

Lee said while there is interest in the NHL, surveys have shown that the loyalty lies in Europe with club teams.

"There is a much higher fanatic hockey base in Europe than there is in North America,'' he said. "Hockey is No. 1 in Canada but there are 33 million people. In the United States, it is way down the list. We have 300 million people."

Talk about a pan-European professional league is not new, but there have been few serious attempts to have a pan-European league or a meaningful competition.

The European Trophy competition is akin to taking a baby step.

"This will build rivalries," said Ralph Krueger, a Canadian who is the former Swiss national team coach. "If these clubs build and grow, who knows what they can become."

More than half the teams competing in the European Hockey tournament have new 14,000-plus-seat stadiums, and the ones that don't will soon have a new arena.

"It is a thing that has to evolve. I think you will see the clubs grow and you will see them playing a bigger role than their federations … there is a lot of potential," said Krueger.

Officials are playing it safe and will gauge interest before making a decision on what their next step will be.

"It is not about NHL expansion," added Lee. "It is about growing the clubs here so that they join the NHL [as part of European expansion if and when it comes] or they form their own league. You can have North America and Europe and they will not play until the end.

"Today we can't think about [a pan-European league] but maybe in a few years we can."