Month: March 2015

Alpine skiing World Cup 2015 season review (II): All Hail Hirscher (x4)

(Women’s review here)

Men’s World Cup Review

Marcel Hirscher’s path towards becoming the first men to win four consecutive overall World Cup titles got significantly easier after the injury to long-time rival Aksel Lund Svindal just a few days before the beginning of the season, but it ended not being the piece of cake many thought it would be. Svindal, the vice champion in 2013 and 2014, was shelved through the whole season, only making a short appearance to race at the World Championships, but he kept in touch with his Norwegian colleagues and his advice was certainly valuable to Kjetil Jansrud, who at the age of 29 had, by far, the best season of his career.

Even if Hirscher and Jansrud fought head-to-head during the season only on limited occasions, since the Austrian mainly races the technical events and the Norwegian has turned into a speed specialist, both men maintained a close look at the other’s achievements through the season and the duel intensified as it came to a close.

Kjetil Jansrud flies for his third consecutive WC victory in Beaver Creek

On the season start, at Solden, Hirscher kicked off in style by winning for the first time at the inaugural event, and he was already well positioned after only two races with the 2nd place obtained at the Levi slalom. However, when Kjetil Jansrud got his first action on the new season at Lake Louise, he started a run of three consecutive WC wins and on the blink of an eye took the overall standings lead.

Hirscher then added a podium on the GS of Beaver Creek and two wins at Åre just before the tour moved into Italy. To two great results by Jansrud at Val Gardena, Hirscher answered right back with the triumph in the GS of Alta Badia, capping a terrific start of the season for both men, who combined to take eight of the first eleven WC events.

However, on the last DH of 2014, at Santa Caterina, Jansrud was only 17th and this outcome would kick-start a less impressive run for the Stavanger-native, who would add only one more top-3 finish until February and the start of the World Championships. Meanwhile, Hirscher won the slalom of Zagreb and the GS of Adelboden, was second in the super combined and the slalom of Kitzbuhel, and added another podium to cling back to the top of the standings and build an advantage he wouldn’t relinquish.

Jansrud and Hirscher shared a race podium only once in 2015, at the Super Combined event of the World Championships.

A tense Jansrud arrived in Vail for the World Championships as the main contender for the SG and DH titles, looking for the first medal of his career on this big stage, but his declining form showed up again, with a fourth place in the Super-G being followed by a disappointing 15th position on the DH. However, on the combined, Jansrud put up a brilliant downhill run to get his hopes high, only to be surprised by the furious comeback of Hirscher on the slalom, with the Austrian shaving a disadvantage of more than 3 seconds to claim gold in spectacular manner. Hirscher would then add a silver medal on the GS after failing to beat a Ted Ligety boosted by the home crowd, and seemed to be on his way to retain his slalom title until he failed to make a turn on the second run and was forced to retire.

A speed-heavy scheduled followed the immediate return to the WC but the 29-year old Norwegian would still need to wait to get back to the top of the podium. Matthias Mayer and Hannes Reichelt dominated the DH and SG events of Saalbach and Garmisch-Partenkirchen and almost unconsciously helped their watching countryman, who took advantage of his scarce opportunities to keep piling up the points.

The first weekend of March took the racers to Kvitfjell, Norway, and Jansrud was bound to take close to the maximum number of points available if he still dreamt of clinching the big crystal globe. The 7th place on the DH was short and the victory the next day on the Super-G still kept him more than 50 points out of the overall lead with a par of technical events at Kranjska Gora still to come. Hirscher added a 2nd and a 6th on a conservative effort and knew he only had to manage the gap on the last races of the year.

Kjetil Jansrud lost the overall race but didn’t finish the season empty-handed.

At Méribel, Jansrud looked determined to fight until the end and he did his job both on the downhill, which he won, and the Super-G (2nd), thus clinching the discipline’s globes on the process. Nonetheless, the race for the overall title was nearly over after Hirscher surprised with a fourth position at the Super-G and Jansrud, in a final act of despair, raced on the GS, performing better than expected (11th) but not good enough to keep his dream realistically alive. With the overall and GS titles already on the pocket, a beaming Marcel Hirscher ended the season by putting the cherry on the top after taking victory on the slalom event and collecting another globe, the third consecutive on the slowest alpine discipline.

