The need for more fight on the ice and a lot less violence off it were the main talking points for Swiss ice hockey fans in 2001.This content was published on December 28, 2001 - 22:26
While the world championships in Germany saw the Swiss national side fail to make the quarter-finals for the first time in four years, the domestic season produced an excitedly tight finish, albeit one which was ultimately overshadowed by outbreaks of hooliganism in the playoff finals.
Switzerland's world championship campaign began disastrously with a 3-1 defeat to the tournament hosts. In their second match, Ralph Krueger's men improved dramatically and were unlucky to lose by the same scoreline to eventual champions, the Czech Republic.
Further defeats to Canada and Russia rendered Switzerland's two wins over Belarus and Italy academic, and left Krueger to lament his team's miserable start.
"I think we used way too much energy for the first two games," Krueger told swissinfo, "and I think that lost energy cost us the chance to beat the bigger teams here - no doubt about it."
Combining his role as Swiss coach with a successful career as a business management advisor, Krueger is well known for his emphasis on motivation and clearly had no intention of leaving Germany with his head down.
"I'm very proud of what this team has achieved over the past three years," Krueger insisted. "We may now have taken a step back, but there has never been a setback in my life as a coach or a person that hasn't made me or the team I've been a part of stronger. And I believe this experience is going to make us stronger for the difficult Olympic season ahead."
Such words may come easy to Switzerland's famous motivator, but in November Krueger went some way towards producing the corresponding goods.
Returning to Germany for the Deutschland Cup at the start of the new season, Krueger's team overcame Slovakia and Team Canada before taking revenge over the home side to win the tournament for the first ever time.
"Our season is off to a really good start," said a much happier Krueger afterwards. "Today's hockey level is the highest ever reached by Switzerland and Germany during the five years I have been in charge of the national team."
Tight title chase
On the domestic front, a high level of play was clearly evident among the country's top two teams at least as the championship playoffs headed towards their tightest ever finish.
Longstanding rivals Lugano and the Zurich Lions were the sides involved as the title chase went all the way to a deciding seventh match at Lugano's Resega stadium.
Having led 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, Jim Koleff's Lugano side managed to lose the next three games - including the final showdown in a dramatic overtime finale.
Night of shame
But what should then have gone down in the sporting archives as a fantastic end to the season instead turned into a night of shame.
As the Zurich Lions attempted to collect the championship vase, disgruntled Lugano supporters hurled loose objects and fireworks onto the ice. Violence followed as Lugano fans traded blows with some of the few Zurich supporters who had been allowed into the stadium, leaving the Zurich players to celebrate their victory in the safety of the dressing room.
Politicians, sporting figures and the media combined to express their disgust at the events in Ticino, and the ice hockey league wasted little time in making their feelings clear.
Lugano were fined SFr 40,000 for failing to control their supporters and ordered to play their first three home matches of the new season behind closed doors. Twenty-two of the club's supporters are currently facing prosecution for their alleged role in the violence.
The league also announced measures to improve surveillance and security at the country's stadiums, while simultaneously issuing players with instructions on the need for professional respect on the ice.
In a sport of high physical contact and equally high emotions, tempers are likely to rise once again as the current season approaches its climax. The challenge in 2002 for the Swiss association and its member clubs will be in proving that such tempers can be kept in reasonable check.
by Mark Ledsom
Tomorrow: Four wheels good, two wheels bad?
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