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Champions Hockey League 2019/20 - the groups

The draw for group stages of the Champions Hockey League took place in Slovakia during the recent World Championships. The 32 teams were divided into eight groups with four teams in each. The top two will go through to the knockout stages which start in November. 

Group A: 

This group should see Finland's Tappara Tampere qualify. They are the only team in this group who have played in the competition but Swiss Biel Bienne are my favourites to go to the playoffs over Austrian and Norwegian competition.

Group B:

Even with Finnish champions HPK Hämeenlinna, in the group I am going to  go for Swiss EV Zug and Czech HC Pilsen as the two teams who are most likely to qualify from this group. Pilsen were excellent last year and that the Swiss have been in the tournament before may be an advantage against Finnish and Danish first-timers.

Group C:

Swedish champions from the regular season Luleå Hockey should qualify from one of the most open groups. But they will face a tough fight from Czech team Bílí Tygři Liberec and Germany's Augsburger Panthers. Can Great Britain's surprise survival in the World Championship be an inspiration for Belfast Giants to sneak into the playoffs? Back Paul Swindlehurst and veteran forward, Colin Shields, drafted in 2000 by Philadelphia Flyers certainly will hope so.

Group D: 

Another group which will be an open fight will see Czech Oceláři Třinec, Swiss Lausanne HC and Finnish newcomers Lahti Pelicans fight for the top two places. Lausanne's Swedish assistant captain, Jonas Junland (pictured) as played in the first two seasons of the CHL with Linköping HC will be hoping to go further than the group stages in his fourth year in Switzerland.

Group E:

Kärpät's biggest challenge to winning the competition may be getting out of the group stages where they will have to face NLA champions, SC Bern and Swedish powerhouse,  Skellefteå AIK. Despite enormous talent the Swedes have rarely performed well in the CHL and tend to be a team that flourish is the own playoffs in early spring. That should play to the Finnish and Swiss teams' advantage.

Group F:

This is another group that is very difficult to predict where Germany's Adler Mannheim return to the competition. They will face Austria's Vienna Capitals and Sweden's silver medal winners Djurgården IF. The Stockholm team of 2017/8 and 2018/9 was good enough to win the CHL, but have never rose to the challenge and have lost some of their best players already in the post-season.

One player who will not be playing in the in the CHL this season unless Adler Mannheim go through to the knockout round is Thomas Larkin. That's because in dying minutes of his last match in the competition on 7 November 2017 he tackled Brynäs IF's Stanley Cup winning forward, Daniel Paille, in an off-the-puck incident. The blindside hit ended Paille's career and on 10 June 2019 the court will decide what, if any, punishment the London born, Italian national will receive in a civil action taken out by the Canadian. He, along with many others felt that the CHL gave out a punishment which was too lenient.  On the ice Larkin received two match penalties and then the CHL discipline committee gave him a three match ban for the hit and one for the ensuing fight.

Group G:

This group ought see Swedish Färjestad BK and last year's finalists Red Bull Munich go through against Swiss and Slovakian opposition.

Group H:

Frölunda Indians as the champions have again be drawn against British opposition, both of whom were in the lowest seeded teams in the competition. This time it will be Cardiff Devils who will face the Swedish champions. But they will not be intimidated in this their third CHL in a row. They will also feel they have a chance against their Austrian and Czech opponents in this group. Can they produce the upset of the tournament and qualify behind the Swedish and CHL champions? The safer choice would be Mountfield HK from the Czech Republic. But British internationals Ben Bowns and Evan Mosey will want to provide a shock again. Netminder Bowns has shown that he has the credentials - he saved 230 shots during the World Championships, the most of all players in the tournament.

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World record breaking contract signed by SDHL

Yesterday the Swedish Women’s Hockey League (SDHL) announced a world first in women’s hockey - they have signed a six year long contract to televise all matches in the league. That makes them the first league in women’s hockey to transmit every match, rather than occasional or playoff matches. 

The contract is with Sportsground together with media rights company, XVI Sports. 