At the end of the 37 races that comprised the 2014-2015 men’s calendar, 160 points separated the pair, with Hirscher boasting eight victories (fourteen podiums) and Jansrud responding with seven (plus four more top-3 finishes), while both split the other globes available. For the Norwegian, lifting the bright, translucent trophies was a debut, whereas Hirscher now has nine on his personal collection (4 overall, 2 GS, 3 SL).

As much as both men shined over the year, other athletes also had excellent seasons, so now it’s the time to recognize some of them.

Alexis Pinturault took home the Kitzbuhel super combined triumph

Finishing third on the overall classification for the second consecutive year, France’s Alexis Pinturault managed to amass more than 1000 points and triumph twice, at the super combined of Kitzbuhel and the GS of Kranjska Gora. At the age of 23, Pinturault couldn’t beat Hirscher for the GS title, but he will take some solace on finishing the year in front of Ted Ligety, who has conquered the globe five-times since 2008. On the Word Championships, their fortunes reversed with the American winning the title, his third straight, and Pinturault repeating the third place achieved at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Nonetheless, the French is still young enough to evolve on other disciplines, namely the slalom and Super-G, which he finished in 10th, thus improving his chances of winning the overall title, while, at the age of 30, the Salt Lake City-native is running out of time if he still fancies raising the ultimate prize.

Germany’s Felix Neureuther equalled his best overall classification with the fourth place and, for the third year in a row, had to watch Marcel Hirscher came away with the elusive slalom trophy. The German had his best opportunity for glory to this date, leading the table throughout the year, but a mistake on the second run of the final event at Méribel cost him a few positions and he ended up 23 points short of his first crystal globe. In 2015, Neureuther won the races at Madonna di Campiglio and Wengen and added six more podiums, picking up a bronze medal on the World Championships after finishing behind France’s Jean-Baptiste Grange and compatriot Fritz Dopfer.

Dopfer was indeed one of the better surprises of the season, with the 27-year-old born in Austria placing in fifth at the final WC standings and adding a fourth position on the GS classification and a fifth on the slalom. Despite missing on his maiden World Cup win, Dopfer put up a really consistent season (16 top ten finishes in 18 races entered) under the inscription of the number 2, the position he occupied on four WC races and the aforementioned World Championships slalom.

Hannes Reichelt become a World Champion for the first time after winning the Super-G in Vail

From Germany back to their southwest neighbours, 34-year-old Hannes Reichelt was crowned the Super-G World Champion in February, but the campaign throughout the year at the discipline that earned him his only World Cup crystal globe (2008) was less effective, having to settle for fourth after besting his opponents only at Beaver Creek. However, he got to repeat the second position on the DH classification after pushing Kjetil Jansrud with a sequence of two wins and a podium after the World Championships.

Nine years younger, Matthias Mayer followed up a breakthrough 2014 season, when he became the DH Olympic Champion, with a 2015 of ups-and-downs. His best weekend of the year was at Saalbach, with a double success at the speed events, but those were his only wins of the year. Since he added just four more podium finishes, he also couldn’t make better than the lower podium position on the final Super-G classification.

Dominik Paris, from Italy, was one of the main contenders for every speed race during the season and his main accomplishment was the triumph at the Super-G of Kitzbuhel, the first on the discipline at WC events, and a win that validates his 2013 Downhill success on the same mythical slope of the Hahnenkamm Mountain. The 25-year-old ended up on the podium in five more occasions, and barely missed the chance of being a top-3 skier on both speed classifications due to an uninspired second part of the season.

Also delivering good results in 2015 were France’s Guillermo Fayed, who surprisingly clinched the third position on the final DH classification, Canadian Dustin Cook, the Super-G silver medallist at Vail and the first Canadian men to win an WC event on the discipline (Méribel), and Swiss Patrick Kung and Beat Feuz, respectively the gold and bronze medallists at the Downhill event of the World Championships.

Aleksandr Khoroshilov made history for Russia at the Schladming slalom

Concerning the technical races, Norwegian prodigy Henrik Kristoffersen, fulfilling his third WC season, added slalom wins in Levi and Kranjska Gora to his résumé and ended the season on a high note with his first GS triumph attained at Méribel. In comparison with 2014, the 20-year-old dropped one position both on the overall and slalom classifications, but the confirmation of his spectacular talent opens prospects of putting up a fight for the slalom crystal globe in 2016.

