Jokerit Helsinki captain and long-time Finnish national team player Ville Peltonen accepts the Continental Cup trophy after beating Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the final game in 2003. Photo: Jukka Rautio / Europhoto
Tournament solid as a rock for two decades
In 1997 the IIHF changed the landscape of European club competition forever.
Many things would happen in the two following decades with top-level pan-European competitions coming, changing and going while one competition has stayed ever since: the good old Continental Cup.
20 years ago the European Hockey League, a forerunner of today’s Champions Hockey League, was launched with top teams from the European leagues to replace the classic knockout European Cup.
At the same time, similar to how it was known in other sports in Europe such as football, a competition for “challenge clubs” was started that would include more teams from the top European leagues as well as champions from the smaller leagues so they could battle for another European club trophy. The Continental Cup was born.
Kosice won premiere in Tampere
Slovak champion HC Kosice became the first Continental Cup winner in 1997/1998. In its first season the competition was played in four rounds and 15 tournaments. Kosice with an all-Slovak roster and home-grown Vlastimil Plavucha as its biggest star won the tournament in Trincec, Czech Republic, to advance to the final tournament hosted by Ilves Tampere. There the Slovaks beat Eisbaren Berlin 5-2, tied Russia’s Salavat Yulayev Ufa 2-2 and beat Finnish host Ilves 5-4 to claim the winner’s plate.
Big era of Asterix village Ambri-Piotta
In the following four years the plate was in Swiss hands. HC Ambrì-Piotta, often referred to as Swiss ice hockey’s Asterix village due to its size (500 people) and remote location (see story), had its big years and although the club from northern Ticino never won a Swiss championship, it was close enough to qualify for the Continental Cup. And it won the competition twice starred with the firepower of Oleg Petrov and Paul Di Pietro in 1998/1999, and by the Lebeau brothers Patrick and Stephan in 1999/2000.
The Swiss dethroned first-time champion Kosice on the opponent’s ice in the final tournament after opening wins against Dusseldorf and Russian giant Avangard Omsk. One year later in the final tournament in Berlin another win against a famous Russian team, 7-3 against Ak Bars Kazan, was vital in winning the tournament.
The Swiss streak continued with the ZSC Lions Zurich backstopped by a strong Ari Sulander in the net winning the Continental Cup on home ice in 2001 and 2002.
Italianita in 2003
For the sixth edition the Continental Cup final went further south than ever. It was the final with an Italian flair. Swiss top team HC Lugano in the Italian-speaking part of the country at a lake lined with palm trees hosted the final together with Milan, Italy’s biggest city in the north, as the co-host. With the European Hockey League folded it was the only competition for European supremacy and it had the top clubs from some of the best hockey countries.
Two big names made it to the final and Jokerit Helsinki beat Lokomotiv Yaroslavl 2-1 in shootout. Jukka Voutilainen scored the game-winning goal while Kari Lehtonen shone in the net and long-time national player Ville Peltonen as captain accepted the trophy on behalf of the Finns. A few months later he would move permanently to Lugano for three seasons before having another stint in the NHL with the Florida Panthers.
A home in Hungary
In 2004 Gomel in Belarus hosted the tournament won by Slovan Bratislava and as of the 2004/2005 season the IIHF tried to find a home for its club competitions. The new European Champions Cup with the champions from the six biggest European leagues would take place every winter in St. Petersburg for four years while Szekesfehervar in Hungary became the home for the Continental Cup Final for three seasons.
It was quite a difference in level for the Hungarian host when they opened the 2005 final against Dynamo Moscow and lost 8-0. But eventually it was not the team led by Pavel Datsyuk that won the tournament but Slovak underdog HKM Zvolen thanks to Michal Handzus’s pair of goals in the 2-1 win against Dynamo on the final day.
Incredible but true: Despite big names it took nine years until the first Russian club won the Continental Cup, Lada Togliatti in 2006. But one year later in the third and last edition in Hungary Yunost Minsk from Belarus won the tournament after upset wins against favourites Avangard Omsk and Ilves Tampere. Yunost beat Avangard in the final game in shootout after a scoreless game.
The local fans in Hungary appreciated the international flair and in the same year of hosting the Continental Cup for the third time, the club now known as Fehervar AV19 joined the Austria-based EBEL to move to a higher level of league play.
