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Finns fan Swiss ice hockey fun

The Swiss ice hockey season slides into action on Friday

(Keystone)

The Swiss ice-hockey season started on Friday – minus the National Hockey League (NHL) stars who have gone home after the resolution of a labour dispute.

For the first time Swiss clubs are able to field five foreign players per match, a development that has led to an influx of Finnish players.

This season will have a stronger Swiss-German accent, with only two teams from French-speaking Switzerland and two from Italian-speaking Ticino, but eight from the German part of the country.

Basel are back on the top-flight scene after a year's enforced absence. They are replacing Lausanne with the express intention of avoiding another end-of-season slump that saw them relegated to the second division last season.

Bern, Lugano and Zurich are expected to vie for the title in a three-horse race that promises to be hot.

After a bizarre 2004/2005 season in which 84 NHL players were seen carving up Swiss rinks, this year things look as though they will return to normal.

Swiss gain

The last season in North America was cancelled after the NHL vowed to install what it dubbed "cost certainty" for its teams – team owners wanted to cut the average player salary from $1.8 million (SFr2.29 million) to $1.3 million.

The NHL players' association countered that the move was little more than a euphemism for a salary cap, which the union initially said it would not accept.

The NHL thus became the first major North American sports league in history to lose an entire season because of labour disputes. In July 2005 a new collective bargaining agreement was ratified, allowing players and coaches to go back to business.

But while US and Canadian fans had a bleak winter, their counterparts in Switzerland and the rest of Europe were rubbing their hands – with hundreds of NHL players at a loose end, European clubs were quick to seize the opportunity and beef up their squads.

Davos' gamble on NHL players paid off when it won the national title easily, thanks to the likes of Joe Thornton and Rick Nash, bona fide stars in North America.

Finnish invasion

In the Swiss league this year clubs will be able for the first time to field a line-up boasting five foreign players per match - one more than last season.

One small but important detail is that two of them have to have an EU passport.

This has translated in practice into a flood of players from Scandinavia and eastern Europe lining up next to the traditional Canadian "mercenaries".

Finnish players are in particular demand this year and there will be 16 of them twirling round Swiss ice rinks.

In Ticino, Petteri Nummelin, Jukka Hentunen and Ville Peltonen will be donning the colours of Lugano, and Jari Korhonen and Eero Somervuori those of Ambri-Piotta.

The Swiss-German clubs have called on Jarno Peltonen (Basel), Toni Söderholm and Kimmo Kutha (Bern), Kimmo Rintanen (Kloten), Niki Sirén and Marko Tuomainen (Langnau), Timo Pärssinen and Marko Tuuola (Zug), Ari Sulander (ZSC Lions) and Riku Hahl (Davos).

Of the two French-speaking clubs, only one has a Finn on its payroll – Hannes Hyvönen has gone to Fribourg-Gottéron.

swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux

Key facts

The 158 inter-season transfers total SFr10.2 million ($8.2 million).
Promoted Basel replace relegated Lausanne.
Five foreigners are now allowed to start each match but two must have EU passports.
Davos, the current Swiss ice hockey champions, hold the record for the most championships with 27.

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