Taking Kristoffersen’s spot on the slalom classification was one of the surprises of the season, Russian specialist Aleksandr Khoroshilov, who at the age of 31 got his maiden WC triumph at Schladming, and become the first male Russian skier to win a WC race since 1981. Just a few days later, at the World Championships, Khoroshilov was in great position to challenge for the title after a brilliant first run, but the pressure seemed to weight on him and he had to settle for eight. Nonetheless, the Russian was certainly happy at the end of the season with a performance that included top ten finishes on every race he participated in and two additional podiums at Åre and Méribel.

Other names, like France’s Thomas Fanara, similarly deserve some appreciation, but this article is already too heavy, so I’ll stop here and hope they forgive me.

The overall Champions show off the trophies collected in 2015

The 2016 Alpine Ski World Cup starts on the end of October. As usual, Solden (Austria) will welcome the skiers back from a long summer of training on the mountain ranges of the Southern Hemisphere. See you then!

(Read the Women’s review here)

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Alpine skiing World Cup 2015 season review (I): The Austro-Slovenian Empire

1989 was undoubtedly a great year. The World Wide Web was invented, the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War would be finished as the calendar was about to turn. However, for Austria, the last year of the 80´s may be also remembered one day as the birth year of two of the biggest sporting idols in the history of the country.
Marcel Hirscher and Anna Fenninger were already the current gold standards of the country’s beloved skiing obsession and now share the glorious distinction as multiple World Cup overall Champions. Their 2015 titles were sealed on the last weekend at the French resort of Méribel, but until then both had to fight hard to see off the challenges provided by Norwegian speedster Kjetil Jansrud and Slovenian superstar Tina Maze.
This article will depict a five-month marathon to earn those shinning big crystal globes and pay respect to all those that dazzled on the snow to make up another unforgettable Alpine skiing season. As prerequisite, I’ll start with the ladies.
Women’s World Cup Review
Anna Fenninger had conquered the first World Cup (WC) title of his career at the end of 2014, but her worthiness was still at stake after a late season crash by Maria Hoefl-Riesch helped push her over the edge. Thus, with the German retired, Lindsay Vonn still nursing from two years marred by injuries, and Tina Maze coming off a lost season for his high standards, the Austrian had every reason to start the season on a roll and the inaugural sights did not disappoint. At the maiden race of the season, Fenninger shared with Mikaela Shiffrin the top place on the Giant Slalom (GS) podium at Solden and stamped a pole position for the long run. What nobody expected was the Salzburg-native inability to win again until the second month of 2015, and the rejuvenated Maze took the first slalom of the year, at Levi, a few weeks later to snag a lead she would hold through the months ahead.

Anna Fenninger and Mikaela Shiffrin shared the triumph at Solden

Only two stops in, the circus moved to the usual North American tour, and the racing days in Aspen (USA) and Lake Louise (CAN) would bring a familiar face back to the fold. Vonn, the four-time overall Champion, was back and all the rust she may have felt was gone on a pinch as she triumphed on the second Downhill (DH) event held on the Canadian resort, only a day after Maze beat Fenninger on the discipline’s first race of the year.
The third speed competition of the weekend, a Super G (SG), was snatched by Switzerland’s Lara Gut with Vonn and Maze coming right after, and the result prompted several observers to believe the American could challenge for the big globe. However, Vonn soon realized her form (and knee) wouldn’t hold an all-out challenge across multiple fronts and she smartly kept her focus on the speed races, a decision that would be proven absolutely right by the season’s end.
Back to Europe, Sweden’s Åre took over the technical festivities the lack of snow inhibited in Courchevel and, with 180 points (1st on the GS, 2nd on the Slalom (SL)) more on the pocket, Maze built an advantage of more than 250 points over the Austrian rival by mid-December, with Fenninger unable to get outside of the low-side of the top-ten classifications. Just before Christmas, although, the reigning Champion finished as the runner-up on the SG at Val D’Isére, and started a series of several 2nd places until the end of January that would bring her closer to the lead. Meanwhile, Maze was picking up precious points on slalom events during a part of the season dominated by the brilliance of Mikaela Shiffrin on the short skies, and the class of Vonn on the speed events, including her 63rd World Cup win at the SG of Cortina D’Ampezzo, beating the record of 62 WC wins set by Annemarie Moser-Proll.
The Americans seemed to be gaining steam ahead of the 2015 Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships, but the stars of the event on the women’s side were yet again the pair at the helm of the World Cup rankings.
Fenninger edged Maze for 0.03 seconds at the SG, the first event of the Championships, and this win would broke whatever was holding the Austrian back, even though two days later it was time for the 31-year-old to smile, defeating the rival for a mere 0.02 seconds on the DH. Maze would also take gold on the super combined, an event Fenninger finished in fourth, but the table was turned yet again on the GS, with a spectacular performance delivering the first World Championship title for the discipline’s World Cup title-holder.