Rouen reigns and other firsts
In the following years the host changed every year. Riga, Grenoble, Minsk, Donetsk and Bremerhaven were one-time hosts while Rouen in the French Normandy region hosted the final four times – in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2016.
Ak Bars Kazan from Russia in 2008 was the last club from a very top league to participate and win the Continental Cup with the troika of Sergei Zinoviev, Danis Zaripov and Alexei Morozov and other star players including Oleg Petrov winning his second Continental Cup with a different team.
Many firsts followed. During Rouen’s dynasty in France, the club also won the Continental Cup twice on home ice in 2012 and 2016. Red Bull Salzburg became the only Austrian club to win it in 2010. Donbass Donetsk, after leaving the Ukrainian league for the KHL, won the competition in 2013 on home ice as the first club from the country and in 2014 the Stavanger Oilers were the first team from Norway to win it.
Chance for exotic clubs
Not only big and small clubs from better-known European hockey countries have taken advantage of the Continental Cup. The competition also offers clubs from countries less renowned for ice hockey the chance to play internationally and dream of a title. Who remembers names like the now defunct London Knights from the English capital, the Turkish police academy (Polis Akademisi Ankara) or jawbreakers like Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk from Kazakhstan and Kohtla-Jarve Viru Sputnik from Estonia?
Clubs from warmer countries such as Spain or Israel have been among the regular participants. Or until some years ago Energija Elektrenai from the small Lithuanian town Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis hail from.
Among the participants were the Dundalk Bulls from Ireland, a country that currently doesn’t have an ice rink but players pilgrimaging to neighbouring Belfast to play their beloved sport. The Bulls got their only win in IIHF play in a 6-4 victory over Bulgarian champion Slavia Sofia in 2008/2009 thanks to a hat trick of their former Lithuanian national team defenceman Vytautas Lukosevicius, who would later become Ireland’s national team coach and most recently a linesman in IIHF tournaments.
And even FC Barcelona – not Lionel Messi and friends, but the club’s ice hockey section – was among the clubs playing in the Continental Cup.
In total clubs from 31 European countries have been playing for European honours in the competition. For some the adventure may have ended in the earliest round while others were involved in the final tournament on many occasions.
Changes and feeder for Champions Hockey League
During the 20 years the concept with a four-stage event has stayed although the structure of the competition changed as did the final that went back to a four-team round robin event after a few years as a six-team event.
While in certain years without a top-level European club competition the Continental Cup included some of the biggest clubs and players of the continent, the competition is back to its originally foreseen status as a challenge competition with the big clubs playing in the Champions Hockey League.
Since the relaunch of the CHL, teams of the six founding CHL leagues (AUT, CZE, FIN, GER, SUI, SWE) are not included in the Continental Cup anymore and also champions from second-tier leagues of top hockey countries that were temporarily invited cannot take part anymore. While in the early years there has been more than one team from some countries, the Continental Cup has been limited to one team per country, usually being the champion.
The Continental Cup also has a direct link to the Champions Hockey League. The winner usually plays in the CHL the following season. That was the case with the most recent winners – the Stavanger Oilers (2014), Neman Grodno (2015) and the Rouen Dragons (2016) – and also the winner this week will have the chance to enter the Champions Hockey League next season subject to formal approval by the CHL Board. That widens the range of countries who can dream of playing in the Champions Hockey League and the potential markets for the CHL.
Small and big venues, great passion
During the 20 years the numerous tournaments each year have been played at various places from big multifunctional arenas to hockey barns in less developed hockey countries. Even the final tournament has seen a contrast of big venues like the former World Championship arenas in Kosice, Minsk, Riga, Tampere or Zurich as well as smaller but loud venues such as Gomel, Rouen or this week Ritten, a town near Bolzano in the German-speaking South Tyrol region of Italy.
Whether it was small or big arenas, rich or cash-strapped clubs, the finals in top-division hockey countries or first rounds in cities like Ankara or Belgrade, the tournaments have in common the passion of the players and organizers at all levels and fans travelling to watch their teams play internationally. It won’t be different this week when Ritten Sport will welcome the Nottingham Panthers (Great Britain), Beibarys Atyrau (Kazakhstan) and Odense Bulldogs (Denmark) to battle for the 20th winner of the IIHF Continental Cup winners’ plate.
Click here for a video on 20 years of Continental Cup action.