As a lifelong fan of international hockey, I have followed the Spengler Cup since Canada first got involved in 1984, and have watched it faithfully every year it's been televised. In my household this tourney has become a holiday staple right up there with the World Junior. A simple five-team round robin where the top two teams advance directly to a one-game final, it's a compact event that always fits in the short week between Boxing Day and New Year's Eve. The constants are the host team Davos and the itinerant collection of pan-European imports known as Team Canada, with three club teams from across Europe invited each year to fill the slate. The tourney therefore maintains a healthy mix of variety and tradition.
Whereas in the World Jr. you might get a chance to see an Oiler or two of the future, in the Spengler there always seems to be quite a few Oilers of the past. This year Team Canada features Domenic Pittis and Brad Isbister, as well as recent farmhand T.J.Kemp; Davos has Janne "Spaz" Niinimaa, Michel "The Swiss Miss" Riesen, and Tony Salmelainen; German club team ERC Ingolstadt have a couple of import defencemen from very different Oiler eras, namely Allan Rourke and Brian Muir. Cups of coffee in most cases; this tournament is just loaded with guys who were on the cusp of The Show before carving out very respectable careers over in Europe. (Full tournament rosters can be found here.)
Canada is always well-represented by enough of the same players year to year to really have established a team identity. Unlike the NHLers who all too frequently -- for reasons that continue to escape me -- snub their noses at the World Championships, Canadian imports based in Europe never refuse the invitation to play in the Spengler Cup, where it seems a great time is had by all. Former NHLers like Pittis, Hnat Domenichelli, Shawn Heins, Stacy Roest, Jeff Toms, Jean-Guy Trudel, and this year's captain Serge Aubin, seem to be there every year. With the pipeline suffused with "newcomers" who have more recently made their way to Europe like Isbister, Randy Robitaille, Rico Fata, Byron Ritchie, Joel Kwiatkowski and Ric Jackman, Canada once again has a strong team at their 25th Spengler Cup in 2008. The boys wear the Red Maple Leaf with obvious pride and have represented the country brilliantly over the past quarter century, winning 11 titles. Last year the heavy underdog Canadians rode the red-hot goaltending of former Oiler Curtis Joseph to a pair of victories over eventual KHL champions Salavat Yulaev Ufa, including a 2-1 thriller in the tournament finale.
There's never a dull moment in the beautiful and always-packed arena in Davos, but it's always electric for the Canada-Davos match in particular. Given that the three European invitees are different ever year, Canada-Davos is the best rivalry by far, and today's game before 6700 singing, chanting, cheering fans was a beauty. HC Davos is always an offence-first outfit that plays a highly-entertaining style, but today the early minutes featured lots of bad blood (both real and imagined) which brought the intensity level way up. A ding-dong affair ensued with Canada battling back from 3-0, 4-2, and 5-4 deficits, with Domenichelli scoring a "60th minute" equalizer -- courtesy an horrific Niinimaa gaffe -- to force OT and ultimately a shootout. Davos, who had earlier scored on a penalty shot, notched the only goal in "penalties" to finally decide the matter, 6-5 for the home side. Still, with their dogged comeback Canada earned a valuable standings point and at 1-0-1 remain firmly in control of their destiny.
Sunday is Canada's rest day -- every team gets one, but where it falls in the five days of the round robin is the luck of the draw -- before facing Ingolstadt on Monday and the fabled Dynamo Moskva on Tuesday in a match which will likely determine at least one of the finalists. Dynamo features no former Oilers on its roster, but a bushel of former NHLers like Karel Rachunek, Alexei Zhitnik, Peter Cajanek, Vitaly Yachmenev, Vitaly Karamnov, Mattias Weinhandl, and Canadian Eric Landry. Both remaining Canada games will be featured on the gamut of Sportsnet channels at various times around mid-day, while Wednesday morning's final will be televised live in the wee hours and, I hope, rebroadcast at a more humane hour.
Spengler Cup hockey is not NHL calibre, but it's a very decent level of men's professional hockey, with most of the games far more competitive than the round robin portion of the World Juniors. Moreover, it's a European festival of hockey that acknowledges the game's roots with the permanent inclusion of Team Canada. A great hockey tradition now in its 82nd iteration, the Spengler Cup seems like a terrific party every year; I'd sure love to check it out in person one of these years.