The Austro-Slovenian domination extended to the World Championships in Vail

Shiffrin would save an otherwise pale American performance on the women’s side – Vonn only left with a bronze medal on the Super-G – by renewing the slalom title, but the three medals amassed by each side of the Fenninger-Maze rivalry would leave no doubts about the brightest smiles at the return of the Wold Cup.
With Fenninger 284 points out of the top spot, the season resumed in Maze’s background, at Maribor, and it was precisely where no one expected it that the tide changed dramatically. The home heroin crashed on the GS’ first run, straddling the gates for Fenninger’s win, and the next day Maze failed to finish the slalom also, leaving the weekend full of doubts while his rival got a serious moral boost that grew even more with wins at the GS and combined event of Bansko.
Maze would reduce the losses in the Bulgarian resort with two second place finishes, and managed to keep the distance on the following stop, Germany’s Garmish-Partenkirchen, but the return to Åre brought another success to Fenninger on the GS and a change in the leader of the pack after Maze ended back in 20th.

Lindsey Vonn clinched both speed titles at Méribel

Heading into the season finale at Méribel, Fenninger was still fighting for the discipline’s globes in the Downhill and Super-G, trailing Lindsay Vonn in both, but the American made everything to avoid influence on the overall dispute after claiming victory in both events and, by virtue, both classifications. Fenninger was second on the SG and only eight on the DH, while Maze managed a third and a fifth, setting the stage to reclaim the lead by 18 points after the slalom, which she ended up in fourth.
The title was going to be decided on the last race of the season, with the Austrian trying to add the GS globe also, and the pressure was immense on both women. Leading after the first run, Fenninger was on the starting line when his rival failed to beat fellow Austrian Eva-Maria Brem on the second run and fought the nerves to secure his advantage and celebrate after crossing the finish line.At the end, just 22 points separated Maze from Fenninger’s 1553, with the 25-year-old conquering the big crystal globe for the second time on one of the tightest battles on World Cup history.
Breaking down the season of both women, a closer look at the numbers reveals that the Austrian had more podiums (15 to 13) and wins (6 to Maze’s 3), an essential factor in the contest since Fenninger is essentially a three disciplines skier (DH, SG, GS) while the Slovenian also races de slalom. The Overall Champion defeated the rival on the classification of all the three shared disciplines, ending behind Vonn on the downhill and Super-G, with Maze coming up third on both, and claiming the GS title with 542 points, more than doubling the 266 collected by Maze on his historically most successful event. The cushion added on the head-to-head competitions allowed Fenninger to rush to victory despite the third place (439 points) on the slalom classification achieved by Maze.

After a gruelling duel, Fenninger toppled Maze

Finishing on the final podium position, with 1087 points, Lindsey Vonn not only surpassed the record for most World Cup wins, set now at 67, but also added two more small globes to his impressive collection, raising the total to 19 (4 OV, 7 DH, 5 SG, 3 C), a female record. Furthermore, she equalled Annemarie Moser-Proll with the most DH titles of all-time (7) and German Katja Seizing in total Super-G titles (5), while her 113 podiums are tied with Moser-Proll for most of all-time on the women’s side. The 30-year-old American raced mostly on the speed events in 2015, winning a season-best 8 races, but has already promised to participate on the GS next season and challenge for her fifth overall title.
Meanwhile, her compatriot Mikaela Shiffrin ended the season in fourth on the overall classification after threatening to step in the middle of the fray during the first half of the season. The 20-year-old Vail-native added his third consecutive slalom crystal globe and renewed her World Championship title, but didn’t stop there, continuing to make strides towards the goal of becoming a real contender for the overall title by improving her performance on the GS. In fact, Shiffrin was third on the Kuhtai GS to supplement her maiden win in the discipline at Solden, and those results allowed her to step in the final podium position at Méribel on the season’s end. Her goal in 2016 is to experience the first Super-G events.

