The Spengler Cup tournament is unique, pitting top European sides plus Team Canada against each other in a competitive but festive spirit between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. Davos, set in a pretty Alpine valley, attracts fans from all over the continent to their small town of 10,000.
There wasn’t much snow when we were there at Christmas 2022 but the town was buzzing in readiness for the 94th edition of the Cup. As we walked down the hill from our hotel (carefully, as it was frosty) the huge outdoor rink came into view and at least one of us was wishing he’d brought his skates.
Next door, the beautiful Vaillant Arena – renovated and modernised in time for the 2021-22 season – was filling up, but we just had time to walk around the perimeter and admire the photos of the Davos teams going right back to the club’s formation in 1921, and the profiles of their most famous players.
The only one I recognised was that of my near namesake, Canadian Stu Robertson, who played for my old home town team Brighton Tigers before making his name with Davos as a player and coach.
When we found our places, on the back of each seat was a large piece of card, colourfully illustrated by the club sponsor and scored several times so it could be folded into a fan shape. The idea was to hit one end on the palm of your hand to make a loud clapping sound. A very effective noise-maker, especially when it was replicated over 6,000 times!
We barely had a chance to admire the magnificent curved wooden roof of the arena (“they need a lot of Cuprinol on that,” Pete chuckled beside me) before we were using our ‘clappers’ as the players skated out.
In the opening afternoon game, the home team took on Sparta Prague, Cup runner-up in 2004. Before that, the last time a team from the Czech capital had won the Spengler was in 1948. Davos have carried off the trophy 15 times, most recently in 2011.
So all to play for. Davos surely had to be favourites with the near-sellout crowd yelling and clappering for their heroes. But though the game was entertaining (for us neutrals, anyway) Prague ran up a 9-2 victory. It was a similar story in game two that evening when Ambri-Piotta, the only other Swiss team in the event, swamped the Finns from IFK Helsinki 7-3.
The scores may have been one-sided but we were thrilled with the speed and skill of the players, and above all, their passion as these were only ‘friendly’ games. But maybe we Brits were missing something. It seemed the continentals treat the Spengler as a sort of Stanley Cup of European hockey.
This idea was borne out when I checked the crowd figures. The opening game drew over 6,000 fans; Davos’s last home game in the Swiss National League before Christmas had attracted only 3,300. A feature of European rinks, by the way, is that the spectators love to stand, like some British football supporters. Around half the fans stand in the Vaillant.
The Cup’s six-team format is a bit tricky to reduce quickly to two and there were another eight games before the final. With teams allowed to ice ‘ringers’, it wasn’t easy to predict the scores but few would have forecast that Team Canada (Cup champs 15 times) would lose all three of their contests. The home fans were ecstatic at their club’s 2-1 triumph.
We only stayed for the first three days of the competition as we were on a budget. Nevertheless, we decided we could afford to visit the merchandise shop and purchase (guiltily) over-priced pucks, tee-shirts and hats (well, you have to, don’t you?).
Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we were able to watch the final stages at home on TV, with our viewing pleasure enhanced by knowing the teams and the arena. It wasn’t much of a surprise when Prague and Ambri-Piotta, the big winners on the opening day, ended up in the final.
Another packed house went clapper-happy for Ambri, the atmosphere reaching fever pitch as the game went into overtime and then a nerve-wracking penalty shootout. When Inti Pestoni converted the winner for Ambri, it was their first ever Cup success and their fans wept with joy.
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