See SDHL website (in Swedish) for more details:

https://www.sdhl.se/article/i6ejajwf0-5nfcdd/rekordstor-tv-satsning-pa-svensk-damhockey

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Champions Hockey League 2019/20 - The Finnish challengers to the Swedish crown

Frölunda Indians have been in four out of five of the Champions Hockey League finals winning three. Can anyone take the title from them? 

Maybe this is the year for the Finns, and especially  Kärpät Oulu, to take the title. Kärpät should be out to take revenge on their neighbours who beat them in the 2015/6 final. 

Kärpät Oulu (FIN)

Finnish international hockey is in it's absolute prime, with its juniors winning the U20 championship and their seniors taking the gold against Canada. Even the women's team can boast being the best European team by far as both Olympic and World Cup bronze medalists.

It remains to be seen whether this can be converted into club success and perhaps the Finnish team most likely to succeed in 2019/20 is Kärpät Oulu. They may have finished second in the Liiga and in the second pool in the draw for the CHL. But they are the only Finnish team in the competition that have been to the final before.

However, even more importantly, they have at least four players who have contributed in the national team's success at Junior and Senior level. And if Munich's experience is anything to go by, that self-belief developed in the international arena can be the make or break difference in key matches.

20 year old Aleksi Heponiemi came eleventh in the Total Point in Liiga just 11 points behind the winner, Malte Strömwall. He is due to to start with the Florida Panthers in the autumn. But you can bet Kärpät will take him back in a flash if they can. One year younger, the second JWC gold medalist in the team, Rasmus Kupari is technically on loan to the Finns from Los Angeles Kings but a decision about next year has not been made. If these two remain in the team they will be a force to reckon with in front of net.

A senior player who has been at Kärpät for the last four years and returns from Slovakia with a gold medal round his neck is 27 year old is Jani Hakanpää. Drafted in 2010 by the Stanley Cup finalists, St Louis Blues the big 195 cm/ 6'5" defenseman played two full years in the AHL but on returning to Finland has also turned himself into a points scorer. His contract is also up but renewal could see more Champions Hockey League action for the Finn.

We can be more certain about 31 year old defenseman and captain for the 2018/9 season, Atte Ohtamaa. Back at his junior club last year after four years in the KHL he clocked in a career high 23 points in the season and captained his country during the Euro Hockey Tour. The Champions Hockey is one of the few things he has not won - can he lead the team to European club success?

The club have also signed two experienced players for the 2019/20 in the shape of Janne Pesonen (pictured) and Ludwig Byström. At 37 Finn, Pesonen has signed a one year contract at the club he played for in 2004, the year his was drafted by the Anaheim Ducks. Most recently he has been in Sweden with Växjö Lakers where he won the championship with Elias Pettersson but the team lost the CHL final at home to Finnish underdogs JYP Jyväskylä.

Byström has played in the CHL in 2014/5 when he was at Färjestad BK with Milan Gulas, who now captain's Czech CHL semi finalists, HC Pilsen.

The 24 year old has chosen to return to Finland instead of his native Sweden after four full years in the AHL mainly with the development team of the Dallas Stars who drafted him Swede in 2010. In his final two years in the AHL he started to develop the points scoring side of his game and it will be interesting to see how he adapts to the European game again.

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Champions Hockey League 2019/20 - can the Indians make it two in a row?

On 22 May, in the middle of the recent world championships in Slovakia, the draw for the Europe-wide club competition that starts on 29 August took place in Bratislava.

Last year was the first time in Champions Hockey League history a German team went to the final with Red Bull Munich playing away to eventual winners, Frölunda Indians from Sweden last February.

A year ago I tipped the Indians to win and Munich were my outsiders choice for the title. But this year I'm going back to the old favourites and expecting to see a repeat of the 2015/6 all-Nordic final with Frölunda against Finnish, Kärpät Oulu.

Below we take a look at my favourites for the competition as well as a brief look at the group draw.

Frölunda Indians (SWE)

Roger Rönnberg's team from Gothenburg are my favourites to lift the trophy, this time for their fourth championship and achieving what only they have done before - win back to back championships.