Mikaela Shiffrin won the third consecutive slalom WC title

After the two Americans, who collected over 1000 points, the difference for the rest of the pack was clear, as Nicole Hosp, the 2007 World Cup overall winner, closed the top 5 with 684 points. The 31-year-old Austrian celebrated a World Cup triumph for the first time since 2008, on the slalom event of Aspen, and her best memory from the year was also attained on American soil, with Hosp taking silver at the super combined race of the World Championships.
Two other Austrian veterans, 28-year-old technical specialist Kathrin Zettel and speedster Elizabeth Goergl came in 7th and 8th, respectively, on the overall classification, while Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter was 6th after challenging Mikaela Shiffrin’s slalom reign until the last race. The 29-year-old skier collected five WC podium finishes on the year, including the top position at Flachau plus the silver medal in the event at the World Championships, but came out disappointed for failing yet again to breakthrough. With Shiffrin just getting better, her time may never arrive.

Lara Gut didn’t have a lot to celebrate in 2015

Rapping up the top 10 were two skiers who started the year with big expectations but never managed to stay consistent. For Lara Gut, the problem isn’t new and the uber-talented Swiss showed her frustration several times over the year as the bad results kept piling up. After conquering seven races in 2014, the jewel of the Italian-speaking region of Ticino took a step backwards in 2015 by managing just two wins, at Lake Louise (SG) and St. Moritz (DH), and no other podium finishes. Gut dropped six spots from the third place on the overall classification obtained in 2014 and never stood a chance of retaining the Super-G title claimed on the previous season, although the year was brightened a little bit by the bronze medal picked up at the World Championships’ DH race.
On the other hand, Tina Weirather, recovered from the leg injury that cut short a promising 2014 season, battled hard to regain his best form all year and the results took some time to surface. Her first podium finish on the season came in Lake Louise, at the beginning of December, and she added three more during the year, culminating on a well-deserved triumph on the DH of Garmish-Partenkirchen. If she can rack up a good summer of training, the native of the Liechtenstein is poised to turn into a dark-horse on the list of contenders for the overall title in 2016.
If the top 10 in the overall classification had no surprises, the dispute of the disciplines globes’ saw some young guns emerge out of the shadow. Austrian Eva-Maria Brem fought till the very last minute with compatriot Anna Fenninger for the GS crystal globe and at the age of 26 figures to be a contender for the discipline for years to come. The skier born on the Tyrol region won a single event, in Aspen, but added four more podiums and a fourth place to end all seven GS races on the top 10. However, she flopped badly at the World Championships, quickly missing a gate on the first run of the competition.

Sarah Hector (center) beat Fenninger and Shiffrin on the GS of Kuhtai

Two spots behind Brem on the GS classification placed Sarah Hector, a young skier from Sweden who turned some heads after a runner up finish in Åre on December 12th, and later confirmed her qualities with the win at the Kuhtai in Tirol event. The 22-year-old Sandvike native would end the season with a 4th place at the final GS in Méribel, and her improvement will be closely watched in 2015-16 after she outshined more regarded compatriots like Jessica Lindell-Vikarby and Maria Pietilae-Holmner.
Finally, some words for the new Austrian prospect on the speed events, 22-year-old Cornelia Huetter, who almost medalled at the Super-G on the World Championships and picked up seven other top ten finishes over the year, a total that would render a top 5 classification on the final discipline standings.
More ladies deserved the spotlight, but this tale it’s already too long, so let’s move on to the men

(see next post)

Rescaling the NHL outdoor fun in five European destinations

The frenzy of competitive outdoor ice hockey games established since the turn of the century started in 2003, with the first NHL regular season game held outside, at Edmonton, in front of 57,167 spectators, and the idea quickly caught fire through the hockey world, extending to all levels of the sport in North America and most of the professional leagues in Europe.
However, the novelty has passed and today, moving beyond the local fanfare they bring, North-American audiences have become progressively tired of the concept. From the NHL’s point of view, the lack of public interest exhibited for the Stadium Series game played earlier this year at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara – the first to happen in Northern California- has to be a warning signal that something has to change and it’s time to experiment with new concepts.
While it’s undoubtedly accurate that there are still major markets (St. Louis, Minnesota, Denver, Dallas?) on the waiting line to host a “Winter Classic” type event, the concept can and should be expanded to capture new audiences and further expose the NHL brand. Therefore, isn’t it obvious? Get across the Atlantic and partner a great idea with the fans that haven’t yet been jaded by it.

