The European Icehockey

Special thanks to Martin C. Harris

The early 1970s were a turbulent time for icehockey. With both the expanded NHL and the new WHA, hockey salaries rose as the teams tried to match offers. In 1971, Bruce Norris, owner of the Detroit Red Wings, revived the idea of a European League in affilialition with the NHL. Norris said that he wanted the NHL and the best teams in Europe to be the start of a real global icehockey league, with the best European teams being able to participate in the Stanley Cup play-offs. As air-travelling and worldwide TV transmissions had developed, the distances would no longer be a problem. Much of the plans were rushed to beat the WHA and seemed a little vague but Norris hoped that Europe would decide that NHL was the league with the stability and experience necessary to establish that kind of co-operation. A press release by European Ice Hockey League Ltd of 14 September 1972 says "the League will result in the following:
1. Each year teams represented by the top players in Europe, plus certain players from North America, will play a regular schedule of games..."

Norris envisaged the club teams being mainly made up of Canadians and Americans but with a liberal sprinkling of native-born players. Also, each team would have a working agreement with an NHL club, which of course raises the question if the European league really would be equal to the NHL (even though some sources mentioned "Inter-zone finals" followed by an actual "World Final"). Norris appointed Joe Besch as European manager. He was based in Vienna, Austria. The press release of 14 September 1972 refers to as "interim and acting President of the League". An article in Aamulehti, Tampere (Finland) of 19 May 1973 refers to Besch as "the former president of IHL" (i.e. the International Hockey League in USA and Canada). Norris spent some some $300 000 on his European team, the London Lions. The Wembley Lions had been a force in British icehockey from 1934 to 1968, so the venue was right and there could be no other nickname.

Norris wanted to build a 16000-seat multipurpose arena in London but it was unfortunate time for construction. A miner's strike had caused industrial chaos in the country and Norris' financial adviser warned that it was not a good idea to make such an investment. As far as venues for European clubs in this proposed league, the above mentioned article from Aamulehti (Tampere) of 19 May 1973 refers to a meeting with representatives from West Germany, London (represented by Lions' coach and general manager Doug Barkley), Göran Stubb (Director of Helsinki IFK), Aimo Mäkinen (chairman of Jokerit, Helsinki) and Mikko Westerberg (involved with Tappara Icehockey club in Tampere). It was hoped that Prague would join the following season. Swedish representatives were Sven-Åke Nyström, a former businessman in the US representing Gothenburg, and Bror Mellberg, a former Swedish soccer international and professional who became a businessman when he returned to Sweden in the 60s and also was involved with AIK in Stockholm. According to some sources, the Toronto Maple Leafs were to ice a team in Sweden while the Montreal Canadiens would place a farm club in Finland. Arne Strömberg, former coach of the National team, also supported the idea. During the spring and summer of 1973 they made a kind of questionnaire/players draft, but the plans never seem to have got any further.

The league was planned to start in the autumn of 1973 but Russians and Czechs protested as professional athletes would stop all participation in the Olympic Games. Another stumbling block concerned the availability of players for the World Championships, which were played in March and April when the European League would be approaching the playoffs. In Sweden, the Icehockey Association and its chairman Helge Berglund showed an additional attempt of trying to "protect" the National team from being drained of the most talented players. Berglund barred all national icepalaces and threatened to black list others like Scandinavium in Gothenburg, run by his former collegue Bertil Rönnberg. Additionally, no other NHL team started any farm club in Europe. Not until 1993 did the London Lions finally get a European companion. When the generous government subsidies in Soviet stopped, famous coach Viktor Tikhonov and some other CSKA (Central Red Army) hockey officials came up with the idea of a joint venture with the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL to raise money. Thus, the Russian Penguins were born. This was a combined Pittsburg affiliate and Central Red Army developmental team.

Back in 1973, Norris decided to go ahead with the London Lions even if the idea of a league was off. The team was made a showcase for the league, which he still hoped would start in the next season. The project was heavily supported by IIHF president Bunny Ahearne and London Lions were thus registered as amateurs by the British Icehockey Association, which meant that they were able to play against teams from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. The actual fixture list of London Lions certainly seem to be planned to exhibit the team in all proposed countries and cities of the European Icehockey League, as well as check out possible players. On the other hand, some games seem to be last minute additions against poorer teams, for example the outdoor game (!) against Handen in a suburb of Stockholm. During the World Championships in Finland in April 1974, Norris and Besch (as a delegate for the British Ice Hockey Association) were still talking about the European league.

Professional hockey was heavily discussed in Sweden in 1972-73. This shot is from a televised debate. To left in the front row is Helge Berglund, to the right Arne Strömberg and Sven-Åke Nyström. Behind them sits ex-Modoplayer Anders Hedberg, who signed for the WHA-Winnipeg Jets a year later.

A meeting about the league was held in London on 13 July 1974. The list of representatives suggests that a lot of new contacts - mainly in the Benelux area - had been taken. The "old" gang included IIHF President Ahearne (chairman of the meeting), Lions' representatives Ziegler and Besch plus Göran Stubb of the Helsinki IFK. From Holland came IIHF member F. Schweers, H. Artekaas (sp?), H. van der Heijden and Mulhall; from Belgium J. Hanrez, J. Crombags and L. Patrick. Sweden was represented by IIHF member P.O. Wester and L. Norman from AIK Stockholm. Present were also Britons A.F. Weeks, W. McEwen and Wembley Arena manager J. Evans while R. Tratschin, Switzerland, had sent apologies for absence. The meeting mainly resulted in a press release two days later announcing the postponement of the European League until September 1975, with next meeting scheduled to be held in Füssen, West Germany on 12 September 1974. Whether it ever was held is unclear but unlikely.

Meanwhile, Ove Rainer, the newly appointed chairman of the Swedish Icehockey Association, had a new idea. Together with Soviet, Czechoslovakia and Finland he proposed a league with national teams. The idea was to organise all exhibition games over a season into an overall league standing with every nation playing 18 games between each other during the season. The participating players - at least the Swedes - would also get higher salaries for those international games. Car producer Volvo was involved as sponsor and the league - which was named Izvestia Trophy to satisfy the Russians - was another vain attempt to outbid the North American pro teams and keep the top players in Europe. Considering the schedule of the 1974-75 Izvestia Trophy with each contestant team playing three games home and away against each other, it's a bit surprising that the ideas of Norris and Rainer couldn't be merged. As can be seen in the fixture-list of London Lions, the team usually played exactly that kind schedule so it would have been possible to let the London Lions survive another season to compete about the Izvestia Trophy. As it were, only two former London Lions - Swedes Holmqvist and Lundström - played (for their National team) in the 1974-75 Izvestia Trophy. It was probably the clashing personalities of those involved that prevented any co-operation. Helge Berglund and Bunny Ahearne disliked each other, and Bruce Norris has been described as a buffoon; "when Norris enters a room, it's like a truck passing through the doorway" a Swedish journalist wrote.