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Defending champions on thin ice

Lugano's trainer, Ivano Zanatta (left) has lost most of his star players

(Keystone)

Reigning Swiss ice hockey champions Lugano, who won their seventh league title in April, are preparing for the start of what is likely to be a difficult season.

On top of being hit by a major tax fraud scandal, the team from canton Ticino in southern Switzerland have also lost most of their best players to other clubs.

The 2006-2007 ice hockey championships open on Friday evening, when the race begins among the 12 elite teams to find a successor to the unsteady defending champions.

The current title-holders have lost most of their star players, such as the Canadians Glen Metropolit and Jason York, and the Finns Petteri Nummelin and Ville Peltonen.

The four mercenaries were the key players behind Lugano's seventh title victory last spring. In the close season they were lured by the chance of playing in the professional North American National Hockey League (NHL).

The four took full advantage of ice hockey's new "zero tolerance" rules designed to encourage faster and more open forms of play that were introduced to Swiss ice hockey just before the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. This allowed them to show off their talents and attract the attention of major NHL teams such as the Boston Bruins, Atlanta Thrashers and Minnesota Wild.

New rulings

The introduction of standard rules initiated by the International Ice Hockey Federation – such as banning the use of the stick for hooking, holding, slashing or interfering with an opponent to neutralise their skills – has in general been well received in Switzerland.

Supporters have been able to appreciate faster, more exciting and higher-scoring games. And Swiss players who have been called up to the national team have been able to adapt to the rulings that were in force during the Turin Olympics and the Ice Hockey World Championships.

This year more changes are planned for the Swiss game, but they are unlikely to help Lugano, currently enmeshed in a huge tax evasion affair.

According to the canton Ticino public prosecutor, the team is alleged to have made illegal payments to 19 foreign players and training staff worth SFr7 million ($5.6 million). Investigations are continuing, focusing on Lugano's director, Beat Kaufmann, and president, Fabio Gaggini.

The Swiss league has reacted via the president of its executive board, Marc Furrer, who demanded that the documents presented by the club to obtain its licence be re-examined. "The necessary measures will be taken," he said.

Face-off

Just as the championship is about to restart, another team finds itself mired in financial difficulty. After two disastrous seasons and managing to avoid the drop thanks to a play-off victory over second-division champions Biel, Fribourg-Gottéron are on the verge of collapse.

Last season, with 17 foreign players under contract, the club reported a financial loss of almost SFr2 million.

The team's top priority this season is to secure its financial future by holding onto its place among the elite, which include Basel and Langnau.

The other team from French-speaking Switzerland, Servette of Geneva, hopes to qualify for the new-look play-offs, where the four leading teams will be able to "choose" their opponent among the teams that finish between fifth and eighth.

Bern, Davos and Rapperswil-Jona Lakers are the current favourites to take Lugano's crown, while Kloten Flyers, Zurich Lions, and Ambrì-Piotta are also close behind in the running for the national title.

swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux

New rules

Several changes have been made to the rules ahead of the start of the new Swiss ice hockey season. The most important is that a win now counts as three points instead of two.

Also, in the event of a draw at the end of full-time, the teams play five minutes of extra-time that end the minute a goal is scored. During extra-time, each team consists of four players. The winning team gets two points and the loser gets one point.

If no goal is scored during extra-time, the match is decided by a penalty shoot-out (three penalties).

During the play-offs at the end of the season, extra-time can last up to a maximum of 20 minutes and each team fields five players.

For the play-off quarterfinals (best of seven matches), the team that won the earlier qualifying round can choose its opponent from among the teams that finished between fifth and eighth; the second-placed team then chooses its opponent from the remaining three teams etc.

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