Despite the big crowds at the stadiums, the outdoor ice hockey game concept has stalled in North America

Hockey’s popularity in some regions of Europe is well documented and the NHL has tried to explore it before, mainly with the NHL Premiere events, which from 2007 to 2011 brought several of the league’s premier franchises and players to dispute regular season matches on the continent at the beginning of the season. But with the next two Winter Olympic Games set to be held in Asia (Pyeongchang, 2018, Beijing/Astana, 2022) and the newly reborn World Cup scheduled for Toronto in 2016, the best players in the world won’t set foot in Europe for a long period of time.
To remedy this less than ideal situation, it’s time for the NHL to reward the dedicated fans that keep sacrificing hours of sleep day after day through 9 months to follow his favourite teams, and the return should be made in style, with a bunch of outdoors games held in the middle of the season, preferably in January or February…of 2018 or 2019.
Why this timing? The 2016-17 season is already going to start later due to World Cup and the NHL is definitely prepared to pull out of the 2018 Olympics, a decision that would certainly incite criticism and disappoint audiences worldwide. Then, is there a better way to apologize to its international fans than provide a taste of authentic, up-and-running NHL hockey (not “we’re still in pre-season hockey”) just weeks before the Olympic tournament, or, in alternative, a year later? If there is, I haven’t grasped it yet.

So, I’ve come up with five European countries to host the games, with the practical aspects sketched along these lines:

– All teams selected should leave North America, at most, mid –week in order to arrive in time to fight off jet-lag and play either Saturday or Sunday.
– The games would not coincide, with three of them scheduled for Saturday, starting at 15:00, 18:00 and 21:00 (GMT), and two more on Sunday (16:00, 19:00), thus managing to begin late enough to viewers back in North America, especially on the East Coast.
– In the case of conference matchups, the “home team” should be the one that hosted less matches between the pair in the previous season, getting the game back on the following year, and in intra-conference matchups the home side would be the Western outfit, with this team receiving both encounters on the following season.

How would the countries, hosting cities and stadiums be selected? Well, outdoor games only make sense, particularly in this scenario, if you significantly improve the number of tickets available in relation to a regular indoor game, thus facilities with a capacity for at least 30.000 were designated. That narrowed the list down in a hurry, since several relevant countries couldn’t comply with this, the most important being the Czech Republic. Also, ideally, you would like to get away from the capital cities, where the entertainment competition is enormous on the weekend, and focus on towns with a strongly built ice hockey interest, places that can properly announce the festivities and gather the local attention necessary to avoid empty seats.
Moreover, to increase the stadium experience and engage the audiences, some native talent or highly popular team/rivalry needs to be involved, with this being a decisive ingredient towards determining the teams clashing in each event. However, cautions need to be taken in order to avoid the appointment of unreasonable matchups, since some games, namely rivalries and traditional battles between division and conference foes, are too important on an economical and competitive level to believe the visited teams would support its relocation.
Preamble closed, let’s speculate.

SEL Outdoor Classic at the Ullevi in 2009

Sweden (Ullevi, Gothenburg)

One of the most important European markets can’t possibly stay out of this hockey smorgasbord. Since the NHL sent the Washington Capitals and the late Minnesota North Stars to participate in the NHL-Sweden tournament of 1980, the country has welcomed NHL teams regularly, at first for friendly matches and tournaments against local teams, and after 2008 to face counterparts in regular season games. All of the latter matches took place at Stockholm’s Globe Arena, and the Swedish capital certainly has a new state-of-the-art facility, the Friends Arena, ready to receive outdoor games. The 50,000 seats would be tough to fill, but this isn’t the reason why I selected another venue for the Swedish classic.
History has shown that if we add another layer of intrigue to these events, mainly an iconic, beloved, antique facility, there’s an extra component added and because of this I would nudge towards the 43,000 Ullevi in Gothenburg, which incidentally will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2018. In addition, the stadium has already hosted an event of this nature in 2009, when hometown Frölunda beat Färjestad at the inaugural edition of the Swedish Elite League Outdoor Classic, in front of more than 31.000. Need another reason? The proximity to a pair of rapidly improving neighbours, Denmark and Norway.

Teams: The Detroit Red Wings, that have had strong Swedish connections since Nicklas Lidström debuted in the NHL at the 1990´s, and the New York Rangers of Henrik Lundqvist, which started his professional career at Frölunda, are probably the most popular NHL teams on the country, but both franchises would be too reluctant to sacrifice an home date against a fellow “Original 6” opponent to make it work. So, why not go with the Rangers and the home fans against Erik Karlsson and the Ottawa Senators? Both teams have already played ”real games” in Sweden, the Rangers against the Kings and Ducks in 2011, and the Senators in 2009 against the Penguins, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most.
Other options to consider include the Vancouver Canucks, that have always maintained a little Swedish colony since the Sedin twins joined Mats Naslund in the early 2000’s, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, the former stronghold of Mats Sundin and a team which by 2018-19 should already be under the William Nylander mania.

