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14 August 2015

CHL - Q&A with Martin Baumann (CEO)

On the eve of CHL's second season, CEO Martin Baumann answers the most frequenty asked questions about the Champions Hockey League.

The First CHL season
We were delighted to have delivered 161 games basically without any hiccups. It must be remembered that last time there was a pan-European club competition endorsed by the International Ice Hockey Federation was in 2009. So every organisational and logistical aspect of this tournament had to be built from scratch.

I am very proud over the way we managed to get our entire organisation in place in such a short time. This includes the on-ice officials program, the disciplinary program, venue operations, our corporate identity and our entire digital media setup. We put this together quickly and efficiently.

One thing which I would like to stress, which made me very happy, was the way our league dealt with reviewing serious infractions and supplementary discipline. Our people handled it swiftly, already the day after an incident the decision was announced, and everything, including footage and an explanation was published on our website. We received lots of recognition for that, both from teams and media and it gave us instant credibility in a very important area.

If you can point to a highlight of the season
Of course the final game. Luleå and Frölunda staged a great show. Full arena, wonderful atmosphere, the away team seemed to cruise to a seemingly easy victory when Luleå stormed back with four goals to turn the final around, creating an epic finale. Simply unforgettable.

The CHL’s adapting its group stage playing format while adding four teams
You can say that one thing led to another. The feedback we received from the teams after last season’s group stage was the last two rounds, meaning games five and six, were difficult to sell to the fans as many groups were decided and many teams had little or nothing to play for. So we worked out a proposal to have groups of three teams instead of four. This means that each game will carry more importance and that we reach the playoff stage faster. So what was game-day five and six last season will now be playoff-day one and two. We think that teams and fans will like reaching the knock-out stage faster.

Now with three-team groups it made sense to expand the league to 48 teams making it possible to have 16 groups with 32 teams advancing to the first round of playoffs.

Adding more teams from the “Challenge Leagues”
When we decided to go from 44 to 48, we of course focused on giving the opportunity to participate to teams from league outside of the CHL’s founding leagues. This is all in-line with the CHL’s motto “Where Europe Comes to Play.” We have pointed out many times that the Champions Hockey League shall be elite but not elitist. What makes us really happy is the enthusiasm we sense from clubs coming from Slovakia, Norway, Denmark, France, Great Britain and now also Belarus. If we want to stay true to our ambition to grow club hockey in Europe, we must be inclusive and make it possible for clubs from these countries to participate.

On the competitiveness of teams from these leagues
If you look at the results from the first season you had the Norwegian champion Stavanger Oilers fighting for the playoffs until the very last game. They beat Swiss powerhouse Bern twice. Nottingham from Britain and SønderjyskE from Denmark recorded wins against much higher ranked opposition. Here I also want to include the performance of Red Bull Salzburg and Vienna Capitals. Although the EBEL league is one of our founding leagues, Austria in only 16th in the world ranking, way behind countries like Sweden and Finland. But both Salzburg and Vienna won their respective groups easily, in the process playing excellent hockey and beating teams whom most experts had ranked much higher than the Austrian clubs.

So club hockey in leagues below the most established ones is better than most fans and media had anticipated. This also means that clubs from those countries are legitimate participants in the CHL and that by inviting them to play they have the opportunity to get even better.

Experience from other sports like football and basketball shows that only development on club level can improve the quality of the national team. On the national team there is no time for player development. You are selected to the national team based on how you perform with your club team in your domestic league. And if the CHL can contribute to making club hockey better, this will eventually show on the national team level as well. This is win-win for all.

On the CHL as a measuring stick for clubs and players
There is no question that the Champions Hockey League adds another dimension by which clubs and players are measured. If you take our first season, the Swedes and the Finns got the confirmation about the strength of their leagues and their way of developing players. At the same time, clubs from Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic probably realized that there are areas where they have to improve, either their quality or approach or both in order to be competitive. And this is one huge thing about European competition and that goes for all team sports – it tells you how good you really are and it eventually improves the quality. You may be king at home, but going outside of your domestic comfort zone really shows your qualities, both the good and the lesser ones.

But this not only goes for clubs, also players thrive in European competition when the games are different, the opposition fairly unknown and the stakes are higher. We have seen several examples where the rightfully claim that a player earned an NHL-contract very much based on his performance in the Champions Hockey League. Frölunda’s defenseman Erik Gustafsson signed with Chicago and Kärpät’s forward Joonas Donskoi got a contract with San Jose. Both were excellent in the CHL and this is what the scouts reported to their NHL general managers.

