Not many teams in the Champions Hockey League have had success on the road in Sweden, let alone Challenger League teams. However, France’s Grenoble, who will take their place in the competition for the second straight year, bucked the trend in 2019/20, picking up a historic 2-1 win in Skellefteå.
Grenoble topped the Ligue Magnus and had completed a 4-0 sweep of Chamonix in the first round of the playoffs before the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts have ensured that the team from the foothills of the Alps will once again represent France in Europe's elite club competition.
"I try to base my game off of playing to make the guy next to me better."
Grenoble forward Alexander Aleardi
Alexander Aleardi led the charge last season for his club, recording a league-high 63 points (26+37) in 40 games. However, the US-born forward was quick to pass on praise to his teammates, whose contribution up and down the line-up contributed to the team’s success.
“Having a good campaign for the last two years in France, I had some great linemates and great players that found out the way I played and helped me along, and I can help them as well. I try to base my game off of playing to make the guy next to me better and he’s making me better and we find that familiarity. It’s been two good years and I’ve played with great linemates, and I’ve had great teams as well, so it’s been a fun two years, and I expect it to be a fun third year,” the American forward said.
Grenoble’s domestic domination was also coupled with a strong showing in the Champions Hockey League. The French club was drawn in a frightfully tough Group E alongside Skellefteå AIK, SC Bern, and Kärpät Oulu, but performed handily by picking up the aforementioned victory in Sweden and running the other two teams close.
According to Aleardi, Grenoble’s efforts in the CHL last season showed the quality of both the team and French hockey in general.
“I think our top teams in our league can compete with top teams in other leagues. I think we’re right there with them, and I think we proved that. Sometimes you prove it to yourself and it makes things easier as well. Even though we had a very tough group, with some of the best teams in all of Europe … it just shows you how close the top teams of different leagues are,” he commented.
Grenoble also represented their country in the 2015/16 edition of the competition and picked up another famous victory with a 2-1 triumph over Finnish club Espoo Blues. Aleardi stated that despite being outmatched on paper, French sides have the hunger to prove themselves on the European stage.
“I just think its hockey, its sport, anybody can beat anybody if they don’t show up or if they don’t want to put the work in. We were a team that was excited for the CHL and excited to show that we’re a good hockey team and that France is a good hockey country. It’s a growing hockey country with every year,” Aleardi remarked.
The US-born forward made the move to Grenoble in 2019/20, leaving Ligue Magnus rivals Rouen Dragons. He was part of the 2018/19 Rouen side that needed two wins against the THOMAS SABO Ice Tigers in Game Days 5 and 6 to become the first French side to advance to the CHL Playoffs.
“It was interesting, there were ups and downs as there always is in competition. You’re looking at the standings and in the final two games we had the German team from Nuremberg. We knew we had to beat them at home, and if we beat them at home, we’d give ourselves a chance to beat them on the road and see what happens,” Aleardi remarked.
The Dragons pulled out all the stops, and recorded a 4-2 win at home, knowing that success on the road would send them through. Aleardi had three points (1+2) in a 5-2 victory in Germany to send Rouen to the Round of 16.
“There were a lot of ups and downs during that hockey game, I remember it still, but it was a great feeling. It was good for French hockey, it was good to show that we could beat the German teams, that we can beat the Swedish teams. It shows that our quality is there. It is a great feeling and it’s a great individual accomplishment for my career, making the Round of 16, and hopefully I can make it further in the future. It was an amazing team effort and it was a very close team. That’s how you get through and win back-to-back games like that,” Aleardi stated.
The 27-year-old forward has also represented Austrian powerhouse Red Bull Salzburg in the CHL, scoring five points in six Group Stage games in 2017/18. He first moved across the Atlantic in 2015, joining SHL club and CHL newcomers Rogle Ängelholm after two stellar seasons in the AHL and ECHL.
“I think it made the most sense at my position where I was in the AHL and going to strive to play in the SHL, to play in Europe. I heard a lot of good things, I’ve got a lot of friends that have been over there like Broc Little. He was in the SHL and I played with him in the AHL so I got to learn a lot about it. He seemed very comfortable when he was over there, and he’s been a great hockey player there for a long time,” the US-born forward remarked.
Having played in Sweden, Austria, and France, Aleardi has become accustomed to all the styles of hockey Europe has to offer. Despite the differences between individual leagues, he said that the Champions Hockey League has shown the parity that exists on the continent.
"I think all the leagues are getting much closer, and you get the opportunity to see that in the Champions Hockey League."
Aleardi on the state of European hockey
“It’s a little bit different but you’re still playing hockey, they’re all on the Olympic-sized ice, so you’re used to that anyway. I think all the leagues are getting much closer, and you get the opportunity to see that in the Champions Hockey League. I think that’s one of the most exciting things; when you’re from different countries and everyone’s rooting for their country or their team or their league, I think it’s a very competitive and exciting tournament to watch,” Aleardi said.
Grenoble will have the chance to make their mark on the European stage in the 2020/21 season, as the CHL’s updated schedule will see the French club take on Germany’s Adler Mannheim in the Round of 32.
“I’ve never played against Mannheim. I’ve heard nothing but great things about the organization. I know it’s a top-tier organization over in Germany, so they’re going to be tough competition. I don’t think there’s a bad team in the CHL,” Aleardi stated.
The CHL has made proactive changes to next season’s schedule in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The major change, which sees the league move to an immediate knockout format, makes the competition even more interesting this time round, the Grenoble forward said.
“It’s a two-game aggregate-score series. I think it’s going to be the most interesting tournament that I’ve been a part of because there are two hockey games, anything can happen. I think there are going to be more upsets than people think, that would be my opinion, but you never know,” Aleardi remarked.
"I definitely like where we’re at going into the season, so I like our chances.”
Aleardi on Grenoble's prospects for the 2020/21 season
Grenoble’s roster for 2020/21 is expected to feature many familiar faces. Alongside Aleardi, star forwards Damien Fleury and Joel Champagne are set to return, as are free-scoring defencemen Kyle Hardy and Yann Sauve. Aleardi stated that this should help the club make an immediate impact once the season starts.
“We’ll wait and see where the cards fall, but I like the team we have, and I like the team our coaches and our staff have built this summer. We’ve got a lot of returning players so the chemistry is already there, so that makes things a lot easier going forward into the season. Everyone can find their role pretty quickly. I definitely like where we’re at going into the season, so I like our chances,” he remarked.
The ongoing health crisis has created a number of uncertainties for hockey players across the globe. Many leagues are hoping to be able to get fully underway once autumn comes around, although players are waiting anxiously to see when the call will come.
“It’s been stressful at times. We’re more worried about the season and when it’s going to start, and not jumping into your summer training right away or too early because you don’t know if you’re going to have an extra two months and you don’t want to get burned out,” Aleardi said, adding that he is in close contact with Grenoble trainer Stephane “Gerv” Gervais to work out his summer training regimen.
Europe’s hockey clubs are going to more ready than ever to get underway once they can hit the ice, and Grenoble is no exception. The table-topping French club has made major strides over the last two seasons, and the team from the foothills of the Alps want that taste of victory once again.
“It’s tough. You don’t get much closure, so you’re more hungry to go back and get that feeling going right away again,” the American forward remarked.
You can bet that Aleardi, fresh off two-and-a-half seasons of prolific play in the Ligue Magnus, will make his mark once again on the domestic and international scene in the 2020/21 season.
“I think it’s going to be another fun hockey season in Grenoble,” he concluded.