One reason for this is that the management remains the same and the Swedish champions take the competition seriously- not as a warm up for their national season - but as something worth winning in it's own right.

That said, the club has already lost some of it's stars from the 2018/9 double winning season. Canadian backs, Jonathan Sigalet and Chay Genoway are both moving on. The first to Swedish rivals, Brynäs IF and the second moves back to the KHL where he has played most of his career since leaving North America in 2014. On attack, they also lose the Westerholm twins to Finland's Lukko Rauma. All four are forfeiting their chance to play in the CHL by moving.

But it is not time to write off the Gothenburg club - they will still retain the top scoring CHL and SHL forward, American, Ryan Lasch and Henrik's twin brother Joel Lundqvist  will stay remain as captain at the club. Both have one year on their contract and whilst the 32 year old import player has not been afraid to move around, 37 year old Lundqvist maybe playing his last season at the club he has been at for 10 years.

Frölunda is a club that produces great young players such Rasmus Dahlin who has just had his first season at Buffalo Sabres. Their current pairing of back Jacob Moverare (Los Angeles Kings -pictured) and forward Samuel Fagemo (to be drafted this summer) will probably stay another season at the club despite NHL interest and will undoubtedly play a crucial role in a successful season.

But the Indians are also able to attract great players. They have already got replacements at the back with 23 year Swede, Julius Bergman, coming in fresh from four years in the AHL to replace Genoway as a point scoring back. Genoway's Olympic Bronze medal winning teammate, Karl Stollery will be coming from the KHL to replace Sigalet. And an interesting signing in regard to the CHL is that 29 year old Swede Niklas Lasu (pictured). The 2008 Atlanta Thrashers drafted centre returns to his home club after two years in Finland with no less than Kärpät Oulu.

The transfer window is still open but I have no doubt the Frölunda are going to be a force to reckon with in both CHL and SHL with their fantastic mix of up and coming Swedes, skillful returnees and super talented import players.

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Team GB win thriller in OT at World Championships

Game 47 of the World Championships, the final match of the preliminary stages for the bottom two teams in Group A did not look look very promising tie beforehand. 

Great Britain, the lowest ranked team in the competition, ranked 22 verses France, ranked 13. Neither team had won a game in the tournament so far and were some of the lowest scoring teams in the whole competition - Sweden’s top four players had scored more than these two teams put together. 

But in a “winner-takes-all” match only one team would remain in the top division of international hockey and qualifying for the 2020 championships in Switzerland. 

The British team played a completely different type of hockey than in the other six losses in the tournament where they had let in 38 goals and only scored 5. But that was partly due to the fact that whilst they were definitely underdogs, France were also there for the taking as they themselves had let in 31 goals whilst only scoring 9. 

Of the two, only the French team had players who have played in the SHL or Allsvenskan. That including their third line defenseman, Kevin Hacquefueille, pictured above playing for Pantern IK in 2018. But despite their deeper international experience, including more NHL games,  they seemed surprised by the Brits aggression as huge, legal mid-ice hits leveled the Gaelic forwards time and again in the first period. 

However, it was the French who took the advantage scoring first in the second period and then adding two goals in six seconds to lead the match 3-0 at the halfway point. 

This was Britain’s first tournament in the highest division of hockey for 25 years and the last time the nation had scored 4 goals in a World Cup match was 1962. And their opponents had been in the top flight since 2004 and had won many similar tight matches in the last 15 years. 

But after the inevitable timeout, Team GB took the game to their rivals. And when they scored a second goal with 1:56 to go in the period their fans screamed as though they had already won sensing an upset was possible. 

However, it would take a goal in the third period and one of the most dramatic 3-on-3 overtime periods I’ve ever seen for the Brits to produce their own unlikely “miracle on ice” (See OT from 19:05 in the IHUKTV video, below). 

How the French didn’t score in the three mad, goalmouth scrambles in the first two minutes of extra time has to be seen to be believed. But somehow Ben Bowns kept the puck out of the net.

