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Ice-cold war looms in Bern


The New York Rangers of the National Hockey League (NHL) have thrashed the best Swiss ice hockey team, SC Bern, 8-1.

But if enthusiasm counted for anything, the 16,000 fans filling the PostFinance Arena in the Swiss capital would have enjoyed a much closer result.

That thousands of Bernese would show up for a hockey game at Europe’s largest rink might have been no surprise to the locals, but perhaps few outside Switzerland would have guessed that Swiss fans are among the keenest anywhere.

“Hockey has belonged to this city for as long as I can remember,” Daniel Germann, sports editor for the Berner Zeitung newspaper, told swissinfo. “The team has the highest spectator average in Europe, with a game average between 15,000 and 16,000.”

Switzerland already boasts connections to the NHL: players including Christian Dubé of the Rangers and Philippe Furrer, a Rangers draft pick, honed their skills here. Meanwhile, during the NHL’s 2004-2005 strike, several top players found themselves playing for Swiss clubs.

Germann says the presence of an entire NHL team – even the Rangers, whose form has dipped in recent seasons – is an entirely different affair for the puck-crazy punters in Bern.

“To be honest, I think people don’t realise they are not currently a top team, but the name alone, the New York Rangers, people know they are one of the original six in the NHL and New York is considered special,” he said.

The new wars

On Wednesday evening, organisers of the first-ever Victoria Cup championship were hoping neutral Switzerland would become the front line for a new international rivalry.

The New York match-up against European champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Continental Hockey League (KHL) could have made an easy parable for the Russo-American geopolitical zeitgeist: ailing America against resurgent Russia, West versus East, the unofficial capital of the world sizing up a centrally planned industrial conurbation on the banks of the Ural River.

New York trailed much of the game, but with 20 seconds left, scored to complete a dramatic comeback from a three-goal deficit and win the game by a 4-3.

It was a close call for a team from the world’s top league: Magnitogorsk, Russia’s best team, swaps players with a lower-tier International Hockey League and its star players, including Sergei Gonchar and Evgeni Nabokov, graduated to the NHL years ago.

But as a whole they are two sides on opposite trajectories and everybody is vying for the world’s top talent.

Global presence

Commentators say hockey outside North America has improved dramatically and, not unlike its other professional sport leagues, is keen to both bolster its global presence and to fight off competition from progressively wealthy foreign rivals.

“I think the NHL finally see that in Europe they also play very good hockey, especially because they are in a fight with the KHL – the Russian league,” said Sven Leuenberger, the general manager for SC Bern.

The NHL started the trend when it opened its 2007-08 season in London. On October 4 the Rangers will again open the season overseas, in Prague, against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Ottawa Senators will square off against the Pittsburgh Penguins the following day in Stockholm.

North American hockey players are not the only ones moving outside their continental markets; several days later, four teams from the National Basketball Association will play exhibition games in four European cities. The league’s commissioner, David Stern, said in March that expanding into Europe would be a viable option in the next ten years.

In late October, two National Football League teams will play at London’s new Wembley Stadium. The first 40,000 tickets tickets sold out in 90 minutes back in May.

The Swiss scene

Hockey teams in Switzerland do not play at the same level as sides in Scandinavia or Russia but they do fare better than the Germans, and money is a deciding factor, according to Leuenberger.

“I think the money still is in the NHL or the KHL. So we can’t afford players that earn that much money,” he said. Before Tuesday’s match, he predicted fans would have a good time but was less confident the Swiss league would benefit from the exhibition games.

The International Ice Hockey Federation this year launched its first Champions Hockey League, which will match 12 teams against each other. It says it hopes to have more than 60 games with 30 teams from 24 countries at some point.

The international flavour of the Champions League should improve the game in Switzerland, says Germann, but adds that North American teams are still the big draw.

Leuenberger says the quality of play has already got better over the past several years. “We have to say that Swiss hockey in general and especially the players have improved and they are getting closer and closer to the other top six countries.”

swissinfo, Justin Häne

Quality play draws fans to hockey arena but other factors, including ticket prices, play a role.

“I think we have a really good price segment compared with other teams in Switzerland plus I think that [older] generations bring their kids to our games. It’s kind of a family thing,” Leuenberger told swissinfo.

The cheapest ticket for an SC Bern game sells for SFr24.20 ($21.95) and the most expensive is SFr46.60.

In Toronto, fans in so-called “Leafs Nation” continue to enrich the team’s owners to the tune of CDN$91 (SFr95) to CDN$610 per seat – despite going 41 years without a league championship.

Hot dogs and beer are overpriced too, but Maple Leafs home games have been sold out for years.

North Americans play on smaller rinks than the rest of the world.

The standard IIHF rink is 61 metres long and and 30 metres wide.

Rinks in the NHL are 62 metres long and 25 metres wide.

Because the NHL’s and the IIHF’s rules differ, games played in Bern will follow blended rules.

It is the first time this is being done.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR