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Season five of the Champions Hockey League since its relaunch begins on six fronts on Thursday with 12 teams in action. The remaining 20 teams get started on Friday.
The format of Europe’s club hockey championship remains unchanged from last season, with 32 teams from 13 different European countries divided into eight groups of four. It includes the major European leagues except the Russian-based KHL that has stayed away. The last time Russian teams competed was in 2008/2009, when Russian champion Metallurg Magnitogorsk made it to the final where it lost to the ZSC Lions Zurich from Switzerland.
Each team plays every team in its group twice – home and away. The group stage concludes the third week in October, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the knockout stage.
The round of 16 will then be played in November, the quarter-finals in December, semi-finals in January and the one-game final on 5 February. The first three playoff rounds will be two-game, total-goal series, with each team playing once at home and once away.
The current incarnation of the Champions Hockey League debuted in 2014/15, bringing a high-level club competition back to European ice hockey after a five-year absence.
After the first three titles were claimed by Swedish clubs – two by Frolunda Gothenburg and one by Lulea HF – the title was won by a Finnish team in 2017/18 when JYP Jyvaskyla went into Vaxjo and shut out the Lakers 2-0.
“Last season we won the CHL and our only goal is to defend it,” new JYP head coach Lauri Merikivi said ahead of his team’s opening game in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, where they will face the two-time defending Slovak champs. “You can't be in a better situation than in defending your title.”
The groups are as follows:
Group A: ZSC Lions Zurich (SUI), Vienna Capitals (AUT), Frolunda Gothenburg (SWE), Aalborg Pirates (DEN).
Last season, Frolunda and Zurich emerged from the same group and will be favoured to do so again, with Vienna challenging to advance. Two-time CHL champions Frolunda is led by captain Joel Lundqvist – the identical twin of New York Rangers goalie Henrik – and American sniper Ryan Lasch while the Lions have Canadian defenceman Kevin Klein, Swedish winger Robert Nilsson and Czech forward Roman Cervenka. Vienna is led by former Philadelphia Flyer Andreas Nodl, and Aalborg by longtime Danish national team member Julian Jakobsen.
Group B: Red Bull Munich (GER), TPS Turku (FIN), Malmo Redhawks (SWE), Yunost Minsk (BLR).
In a tough group where all four teams have a legitimate shot to advance, Munich will rely on the experience of several silver medalists from the German Olympic team, starting with goaltender Danny aus den Birken. Captain Lauri Korpikoski is the most recognizable name on TPS, while the young Redhawks have a couple of mainstays on the national team of neighbouring Denmark: Nichlas Hardt and Frederik Storm. Yunost Minsk, which qualified as the Continental Cup winner, has longtime KHLer Alexander Kulakov.
Group C: HC Bolzano (ITA), Skelleftea AIK (SWE), IFK Helsinki (FIN), GKS Tychy (POL).
With a veteran-laden team that includes captain Jimmie Ericsson, Oscar Moller and Mathis Olimb, Skelleftea has to be considered the favourite in Group C. Battling for the other position will be a young IFK Helsinki squad led by veterans Lennart Petrell and Kyle Quinney. Bolzano, the Italian-based team that qualified as champion of the Austrian-based cross-border EBEL, has former Calgary Flame Leyland Irving in goal.
Group D: Kometa Brno (CZE), Eisbaren Berlin (GER), EV Zug (SUI), Neman Grodno (BLR).
The two-time reigning Czech camps from Brno are favoured in Group D, with veteran forwards Martin Erat and Peter Mueller. The other three teams all have reasonable shots of advancing, but Zug and Berlin are probably ahead of Grodno. Zug is led by defenceman Raphael Diaz and Stanley Cup champion forward Viktor Stalberg. For Berlin, defenceman Frank Hordler was a key piece to Germany’s Olympic success, and Canadian forward James Sheppard is recognizable from his NHL days.
Group E: Djurgarden Stockholm (SWE), Tappara Tampere (FIN), Ocelari Trinec (CZE), Storhamar Hamar (NOR).
Three strong teams in Djurgarden, Tappara and Trinec will be fighting for only two places in the next round. After eight years in the NHL, Jacob Josefsson returns to Sweden to help Djurgarden, Tappara acquired veteran goalie Nicklas Backstrom, and Trinec has CHL MVP goalie Simon Hrubec, defenceman Lukas Krajicek and forward Martin Ruzicka. But don’t totally discount Storhamar, who went to the round of 16 in 2015/16. The Norwegian champs have added Patrick Thoresen, a former NHLer and KHLer who is a hockey legend in his home country.
Group F: Karpat Oulu (FIN), Hradec Kralove HK (CZE), Nuremberg Ice Tigers (GER), Rouen Dragons (FRA).
Karpat hosted the CHL Final in 2015/16, losing 2-1 to Frolunda. They hope to make another deep run led by the experience of defenceman Lasse Kukkonen and the youthful skill of Los Angeles Kings first-round draft pick Rasmus Kupari. Hradec Kralove and Nuremberg should battle for the other two spots. Both teams have strong defence: Hradec Kralove with Slovak Dominik Granak and Latvian Oskars Cibulskis, and Nuremberg with Slovak Milan Jurcina and American Tom Gilbert. The Dragons will try to pick up points where they can.
Group G: Vaxjo Lakers (SWE), SC Bern (SUI), Red Bull Salzburg (AUT), Cardiff Devils (GBR).
Vaxjo won just about everything there was to win last season, except for the CHL Final, which they lost on home ice. They continue to have a strong team this season, starting with Viktor Fasth in goal. They will also have access to defenceman Joel Persson and German forward Dominik Bokk before they go to NHL training camps. Bern has Leonardo Genoni in goal, who backstopped Switzerland to a silver medal at the World Championship, and North American forwards Andrew Ebbett and Marc Arcobello. Cardiff netminder Ben Bowns was the backbone of Team GB’s victory at the World Championship Division I Group A and to promotion to the top-16 hockey countries at next year’s Worlds.
Group H: JYP Jyvaskyla (FIN), HC Plzen (CZE), HC Lugano (SUI), HC ‘05 Banska Bystrica (SVK).
The defending champion, JYP already had a deep roster led by Jarkko Immonen and added to it 42-year-old Eric Perrin, the oldest player in the CHL last year and a Stanley Cup champion with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Plzen and Lugano should battle hard for the next position, with Banska Bystrica the dark horse, but definitely with a shot. Plzen has Jakub Kindl on defence, while Lugano has Latvian goalie Elvis Merzlikins and Canadian centre Maxim Lapierre.
For more on the CHL, visit championshockeyleague.com.