And then came the counterattack from former Rockford Ice Hogs (AHL) defenseman David Phillips. As the French mistakenly tried to cover him with two players, that left former Norfolk Admirals (ECHL) forward Ben Davies alone in front of net where he skillfully beat netminder Florian Hardy to send Great Britain to their first back-to-back world championships since 1952. 

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Going Coast to Coast - the Californians who found success in Sweden’s second city

On 2 May Gothenburg team Frölunda Indians won the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) title after a 4-2 series win over Stockholm rivals Djurgården IF.

That the Indians winning team contained five North Americans (including three Canadians) is not so surprising. But that both Americans come from California’s sun-soaked, surfing mecca Orange County and both are confessing Christians certainly doesn’t fit the norm for the profile of a successful hockey player.

But success has followed these two players, wherever they have gone.

Ryan Lasch 

Born in Lake Forest, CA. in 1987, Ryan Lasch, has now played five of the last seven seasons in Sweden.

Like many emerging pros, Lasch’s early career saw him bouncing between leagues in Europe and North America as he sought to establish himself and hone his skills. In 2012 it looked like that he might get the much sought after dream ticket of playing in the NHL after becoming the first native of Orange County to be signed by local club, the Anaheim Ducks.

But at only 5’7″ (170 cm) his size was probably never suited to the more physical North American game and the larger European rinks gave him a chance to use his speed and agility to duck and dive out of tackles and develop into a potent goalmouth threat.

He maybe one of the shortest players in the SHL he is not short of trophies and accolades.

This year he picked up top scorer in the pan-European club competition, the Champions Hockey League (CHL), top scorer in the SHL Regular Season and the Stefan Liv Memorial Trophy as the Playoff MVP.

But Lasch himself says it is not really points he is after, but titles. In which case this year should count as a great success- for the second time in four years Frölunda are double SHL and CHL champions- a feat no other European club has ever achieved.

Rhett Rakhshani 

Rhett Rakhshani‘s route to Swedish success is the result of a steady move eastward from Huntington Beach, CA. where he was born one year after Lasch. He moved from the Pacific coast, to the University of Denver and then to his first professional contract in 2010 on the Atlantic coast in Bridgeport, CT.

But his rise up the career ladder suddenly came to an abrupt end. Rakhshani was a success in Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but he was unable to register a single point in his NHL games with the New York Islanders.

At only 24 years old age, Rakhshani found himself at a crossroads in his career – continue in the AHL and hope to be one of the few to gain a ”veteran” contract or move to Europe and hope to adjust and establish himself on a different continent.

He took the risk to go further east, not as far as his grandfather’s homeland in Iran, but to Sweden, where he has been ever since.

The gamble sees to have paid off as 31 year old Rakhshani, with the classic hockey player’s toothless grin, has now won his second SHL championship in four years.

References 

https://sverigesradio.se/sida/artikel.aspx?programid=106&artikel=563077

https://www.expressen.se/gt/sport/hockey/shl/lasch-om-tuffa-tiden-sprang-in-i-vaggen/

https://www.expressen.se/gt/sport/hockey/shl/darfor-valde-stjarnan-frolunda-avgorande/

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SHL 18/19 - Frölunda Indians SHL Champions after win in Stockholm

Gothenburg’s Frölunda Indians won the battle of Sweden’s two biggest cities as they took home a 4-2 final series win against Djurgården IF in Stockholm.

Frölunda won every single game in the playoffs at home and were also unstoppable on the powerplay where they scored, on average, every other time they had a man-advantage.  

The winner’s American forward, Ryan Lasch, repeated his record from the regular season by being the postseason’s top scorer as well as picking up the playoffs’ most valuable player award. Canadian Olympian, Chay Genoway became the highest scoring back in the playoffs in Swedish hockey history.

For Djurgården, it can only be a question of what-might-have-been. The reached the final after and majestic comeback against Färjestad BK and destroyed last year’s disappointment of losing in the semis to Skellefteå AIK. Particularly in the the first two matches they were the better side and in five-on-five play they were always dangerous. But with a man extra they more often than not failed to convert. In fact Frölunda’s Anaheim Ducks’ drafted, Max Friberg, is now the first player to score two shorthanded goals away from home in Swedish hockey history. 

