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Davos pull off NHL gamble

Davos are Swiss champions for the 27th time Keystone

Davos have won the Swiss ice hockey league title, with much of the credit going to North American stars Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Niklas Hagman.

This content was published on April 8, 2005 - 16:11

The three NHL players, who were unable to play in North America this season because of a lockout (labour dispute), made a strong impression on Switzerland's top division instead.

On Thursday, Davos came from behind to beat the Zurich Lions 3-2 in the last match of the playoff series, which they won 4-1 overall.

The team’s fourth foreigner, Czech player Josef Marha, clinched the final game with a goal in extra time.

One of Switzerland's most traditional clubs, Davos have now won 27 national league titles.

However, all but six of those victories date back to the first half of the last century, when the club was the dominant force in Swiss hockey.

Thursday's victory was only the club's second league title in the past 20 years.

Spending spree

Davos coach Arno Del Curto took an early gamble that the NHL lockout would not be resolved in time to rescue the North American season, provisionally signing up Thornton, Nash and Hagman during the summer.

Davos were betting on a stronger line-up that would both earn the team the championship and bring spectators to the rink.

The club seems to have won on both counts with the league title and the second-highest attendance rate after Bern.

If the NHL dispute, predominantly over players' salaries, had been settled, the club from eastern Switzerland would have been deprived of its three top players.

Unfortunately for hockey fans in the United States and Canada, and fortunately for Davos, the league and the players' association have so far been unable to reach an agreement.

Every other club in Switzerland eventually followed Davos’ lead and hired NHL players of their own, especially since the only restriction was on the number of foreigners – four – they could field per game.

Smart money

But none were as successful as Davos, which refrained from further spending on the North American market.

Langnau used over ten foreign players during the season, but still did not qualify for the playoffs involving the top eight teams.

Thornton, a 25-year-old centre who can normally be found captaining the Boston Bruins, finished the season as the playoffs' joint top points scorer with four goals and 20 assists.

The Canadian international's 20th assist came Thursday when he and Nash combined to set up Swiss international Michel Riesen for the night's fourth goal.

Nash, a 20-year-old winger for the Columbus Blue Jackets, scored nine goals for Davos during the playoffs, with Florida Panthers winger Hagman reaching 10.

"It feels great, I've never really won anything in my life," Nash told Swiss television on Thursday.

"Hopefully the Stanley Cup will be next, but now I just want to celebrate the Swiss championship."

Getting the best

But it wasn’t just the NHL players who handed Davos the league title.

Del Curto was able to get the best out the whole team, which finished the regular season in second place behind Lugano.

The coach has managed over the past few years to channel the talent of some very good, but often inconsistent Swiss players, such as Reto von Arx.

He has also given the team’s young goaltender, Jonas Hiller, a key role.

Hiller, who was only the backup at Lausanne last season, has improved to the point where the national coach, Ralph Krueger, called him up last February.

The 23-year-old also did better than Zurich’s Ari Sulander, considered one of the best goalies playing in Switzerland.

Experience played a role too – 16 of the players were already members of the 2002 winning team.

Davos’ season has been exceptionally successful by most standards.

It is the first time in 57 years the club has won both the national league and the Spengler Cup, the prestigious and lucrative European tournament it hosts every year between Christmas and New Year.

swissinfo

Key facts

Davos was founded in 1920.
Budget this season: SFr8.7 million ($7.2 million).
The club has won 27 league titles, 23 before 1960.
It has also won the Spengler Cup 13 times, including three times in the past five years.

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