After opening their tournament with a Boxing Day victory, Team Canada enjoyed a rest day on Sunday while preparing for a Monday encounter against their old friends from Switzerland. Ho hum, right? Sure, if you're talking about the massively overhyped World Junior Championships; but if you're referring to the barely-on-the-radar Spengler Cup, Tuesday's game between Canada and the hosts from Davos will be anything but a predictable affair. Indeed, last year's encounter between the two was one of the most exciting and entertaining games I personally enjoyed at any level of hockey all season.
For one thing, there's no preminary round in the Spengler, it's a simple 5-team round robin with the top 2 making the finals. The games are important right off the hop. Moreover, the teams are actually all competitive with one another; the four games completed so far have had scores of 3-2, 7-6, 5-3, and 2-1. Whereas the World Junior has already "featured" a 16-0 blowout of the lowest ranked team by the top-ranked and most ungracious hosts, and other scores of the 10-1, 8-3 type. In fact just 1 of the first 8 games has been decided by fewer than 3 goals. Bor-ing.
Not saying the junior tourney won't get interesting in due course, but the Spengler Cup is interesting right now. This international hockey festival, now in its 83rd running, will be over by the time the action really heats up in Saskatchewan on New Year's Eve.
Canada and the hosts from Davos are the two constants at any tourney, thus theirs is by far the best rivalry. Many of the Canadians ply their trade within the Swiss League, and one would imagine bragging rights have no small value. Surely the annual match against the homeland of hockey is the biggest game all season for the gracious hosts and their ever-exuberant supporters who pack the beautiful Vaillant arena to its 6746-seat capacity.
As if the atmosphere needed any further ramping up, today's game features the only two remaining undefeated teams in Davos (2-0-0) and Canada (1-0-0), with the winner going a long way towards assuring a berth in the final. For Canada it's potentially the first of four games in four days, so they sure don't want to lose the first of those or it's a long uphill climb from there.
The other teams are invited from various European leagues -- this year's guests are Dynamo Minsk of the KHL, Adler Mannheim of the DEL (German league), and HC Energie Karlovy Vary of the Czech Extraliga -- and generally change from year to year, allowing the casual international fan a window into those leagues. Thus there is always a good mix of the new and the familiar at the Spengler Cup, reminiscent of a well-run music festival such as the Edmonton Folk Fest.
As the lone "all-star" type team, Canada always has cohesiveness issues at the beginning of the tourney. Indeed, it was ever thus for any Team Canada at any tourney, but at the Spengler they are playing club teams who are already familiar with each other so this shortcoming is magnified. The club teams may have one or two "pickups" of their own added for the Christmas tournament season -- Karlovy Vary had a ringer from the Slovak league named Ziggy Palffy! -- but the fundamental identity of their team remains pretty intact. Whereas Canada consists of nothing but pickups.
That 7-6 game mentioned above was Canada's opener against Karlovy Vary, and what a wild affair it was. Each team blew three one-goal leads; nobody could ever stretch it to two. 6 times the trailing team fought back to tie it up, ultimately forcing the game to overtime and eventually to the shootout. While wide-open hockey is a staple of the Spengler Cup -- and the central reason it's a sight for these sore eyes every holiday season -- this one turned out to be the highest scoring tournament game since 1993. A true flurry of goals occurred over the last 5 minutes of the second period and the first 30 seconds of the third, when the score ballooned from 2-2 to 5-5. It was a sloppy affair riddled with defensive miscues and some soft goaltending, but featuring fast skating and wide-open offensive hockey, and remained in doubt until the bitter end.
Since Canadians with successful European careers tend to stick around for years on end, the Canadian team seems to have a core of returnees every year so is not without a team identity. This is well stoked by national pride; it is a fun tournament at every level, but these guys take the games very seriously indeed and never leave one wanting for lack of effort. Canada generally has an advantage in the skill department against all but perhaps the KHL representative; over the 25 years Canada has played in the tourney they have reached 19 finals, winning 11 times. Picked this year across 12 different teams, Canada's squad is stacked with players considered "imports" on their own club teams, including many of the top players in Europe. Nonetheless it takes time for the club to gel; although many of them have played together in prior Spengler Cups it's been at least a year, there are always some newcomers who have to gear up to the whole scene, and always there is a new coach. This year it is Craig MacTavish, who for the previous 9 winters had been gainfully employed with our own Edmonton Oilers. Two years ago -- and the last time Canada won -- it was Pat Quinn behind the bench.
There's always an Oiler connection at the Spengler, although for the most part it is with past Oilers, not future ones. Still, it's always interesting to catch up with some dude who toiled in copper and blue at any point in his travels. The connection is a little lighter this year, Davos having dropped its three ex-Oilers in Janne Niinimaa, Tony Salmelainen and long-time Davos star, the "Swiss Miss" Michel Riesen. Tuesday's opponent Mannheim features a couple of familiar names in Sven Butenschon and long-time personal favourite Fred Brathwaite, who got player of the game honours in the German squad's opening contest, a tough 2-1 loss to Minsk.
This year Canada lost ex-Oilers Domenic Pittis and Brad Isbister, but has added Coach MacT along with Boyd Devereaux, once a first round draft choice of the Oil who almost covered that 6th-overall bet with 627 NHL GP. Devereaux never scored much at the NHL level, although he was a surprise scoring star for Canada at the 1997 World Juniors where IIRC he scored a mammoth goal in the semi-final and 2 more in the final. For you trivia buffs, Boyd is one of several ex-Oilers who later won a Stanley Cup in Detroit; other members of this not-so-exclusive club are Kirk Maltby (4), Jiri Slegr, Brent Gilchrist, and Daniel Cleary. Role players all who eventually found themselves in the right situation in the Motor City.
Devereaux is but one Canadian newcomer with considerable NHL mileage on his odometer. Check out the NHL (regular season) GP for your 2009 Spengler Cup Team Canada:
That's 5478 big league games among the 22 guys who played the opener, including 9 guys with over 350 GP, and only one who never got at least a cup o' coffee in The Bigs. It might be Canada's National "C" Team, but it's still a pretty serious team with some pretty serious players, the ones who represent our country and its national game overseas on an ongoing basis but never with more pride than the 6 days between Boxing Day and New Year's.
For the holiday hockey buff, all of Canada's games and the final are on Rogers Sportsnet, and at various times across the four networks. Sportsnet East shows all of the games live, while the others are mostly on tape delay, allowing the viewer to tailor his or her schedule. Tomorrow for example, one could view the first two periods live on Sportsnet East starting at noon mountain, switch to the "other" Canada-Switzerland game on TSN at 2:00, then pick up the the tail end of the Spengler game on 3-hour tape delay on Sportsnet Pacific. Or one could simply tune in to the 4-hour tape delay on Sportsnet West once the junior game is decided, and fill the gap before the Oilers game. Or you can do what I'm going to do for the second time in a row: watch the Spengler Cup game live and to its conclusion, then switch over and watch the last couple periods of the junior blowout which will almost certainly be an inferior game.
However you set things up, today and all this week for that matter, it's hockey hockey hockey! Enjoy!
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PS: Detailed Spengler Cup coverage can be found here.