The status of KHL participation
This is one of our biggest challenges going forward. To put it as simple as possible; the Champions Hockey League was created by all stakeholders in the European game – including the IIHF – to develop club hockey in Europe and on an annual basis determine which is the best team in Europe. This is exactly how it works in football, basketball, handball and other team sports in Europe. The same principle now applies in ice hockey.

Russia has been a world power in hockey ever since the mid-50s. Obviously, if we don’t have the best clubs from Russia and the KHL, it affects the sportive level and the prestige of the CHL. This is the same as if Spanish or German teams didn’t want to play in UEFA Champions League. It would be detrimental to their competition.

This must be remembered by fans and media; way before the CHL was finally established in 2014, representative from the KHL participated in all meetings during 2012 and 2013 and they were part of all three working groups whose job eventually led to the foundation of this league. So what is important for all to know that CHL has done everything to make sure everyone was included in the process, also Russia and the KHL. Even after the initial foundation stages, the CHL reached out to the KHL leadership to discuss their participation, but there is little we can do when the KHL declines. As everybody knows, it takes two to tango.

For me, being new to the international ice hockey family, this is difficult to understand. With Russia and the KHL as an equal stakeholder in the Champions Hockey League we could together build something very strong, a competition with immense sportive and commercial potential.

One example where we together would be so much stronger; all people involved in European to hockey consider the constant drain of very young players to North America as being a major challenge. We will not and we do not want to stop players from realizing their dreams, but we want to present new perspectives and opportunities where young players would see it worthwhile to stay in Europe a couple of years longer. A Champions Hockey League with all leagues involved would present such perspectives.

Now, very young players are leaving to leagues, including the KHL. 18 Russians were selected in the last NHL draft, 11 of the best Russian players from the KHL have signed NHL-contracts in recent months and on top of that, Russian juniors are departing for Canadian junior leagues. Our selling-point to some of these players would be the challenge of a very strong CHL.

Finally, if the KHL feels that they are the strongest league in Europe, what other way of proving it is there other than competing?

Prize money
The total prize sum of EUR 1.5 million will not be change for season II. Two things must be remembered to keep this in perspective. 1.5 million is roughly 50 percent of the league’s operational budget. So for those who may compare with football and claim that this not much must realize that more or less 50 percent of what we annually generates goes immediately back to the teams. This is generous.

One very fundamental policy that the CHL has is that we will not pay money we don’t have. Right now, this is what we can afford. Champion Luleå earned around EUR 135.000 in total.

The only way that prize money will grow is if the tournament grows, becomes more successful and generates more revenue. Here lies the incentive – the better we work, the more commitment everybody shows, the bigger the revenue which can boost the prize money.

Goals for the upcoming season
Apart from delivering 157 exciting games, it is our goal to improve in every area. More fans in the buildings, more fans watching the games on television and through our digital platform, more viewers following our web platform and social media and more exposure in media. Our main focus will be to increase the attendance in the stadiums. In the first season we averaged 3048 fans. This year we would like to see a substantial increase in attendance. Our key word for everything we do is growth.

Where the Champions Hockey League is in five years
Regarding participation, the CHL board has received the mandate from the shareholders to review the participation criteria. As we haven’t started the process, so this is just my guess, but I think that our members want us to go into the direction of a qualification system for all teams. Meaning that participation in the CHL for all teams will be linked to your performance in your domestic league. Consequently, this will mean fewer teams. The remarks we got from the CHL owners at our last General Assembly meeting in June pointed in that direction.

In five years, if not before, I am confident that we will have teams from all top leagues in Europe, without compromising our commitment towards clubs from countries outside of our founding leagues. One country to which we have offered a provisional “Wild Card” is Poland where there are ambitious to take their club hockey to another level and there are also many impressive arenas being built.

In five years, our attendance will have grown to 5000-6000 in average, meaning that all fans who follow their teams on a regular national league basis will also follow their teams in Europe.

Our broadcasting and sponsoring will have grown substantially; which will make it possible for us to increase the prize money. We will be an established league in Europe where all hockey teams on the continent will strive for competing in.

Finally, my crystal ball tells me that we will have fruitful cooperation with the NHL where the top teams from the Champions Hockey League will play their counterparts from the National Hockey League on a permanent basis.

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