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Swiss profit from NHL shutout

Joe Thornton (left) and Rick Nash are two NHL stars set to play in Switzerland

(Keystone)

The Swiss ice hockey league, which got underway on Friday, has been boosted by the arrival of some of the sport’s top players from North America.

The stars from the prestigious National Hockey League (NHL) will stay for as long as their championship remains shut down by a labour dispute.

The NHL’s board of governors decreed a lockout on Wednesday after team owners and player representatives failed to agree on new salary conditions.

Team owners want to cut the average player salary from $1.8 million (SFr2.29 million) to $1.3 million. According to the NHL, teams have lost $1.8 billion collectively over the past decade.

This means that the North American season will most likely be shorter than normal or cancelled altogether, unless a compromise can be reached.

But while US and Canadian fans face the prospect of a bleak winter, their counterparts in Switzerland and the rest of Europe are looking forward to a season to remember.

With hundreds of NHL players at a loose end, European clubs were quick to seize the opportunity and beef up their squads.

Davos swoops

In Switzerland, Davos were the first to take the plunge, signing up some big-name players.

The Graubünden club has hired the captain of the Boston Bruins, Joe Thornton, along with 20-year-old Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets, the NHL’s leading goalscorer last season.

Nash said earlier this year that if he could not play the regular NHL season, he wanted to take part in a high-calibre European league and gain international experience.

Davos are taking a gamble on the lockout being a long-term affair. The three NHL players they have hired – Niklas Hagman of the Florida Panthers is their third signing – have an opt-out clause in their contracts which allows them to head home if the NHL season ever gets the green light.

But Peter Baetschi, the club’s manager, is confident that Davos won’t be left out of pocket.

“It’s a good deal for us because Thornton’s name should generate revenue for us,” he said.

Big-name signings

Baetschi insists that strengthening the team rather than generating bigger gate receipts was his main concern when shopping for NHL players.

“In Thornton’s case, we were looking for a player for that position [a forward],” he said.

While Davos haven’t disclosed exactly how they are going to pay all the players’ salaries, Baetschi told swissinfo that Thornton’s salary would come out of the regular team budget.

Other Swiss clubs to announce NHL arrivals are Kloten and Zug, while Lugano have hired Swiss goalkeeper David Aebischer, who is the number one tender for the Colorado Avalanche.

Aebischer had hoped to play for his hometown club, Fribourg-Gottéron, but the team couldn’t foot the bill, which includes a hefty sum for insurance coverage.

Restrictions

Both sides said the outcome was a pity, but agreed that the club’s financial health was more important than a temporary stint back home for Aebischer.

The other Swiss NHL goalie, Martin Gerber, who was transferred to the Carolina Hurricanes for this season, has joined the Langnau Tigers.

Geneva-Servette are another team that have decided not to hire contracted NHL players, but not for monetary reasons.

The team was banned from signing NHL players by its owner, the Anschutz group.

Boss Philip Anschutz owns an NHL team, the Los Angeles Kings, and is pushing for lower player salaries. He was hardly going to allow one of his clubs to hire players opposed to his plans.

No matter how long the NHL stars stay in Switzerland, the fans should be in for a treat.

Many of them have fond memories of the 1994 lockout, which brought big names such as Kamenski, Gilmour and Chelios onto Swiss ice.

swissinfo, Jonathan Hirsch and Scott Capper

In brief

Joe Thornton, the captain of the Boston Bruins, was set to earn $6.75 million this season after being awarded a 23% pay increase from an arbitration panel.

David Aebischer saw his salary raised by the Avalanche to $2.5 million.

Neither player will see any of this money unless the NHL season gets underway.

They will only be paid a percentage, according to the number of matches they play.

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