Switzerland (Stade de Suisse, Bern)

The first professional ice hockey game held outside in Europe, on the new century, happened in Switzerland in 2007, the 100th edition of the Bern derby played at the Stade de Suisse in front of 30,000. Since that time, the NLA, the Swiss top tier hockey league, has continued to grow hand in hand with the emergence of the national team, becoming over the last few years the most attended league in Europe. Actually, SC Bern leads all Europe in average attendance, with more than 16,000 fans flocking to the arena per game, and during the last NHL lockout, several stars (John Tavares, Rick Nash, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene, Patrice Bergeron…) kept in shape playing in the league, leaving a trail of admirers eager to watch more from them. Despite of this, even if teams like the New York Rangers have visited local clubs for a number of times, the NHL has never hosted a regular-season game in the country, and such mistake should be quickly corrected.

The Tatze-Derby (SCL Tigers-SC Bern) at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf in 2007

Hence, from the three 30,000-plus stadiums existent in Switzerland, it’s a matter of deciding between Bern and Geneva, two of the three cities with the highest attendance rates. The previous experience with this type of events, the location inside the German part of the country, more hockey-appreciative, and the proven existing fan base lean the decision toward the Swiss capital and the Stade de Suisse.

Teams: The Nashville Predators of Roman Josi, probably the best player ever produced in the nation, are an obvious choice to appear in this event, and that turns into a complete slam-dunk if we add that the defenseman is an SC Bern home-grown- talent and a native of the Swiss capital. Plus, the Predators have already waiting on the wings another promising Swiss prospect, forward Kevin Fiala, the 11th pick of the 2014 NHL draft who might be an explosive scorer for the team by this time. On the other side of the ice, what about the San Jose Sharks, a team which is just starting to explore the defensive acumen of Mirco Mueller, the 18th pick of the 2013 NHL draft, and the franchise that employs Joe Thornton and Logan Couture, both former NLA performers.

Germany (RheinEnergieStadion, Cologne)

It took some time and a lot of testing in preseason games from its constituents, but the NHL finally embraced Germany as a hockey market in 2011, holding the first regular–season game in Berlin to close the last NHL Premiere. Since then, the game has continued to make strides in the most populous nation in Eastern Europe and the Deustche Eishockey Liga is today one of the main receivers of North-American players who decide to emigrate. Moreover, to attest its recent prosperity, the German League has already organized two outdoor games and those were resounding successes.
First, on the 5th of January, 2013, the Frankenstadion in Nuremberg welcomed a crowd of 50,000, a number that would be surpassed two years later, at Düsseldorf, when the North-Rhine-Westphalia derby between Düsseldorfer EG and Kölner Haie was watched by 51,125 enthusiastic fans. In fact, most of League’s 14 squads are located on the south and eastern part of the country, so those are really the regions where an event of this magnitude should take place.
The Bavarian region is represented by four teams but hosting a game at the 75,000-seats Allianz Arena in Munich seems a bit too optimistic, consequently we must change sights for the backup plan, the highly industrialized and densely populated Rhine region, which contributes with 4 DEL teams. The Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen would be a place to contemplate, since it held the inaugural match of the 2010 World Championships in front of an European-record 77,803 fans, but we should probably set our hopes on one of the big cities with DEL teams, either Dusseldorf or Cologne. Since the former has had his chance nationally, we’ll settle for the RheinEnergyStadion, located in the fourth largest city in Germany and capable of holding 50,000 since it was renovated for the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

More than 77,000 atended the 2010 IIHF World Championships Opening Game at the Veltins Arena in Gelsenkirchen

Teams: Can Leon Draisaitl, the highest drafted German player of all-time, make a name for himself in the NHL until 2018? The Edmonton Oilers certainly aren’t one of the premier franchises in the NHL and their name won’t wow the German fans poised to attend such event, but if the big, skilled center can be a recognizable figure by then, a possible match on his hometown can be a money-maker. To balance the international-appeal, I would throw in as opponents the Boston Bruins, current team of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg and the franchise where Marco Sturm, the top-German scorer in NHL history, played the longest.

