That is the rumored launch date for a new pan-European professional hockey league, that has its foundation in the existing major European leagues. According to both Swedish, Finnish, and German sources, teams are discussing things, but nothing specific has yet been officially announced.
Most of the games, about 60 percent, would be within the divisions, 20 percent against teams in the neighbouring division, and 20 percent against teams in the other divisions.
The initiative was taken in Sweden, with former NHLer Håkan Loob, the CEO of Färjestad, leading the way. First, five Swedish and Five Finnish teams joined forces to create a Nordic pre-season tournament, the Nordic Trophy, beginning the education of their fans.
“I think that we’ll have to start from scratch, and think anew,” said Loob when I spoke with him in March.
“That said, I think we have to take care of our base, and still have the derbys that everybody loves. Färjestad would still play against Frölunda, but we’ll add some international flavor to it, and I think people would welcome that,” he added.
Last year, the five Swedish teams - Djurgården, Frölunda, Färjestad, HV71, and Linköping - launched a feasibility study, to see how to create a pan-European league. When their partnership with the KHL - the Russian league became a financing partner of HUB, the development company founded for the purpose of starting up a league - crashed, the five Swedish clubs have also financed the “Hockey League”, as it’s called, according to Swedish media.
In addition to the five Swedish teams, Malmö, a southern Sweden club with an NHL-calibre arena is said to be interested. Luleå, in the north of Sweden, has already bought a seat on HUB. Modo, the alma mater of Peter Forsberg, Markus Näslund, the Sedins, and Victor Hedman, has also been invited to join HUB.
In Finland, both Helsinki teams, Jokerit and IFK, have said that they would be interested in playing in a pan-European league. While both clubs have played in the Nordic Trophy, none of the Finnish clubs have said to know anything about any concrete plans.
That said, Jokerit chairman Harry Harkimo’s comment is perfectly in line with the rumored time table.
“Our goal has always been to play in a European league and one will be up and running within two, three years, without a doubt. I can’t say whether it will launch in 2012, but in 2013 the latest,” he said.
He also said the recent signing of Jarmo Kekäläinen, assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues, as the CEO is a step towards a more professional organization, in a European league.
“The Swedes have been doing the research and we’re waiting to hear something more concrete now. We haven’t agreed on any number of clubs. It can be ten, but I think it’s likely to be less than that,” says Kai Miesmäki, chairman of Tamhockey, the company behind Tappara, one of the Finnish clubs involved in negotiations.
“Launching in 2012 would be a challenge. The clubs do have some agreements, and sponsorship deals that bind them, and if some of the SM-liiga clubs will join a new league, we’ll have to see how that Finnish league is organized so that we won’t hurt the game,” he adds.
A breakout league is a hot potato in Europe where the national leagues, and championships, have been treasured for decades.
“We’re definitely talking, but it’s not like we’re forming a new league, we’re trying to find a better structure for European hockey,” says Peter John Lee, the GM of Eisbären Berlin, a German powerhouse.
“We’re trying to find a structure that’s good for the fans, and the game, and makes the sport grow in Europe. To be number two in the continent, behind soccer, wouldn’t be such a bad thing. The NHL is not close to being the number one sport in North America, and the last time I checked the players salaries, they seemed to be doing fine,” he adds.
Per-Anders Örtendahl, the chairman of HUB, also the chairman of Frölunda, also makes a point of saying a new league would be good for Swedish hockey.
“This is the only way out for Swedish hockey,” he told Sydsvenskan.
“We have to get growth so that we can keep our best players a little longer. We’ll build this carefully and gradually, get the federation on board, and bear our responsibility for the lower divisions,” he says.
The failed attempt to launch the Champions Hockey League has made the clubs suspicious of the International Ice Hockey Federation, too. The clubs feel that the IIHF betrayed them by first canceling the 2009-10 season, despite having committed to a three-year deal with the leagues. The IIHF, having lost its backers after the first year, didn’t have resources to manage a cup competition that handed out 10 million euro in prize money.
“We had an agreement with the IIHF, and they pulled out after just one year. Club hockey is getting to be a pretty big business, and the clubs pay for the development of the players. The federations have some good programs, but it’s not they who’re paying the salaries. I’d say 80 percent of the work is done by the clubs,” Lee says.
“The clubs need to get a little more respect from the IIHF,” he adds.
As on cue, IIHF Vice President, Finland’s Kalervo Kummola, came out on Wednesday, and said that the IIHF would make life very difficult for any “pirate league”.
“I doubt it’ll get off the ground without the national federations or the IIHF,” he told Finnish MTV3.
“We have our ways, international boycotts and quite a bit of other things. On the other hand, i don’t think they’ll get the financing in order, or that any TV company would want to acquire the rights to a pirate league,” he added.
The Nordic Trophy, the original pre-season league, has grown into the European Trophy that has its inaugural season in the fall of 2010. It includes 18 European teams from Austria, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, with the final tournament played in Salzburg, the home of Red Bull Salzburg.
It has been rumored that the Red Bull - or the energy drink company’s deep pockets - would also give wings to the new league. Also, software giant SAP, headquartered in Walldorf, Germany, has been mentioned as another possible sponsor.
“All this takes time, of course. We’re an East Berlin club, and we’ve been very lucky to grow and turn Eisbären into a team for the entire city.
The oldest argument against a European league - that the fans don’t care - may not be true anymore.
“Our participation in the European Trophy got leaked to a paper on a Sunday, and it was a bit of a scandal. There was a lot of talk about Eisbären and Mannheim leaving the DEL. On Monday, though, fans were contacting us to see where they could buy tickets,” says Lee whose Eisbären has little problems selling tickets to their new O2 World, averaging 14,060, or 99 percent of the capacity, in the regular season.
“Bern is always sold out, too. How do you tell your ownership that you need to change? You always look for growth. I value the German championship like gold, and I would, and the fans would enjoy European success, too. We had a good run in the Champions Hockey League, and we’ve educated the fans over the years,” he adds.
With one DEL team suspended from the league, and another one filing for insolvency proceedings, maybe the growth is in a new league. Or, a new structure.
After regular season play, in the 60/20/20 structure, the playoffs would again be played within the respective divisions. The champions of each division would then meet in a Challenge Cup, or a new round of playoffs, together with the best KHL teams.
And somewhere in the dreamy horizon, there’s the hope that the winner of that round would take on the Stanley Cup champion, for world dominance.