The Indians repeated the feat from 2015/6 when they last won the SHL championship by winning the double - the Champions Hockey League Trophy and they Le Mat Trophy in the same year - something no other European team has done. 

Meanwhile captain and former Dallas Stars’ centre Joel Lundqvist raises the SHL trophy for the fourth time in his career. Naturally  New York Rangers netminder, Henrik congratulated his twin brother: “so proud of this guy! Congratulations to Frölunda Indians and the whole of Gothenburg” he wrote on Twitter. 

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3 battles that will decide the SHL championship - 3. Forwards

Forwards: Strandberg, Axelsson and Jonsson Fjällby (DIF) v Lasch, Rakhshani and Fagemo (FHC)

Djurgården is overflowing with Swedish forward talent. The three I have named are the top three scorers in the playoffs but in the regular season it was Jacob Lilja, Daniel Brodin and Jacob Josefsson that lead the way. And that doesn't account for young drafted players such as the Davidsson brothers and Emil Bemström.

This is a team designed to score goals and the challenge for Frölunda will be to match, and ultimately neutralize, this threat.

Sebastian Strandberg was an unknown until this season having played in HV71s youth teams. But the 26 year old has been steadily developing over the last four years playing in the North American ECHL, Denmark and then the Hockeyallsvenskan until this breakthrough year in the SHL.

By contrast Dick Axelsson (pictured, white helmet) at 31 represents one of the most experienced players on the squad and is coming into his prime after a relatively quiet regular season.

Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 2006 he only had a short spell in their AHL team before returning to Sweden. Although born in Stockholm, this is his first season back at the club which gave him his first taste of SHL hockey back in 2007. He has consistently been a member of Team Sweden when the North Americans players are excluded. This playoffs have seen him to rise to his full potential and arguably play some of the best hockey of his career.

Axel Jonsson Fjällby represents the young super talented group of Djurgården players who have excelled at the Junior World Championships, got drafted by NHL and are on the cusp of breaking through into their respective AHL squads. Aged between 19-22 of these four - Bemström, Marcus Davidsson and brother Jonathan - it is only Jonsson-Fjällby has so far played in North America. That was with the Washington Capitals' devoplment team, Hershey Bears

All four are game changers and that doesn't account for the fact that they also have NHL experience returnees Niclas Bergfors and Josefsson on the squad too.

Frölunda Indians are not short of talent up front too, but it is not so broadly spread and concentrated in fewer players, not least American, Ryan Lasch (pictured in green helmet) 

At 5'6" (170 cm) his height has probably the only thing that had prevented him from a successful career in his home country where he has only played 30 games in the AHL. But in Europe it has been non-stop success with top scorers awards and national championship finals in all three countries he has played in. He is in his fourth season at Frölunda and was part of the double winning team in 2015/6 when he was the SHL and CHL top scorer and top assist getter. The only thing that's missing in comparison to three years ago - the SHL championship.

If Djurgården can shut down 32 year old Lasch they cut off the club's most prolific and creative player - a must if they want to spoil the Gothenburg team's party.

Another 30+ Californian whose has had made a big impact here is 31 year old, New York Islanders drafted Rhett Rakhshani. He had two successful seasons in their AHL development club where he gained a Point Per Game and even got to play a handful of matches for the Islanders.

He is now in his fifth club in seven years here in Sweden and is finally starting to show the form he had when with Växjö Lakers and they won their first SHL championship in 2014/5 and the American won the competition for most points in the playoffs- the same position he holds today.

Finally we have 19 year old Samuel Fagermo - Frölunda's answer to Jonsson Fjällby et al. He played his first Junior World Championship this winter and will surely be drafted this summer.

He shown in the regular season with 14G+11A making him the team's second highest goal scorer behind Simon Hjälmarsson. Whilst the 30 year old St Louis Blues drafted centre continues to produce in the playoffs, the youngster hasn't reached his full potential. He only scored his first goal in the postseason against Luleå in the semifinals.

