Excitement abounds amongst Belfast Giants fans after they discovered last week who they will be facing in the group stages of next season’s Champions Hockey League (CHL).
Squaring up to them will be Czech outfit HC Oceláři Třinec, Swedish side Skellefteå AIK and Swiss team HC Davos, which represents a very tricky draw for Adam Keefe’s men.
Don’t know much about the three teams? Don’t worry, we have you covered...
Arena: Werk Arena (capacity: 5,400)
Head coach: Zdenek Motak
Captain: Petr Vrána
How they qualified: As winners of the Czech Extraliga, they defeated HC Sparta Praha 4-2 in their play-off final
Best CHL finish: Semi-finalists (2017/18)
Key players: Milan Doudera, Erik Hrna, Ondrej Kacetl, Martin Ruzicka
International players: Aron Chmielewski, Alan Lyszczarcyzk (both Poland); Karlis Cukste (Latvia); Milos Roman (Slovakia)
New signings: Karlis Cukste (Pelicans), Vladimir Svacina (HC Vítkovice), Daniel Vozenilek (HC Motor České Budějovice)
Departures: David Kofron, Michael Kovarcik, Ondrej Kovarcik, Daniel Krenzelok, Tomas Kundratek, David Musil
The team: It’s been an off-season of change in Třinec as not only have they lost their leading defensive scorer Tomas Kundratek and the Kovarcik brothers, but they are also entering their first season without head coach Vaclav Varada, the former NHLer stepping down from the role after five years in charge which yielded three titles.
Latvian international Karlis Cukste – who has played in Belfast before in the Friendship Four with Quinnipiac – will help in defence and bringing back Vladimir Svacina, who was on loan with them during last season’s play-offs, will help considerably, however it will be interesting to see how quickly the team gel under new head coach Zdenek Motak.
That doesn’t mean they’re going to be easy, though. A fast skating, skilful team, who will bring a similar style of play to what Bílí Tygři Liberec produced when the Giants played them in the CHL three years ago, Třinec are top seeds for a reason. In Ondrej Kacetl and Marek Mazanec they have a shut-down goaltending tandem, while Erik Hrna and Martin Ruzicka are lethal forwards.
The city: Notable for its iron and steelworks, which sponsor the team, Třinec is a cultural centre for the Polish minority in the surrounding area of Trans-Olza, with 12.1 per cent of its population from Poland given its proximity to the border. It only has around 34,000 people living in it, making it only slightly more populated than Ballymena.
Did you know?: Třinec are the dominant force in Czech hockey at the moment having won the last three Extraliga titles in a row in 2019, 2021 and 2022.
Arena: Skellefteå Kraft Arena (capacity: 5,801)
Head coach: Robert Ohlsson
Captain: Oscar Möller
How they qualified: As third-placed finishers in the regular season of the Swedish Hockey League
Best CHL finish: Semi-finalists (2014/15)
Key players: Jonathan Johnson, Pär Lindholm, Gustaf Lindvall, Jonathan Pudas
International players: Gustaf Lindvall, Jonathan Pudas, Filip Roos (all Sweden)
New signings: Max Lindholm (AIK), Pär Lindholm (Ak Bars Kazan), Anton Olsson (Malmö Redhawks)
Departures: Jayce Hawryluk, Michael Kapla, Melker Karlsson, Joakim Lindström, Stefan Loibl, Strauss Mann, Adam Mascherin, Fred Nilsson, Filip Sandberg
The team: Although they are second seeds in Group H, Skellefteå are going to be favourites to top the group and will even be one of the sides tipped to potentially win the competition given the skill they have on their roster, with a pair of Jonathans – defenceman Pudas and forward Johnson – leading their charge.
Still, it is hard to tell exactly how strong the north Swedish side will be as they still have a great deal of recruiting to do before the start of the campaign having lost a significant amount of talent, particularly with their entire North American contingent departing.
Netminder Strauss Mann’s loss is mitigated by the fact that Gustaf Lindvall is one of the best goalies in Sweden, while Jayce Hawryluk underperformed and Adam Mascherin was frequently injured, but Michael Kapla’s decision to join defending CHL champions Rögle BK was a blow. The departure of Joakim Lindström leaves a significant hole to fill, too.
One significant question mark also rests on forward Linus Karlsson. The 22-year-old was Skellefteå's top goal scorer last season with 26 goals in 52 games but has just signed his entry-level contract with the Vancouver Canucks, who are yet to decide where he will play next season. Having him back would be a major boost for head coach Robert Ohlsson.
Regardless of how their summer pans out, the Swedes will have a roster stacked with talent at their disposal and will use their elite pace to dominate games. The Giants’ two games against them will likely prove their toughest.
The city: Another historically industrial city, Skellefteå is known for mining and, in particular, gold mining which is why the team play in gold-and-black and the city is nicknamed Guldstaden ('gold town'). The city is bisected by the Skellefte River and is the second largest city in the county of Västerbotten.
Did you know?: Skellefteå are bitter rivals with Luleå HF, who the Giants played the last time they were in the CHL, with the two sides the most northern teams in the SHL.
Arena: Eisstadion Davos (capacity: 6,795)
Head coach: Glen Metropolit
Captain: Andres Ambühl
How they qualified: As the fifth-placed side in the regular season in the Swiss National League
Best CHL finish: Semi-finalists (2015/16)
Key players: Sandro Aeschlimann, Enzo Corvi, Dominik Egli, Matej Stransky
International players: Sandro Aeschlimann, Andres Ambühl, Enzo Corvi, Dominik Egli, Michael Fora (all Switzerland); Matej Stransky (Czechia)
New signings: Leon Bristedt (Rögle BK), Klas Dahlbeck (CSKA Moskva), Michael Fora (HC Ambrì-Piotta)
Departures: Mathias Bromé, Kristian Pospisil, Lukas Stoop, Jesse Zgraggen
Perhaps the most settled of the Giants’ three opponents, Davos look to have all of their off-season recruiting done and they’ve done a pretty good job by signing Swedish pair Leon Bristedt and Klas Dahlbeck and Swiss international defenceman Michael Fora to bolster an already quality roster.
Bristedt is an excellent replacement for the departing Mathias Bromé, and he will likely join Dennis Rasmussen and Matej Stransky on a lethal top line, while Dahlbeck and Fora could combine to make up their top defensive pairing. Throw in Swiss legend Andres Ambühl and fellow internationals Enzo Corvi and Dominik Egli and this is a deep and dangerous Davos roster.
Naturally, by the amount of talent at their disposal, they will be in the mix to progress from the group but Swiss sides haven’t been known to throw their whole weight behind the CHL in the past. That, combined with getting to know new head coach Glen Metropolit’s system, could be their downfall.
Expect a lot of Giants fans travelling to this away game. A stunningly picturesque location in a valley at the base of the imposing Swiss mountains, known for their ski resorts, this is a bucket list location for many hockey fans worldwide. And, of course, there is history between the two sides as they met in the Continental Cup back in 2003, with the Giants winning 4-2!
The town: You'll recognise the name Davos as it's home to the World Economics Forum every year, which attracts global political and corporate leaders to discuss important matters, as well as its many ski resorts and fitness spas. It only has a permanent population of around 10,000 people but plenty of visitors.
Did you know?: Davos hosts the Spengler Cup, the oldest invitation-only hockey competition in the world, from December 26 to December 31 every year. The local team always compete, while traditionally there is a Team Canada side involved, too.