European hockey has always been packed with preseason tournaments with various trophies or monetary prizes at stake. The idea is to give these late summer games a little more meaning than standard tuneups for the regular season -- and add incentive for the teams to prioritize winning. Such events have had a mixed history of success, with a few becoming enduring traditions and many others quickly falling by the wayside.
Started in 2006 as the Nordic Trophy tournament, the European Trophy competition has grown in both scope and prominence over the last five years. The tournament is now no longer just a preseason mini-event, but one that stretches into the month of December.
The 2011 installment of the tourney includes 24 teams based in many of the top European hockey countries. There are six teams from Sweden's Elitserien, six from Finland's SM-Liiga, seven from the Czech Extraliga, two from Germany's DEL, two from the Austrian-based Erste Bank Liga and one from Slovakia's Extraliga.
This year's tournament is divided into preliminary round games played between August and September, with the teams organized into four divisions with six clubs apiece. In December, there will be a playoff weekend, arranged as a single-elimination tournament among the winners of each division.
"It's gratifying to see how the tournament has grown to this level," tourney director Bo Lenartsson said. "We'll have a month of top-notch European hockey to look forward to."
One of the most intriguing preliminary round matchups will take place on Saturday, as defending Swedish champions Farjestads BK Karlstad take on German titlists Eisbaren Berlin (the Berlin Polar Bears) at Lofbergs Lila Arena in Karlstad, Sweden. The two teams have been the envy of their respective leagues for much of their recent histories.
Visiting team Eisbaren is the defending European Trophy champion, capturing the 2010 title with a 5-3 win over Swedish team HV 71 Jonkoping in the finals in Salzburg, Austria. Several months later, the Polar Bears captured the DEL championship, sweeping Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg in the best-of-five finals to win their fifth league title in the last seven seasons. Berlin has finished in first or second place during the DEL regular season in seven of the last nine campaigns and reached the playoff finals the same number of times.
Farjestad, meanwhile, has been Sweden's most successful team of the 21st century. Dispatching Skelleftea AIK to win the 2010-11 Swedish championship, FBK has claimed the Le Mat Trophy (Elitserien's top prize) in two of the last three seasons. The club has won four championships since the start of the new millennium and has reached the playoff finals eight times since 2001. Farjestad made it to the semifinals of last year's European Trophy tournament before losing to HV 71.
North American fans are likely to be familiar with numerous players on both the FBK and Eisbaren sides. Combined, the two squads currently have seven players with NHL experience and several others who previously played in the American Hockey League.
One of the most notable new additions to the Farjestad lineup is forward Fredrik Sjostrom, who returns to his home country this season after seven seasons in the NHL. On the Eisbaren side, there are high expectations for former New Jersey Devils right wing Barry Tallackson. The 6-foot-4 American import ranked third in the DEL scoring race (55 points) and second in goals (29) last season as a member of the Augsburg Panthers. Eisbaren has also added former New York Rangers prospect Darin Olver, who teamed with Tallackson in Augsburg last season to lead the league in scoring with 70 points in 48 games.
Other Eisbaren notables with past NHL connections include forwards Denis Pederson and Stefan Ustorf, defenseman Richie Regehr, head coach Don Jackson and general manager Peter Lee. Apart from Sjostrom, the NHL alumni on Farjestad include fellow former Toronto Maple Leafs players Rickard Wallin (FBK's team captain) and Jonas Frogen.
Although both teams have been training in earnest for a couple of weeks, there is always an increased risk in the first few games of competitive hockey after the offseason ends. In many cases, the teams involved in the European preseason tournaments play cautiously and their coaches appear more concerned about avoiding injuries and evaluating some young players than they do about winning the games. The quality and speed of the play may also be out of sync. However, both Jackson and new Farjestad coach Niklas Czarnecki have pledged to have their clubs well-prepared.
"We have to be mindful of our positional and transition games, because the tempo will be high," Czarnecki said. "Our goal is get a place in the playoffs. We'll focus on [preparations for Elitserien] season games when that time comes soon but, either way, it is still important to play the right way."
Farjestad and Eisbaren are grouped together in the tournament's West Division, along with the Frolunda Indians of Gothenburg (Elitserien), TPS Turku (SM-Liiga), Tappara Tampere (SM-Liiga) and Red Bull Salzburg (Erste Bank Liga).
The East Division consists of Karpat Oulu (SM-Liiga), KalPa Kuopio (SM-Liiga), HC Ceske Budejovice (Czech Extraliga), HC Plzen 1929 (Czech Extraliga), Slovan Bratislava (Slovak Extraliga) and the Vienna Capitals (Erste Bank Liga)
The North Division is comprised of Djurgardens IF Stockholm (Elitserien), Lulea HF (Elitserien), HIFK Helsinki (defending SM-Liiga champions), Jokerit Helsinki (SM-Liiga), HC Sparta Prague (Czech Extraliga) and HC Slavia Prague (Czech Extraliga).
The South Division contains Linkopings HC (Elitserien), HV 71 Jonkoping (Elitserien), Adler Mannheim (DEL), Bili Tygri Liberec (Czech Extraliga), HC Pardubice (Czech Extraliga) and HC Kometa Brno (Czech Extraliga).