It is hard to separate the two, the Stockholm team with a spread of young talented players against a smaller group on of mature players from Gothenburg. I'm going to give it to Djurgården as they have more match winners - especially Dick Axelsson.

Advantage: Djurgården

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3 battles that will decide the SHL championship - 2. Defensemen

Defence: Hultström and Garrison (DIF) vs Sigalet and Genoway (FHC)

Djurgården's team is built primarily on attack with the aim of outscoring their opponents whilst relying on the in-form Reideborn to keep the score down at the back.

Given that, a great deal of weight still relies on 26 year old, Linus Hultström (above) and 34 year old Jason Garrison to keep Frölunda's forwards away from goal scoring opportunities. These two will be clocking the most ice time even if they are not the ones dishing out the big hits.

The younger Swede has played the last seven seasons in the SHL, first with Linköping HC and the last four with Djurgården. And like the test of his team is not goal shy with 0.43 Goal Per Game average.

In Garrison the Stockholm team brought in a player that covered a hole in their squad- a mature import player with 555 NHL games behind him who played in the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Like Hultström he also can find the net.

Bossing it at the back for Frölunda are two superb Canadians who clock up the most ice time in Jonathan Sigalet (pictured) and Chay Genoway.

33 year old Sigalet was drafted by the Boston Bruins in 2006 and whilst only playing one game he played six seasons in the AHL before moving to the KHL for four years then to Sweden where he been since 2014/5.

Not a high scorer, he's a more traditional defenseman, good a reading the play and minimize goal scoring opportunities. In both 5 on 5 and the power play it is often Sigalet that leads the breakout from behind the net.

10 months younger than his teammate, Genoway's journey to his first season in the SHL and Frölunda's very similar. Although not drafted, he played one game for Minnesota Wild in 2011/2 which he still counts as a career highlight. Then went onto four seasons the AHL before also coming to Europe to play in the KHL. During that time he started to play in the national team culminating in collecting a bronze medal in last year's Pyeongchang Olympics.

At 5'8" he is a point scoring back with an average of just under a point every other game in the AHL, KHL and SHL. But despite being smaller than average he is not afraid to put his body on the line and even dropped the gloves in a CHL match against Vienna Capitals in their title winning run (see video).

Frölunda also have the resources to have brought in two more backs with NHL experience for the end of the season in 27 year old Canadian Brandon Gormley and 38 year old Swede David Printz.

So whilst all four backs are extremely competent, the Indians have better pure defensive players which will be needed to break down the Djurgården attack.

Advantage: Frölunda

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3 battles that will decide the SHL championship - 1. Netminders

Three key battles that will decide the SHL championships

1.Netminders: Mattson (FHC) v Reideborn (DIF)

Djurgården's Adam Reideborn won keeper of the year in 2017/8 and came in second this year behind Luleå's Joel Lassinantti with a 92.90 SVS% on the season ahead of both Frölunda's netminder Johan Mattsson

The two keepers were both born in Stockholm and in 2013/4 were on the same Djurgården team when they were in the Hockeyallsvenskan.

Reideborn was the go-to-man playing two-thirds of the games that year. Since then the 27 year old has played five seasons in the SHL with his career best season coming last year as Djurgården made it to the semifinals. This will be his first Le Mat Trophy final series.

Whereas Reideborn shone in the regular season, the post season has been a different story, with Mattsson leading the way with an impressive 94.03 SVS%.

The 26 year old, 2011 draft pick for Chicago Blackhawks is only in his second season in the SHL and this is his first playoff run. Having the best season of his career, this will also be his first SHL final.

Backup keepers

The great advantage for Frölunda is that they have a tried and tested second choice keeper in Johan Gustavsson, whereas Djurgården's Robin Jensen is an unknown quantity.

The 23 year old Jensen has struggled in the playoffs matches he has played, for example, letting in six on home ice against Färjestad in the last round.

Whereas the Gothenburg team can boast in Johan Gustafsson, a 28 year old drafted by Minnesota Wild in 2010 who has played two seasons in the AHL with their development team, Iowa Wild, and has won the SHL/ CHL double with Frölunda in 2015/6.

Advantage: Frölunda

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