Great Britain (London Olympic Stadium, London)

The first visit by NHL teams to the British Islands dates back to April 1959, as part of a European exhibition tour for the NY Rangers and the Boston Bruins, and since then the League has visited London three more times, the last one in 2007, when the Anaheim Ducks and the LA Kings played the first two NHL regular-season games ever held in Europe. However, the sport’s growth on the United Kingdom has been slow, with the chronic problems experienced by the local league (Elite Ice Hockey League) exemplifying that perfectly (disbandment and rebuilds, failed expansions, franchises folding).
An average attendance of less than 2,000 spectators coupled with the lack of presence on the largest English cities (London, Manchester, Newcastle) has penalized the championship and the sport at the national level, but those kind of problems weren’t impediments for recent successful ventures by the NBA and the NFL on a British sports landscape that is in constant evolution as the population changes.

Ducks and Kings faced off in 2007 at the London O2 Arena

Even if most of the EIHL teams are situated on the centre of England and in Scotland, the attraction of London is too much to consider any other town suitable to host this event. Matching the more than 80,000 fans that every year congregate at Wembley to watch NFL games it’s a lot to ask, but the NHL would certainly be happy if the locals and the several thousand expats living and working on the metropolitan area can fill the 54,000 seats available at the London Olympic Stadium, scheduled to re-open in 2016.

Teams: There are no clear-cut picks here, so the league would probably have to go with star power and/or tradition. If you select the first, wouldn’t this be a great way of introducing Connor McDavid to international stardom? Make it the “McDavid team” versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, a battle of the most recent “Next Great One’s”. If you prefer tradition, may I suggest reuniting a “lost rivalry”? London would certainly appreciate a Chicago Blackhawks-Detroit Red Wings matchup.

Austria (Wörthersee Stadion, Klagenfurt)

With the Helsinki Olympic Stadium set to close for renovations from 2016 to 2019, and few quality options available in more traditional countries like Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria stumbles on this list as a hub for central Europe capable of attracting fans from various neighbouring countries.

The landscape surrounding the Wörthersee Stadion in Klagenfurt

Even though the sport takes a backseat nationally for other winter activities like skiing, the Austrian ice hockey League has a history that dates back to 1923, and, since 2005, the competition innovated towards providing access to clubs from nearby nations. In fact, teams from Slovenia, Italy, Hungary and the Czech Republic compete today in the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL), making it kind of a poor parented KHL. Likewise, during the first few decades, the sport was dominated in Austria by the teams from Vienna and Klagenfurt, but steadily the landscape has changed, emerging new powers from cities like Linz and Salzburg.
However, it is still on the capital of the Carinthia region that the record-holder for most championships is located and the city of Klagenfurt hasn’t left their credits in other hands, taking on the task of organizing the only two outdoor ice hockey games ever held in Austria. The modern Wörthersee Stadion received 30,000 spectators for the 2010 and 2015 Winter Classics, gathering hometown EC KAC and rivals Villacher SC, and its geographical location, right at the border with Italy and Slovenia – and close to Hungary and Slovakia- makes it ideal to host an event of this kind and benefit from the influx of visiting fans. Thus, the town of Klagenfurt trumps the sexier and riskier option, Vienna, which would host the event at the 50,000-seats Ernst-Happel Stadium.

Teams: Well, there’s a superstar center from nearby Slovenia excelling for the twice champions LA Kings, and that would be a good place to start. Moreover, Anze Kopitar deserves the recognition, his compatriots would flock to the city, and an event like these provides an international exposure that would further set his profile has a model of perseverance for aspiring youngsters from no-traditional ice hockey nations. However, for all his qualities, he’s not an Austrian, and the country lacks a true poster-boy now that Thomas Vanek has taken a step back as he enters his 30’s. Yet, not banking upon a new Austrian face emerging, Vanek’s Minnesota Wild wouldn’t be a bad opponent, especially since the lack of an event in Finland would take the team from the State of Hockey out of its favoured destination.

After the first five, could the NHL get even bolder? What about a game at the Rome Coliseum (…)? A battle between the NHL and KHL Champions at Moscow’s Red Square? Shifting gears, can Rio de Janeiro and Copacabana beach be more than a pipe dream? Will the league turn its efforts to Asia first (Japan, South Korea, China)?

An NHL European Division may be a scenario never achievable, but there’s so much to explore and to experiment in order to grow the game at other latitudes that the powerful NHL needs to lead the pack towards innovation.