After the CHL Board took the difficult decision to cancel the 2020/21 Champions Hockey League season, we sat down with the CHL CEO to get more detailed information about the unavoidable step.
Martin, the CHL just announced that the 2020/21 season cannot take place as planned. It must have been turbulent times for you and your team?
Indeed, the last couple of weeks and months have been a rollercoaster. We were working hard, together with our media and marketing partner Infront and the participating clubs, to make a pan-European club competition happen this season despite difficult circumstances. In this process, ups and downs were chasing each other quite rapidly and forecasting was very difficult.
Why was the season cancelled?
The Champions Hockey League is a pan-European competition with 32 teams from 12 countries involved. The international nature of it adds an extra layer of complexity to the problems which ice hockey leagues are already facing. Travel restrictions between participating countries were a big issue and even if many of them could have been potentially solved by receiving special permits from authorities, a lot of uncertainty and risks remained – especially as the epidemiological situation across Europe is currently worsening from day to day.
Who made the decision to cancel the season?
The CHL Board took the final decision at an extraordinary video conference on Tuesday. But of course, many discussions and evaluations with involved parties took place before, taking all available facts and forecasts into consideration.
Why was the decision taken now (not later/earlier)?
It was obvious that the CHL with its international approach will struggle if the COVID-19 situation did not improve fast enough during summer. That’s why back in in April we already took the proactive decision to postpone the start of the season by a month, skip the Group Stage and run a knock-out competition only. At the beginning of September, we realised that we needed some more time to solve issues with travel restrictions and decided to postpone the season’s start date by another month; a decision which also helped the participating clubs as they were able to hold off with booking their away trips. Now, a couple of weeks later, it became quite evident that the epidemiological situation has developed in a way that playing a 2020/21 CHL season bears to many risks, unfortunately.
How many match-ups have been affected by travel restrictions?
The amount of match-ups affected changed quite frequently as European countries update their lists entirely independently and all based on different systems. There were times where we had 12 out of our 16 Round of 32 match-ups affected by travel restrictions between countries - which in some cases meant restrictions about travelling abroad, in other cases there were restrictions when returning back home, or sometimes even both ways. However, we probably would have been able to solve many of those issues as sport teams can benefit from business-related travel rules in several countries. But it is difficult to get written confirmation of this, which means the travel situation bears uncertainty and risks. And of course, not only potential entry and return travel restrictions were a concern, but also the health of our teams while travelling.
Why did protection concepts not help to secure the competition?
The CHL, our participating national leagues and our participating clubs all have sophisticated protection concepts in place. However, these concepts can only reduce the risk, not prevent COVID-19 spreading. Again, the CHL with its international approach and additional layer of complexity adds to the problems which ice hockey leagues and clubs are already facing. International travel especially bears a risk.
Why can teams from other sports travel but not ice hockey (e.g. football, handball, basketball)?
First of all, it is important to say that other sports, especially football, are in an economic situation where their teams can often afford to charter planes for international games where they travel in an isolated environment. Unfortunately, ice hockey is not yet in this position, at least not every club from every country. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that international competitions in other sports have had already issues with games that were cancelled because of positive COVID-19 cases and teams being quarantined. It is difficult to handle such situations from both a sporting and a credibility perspective, which was of course also factored into our decision.
Why has CHL not changed to a bubble concept?
A “bubble” as the NHL had installed for their playoffs is a great concept to offer teams a safe environment. However, for our competition it is unfortunately not an option as our teams play in their domestic leagues in parallel to the CHL, and our game days are fixed in the international calendar. National leagues, national teams and the CHL have clear agreements on game days and there is no way to move the 32 teams to a bubble for a certain time to just play the CHL. Besides that, the cost for such a bubble concept is enormous.
Was a competition with a reduced field of participants taken into consideration?
Yes, we had an alternative plan to play a competition with the best eight teams only. But as such a Top 8 competition would require travel as well, we came to the conclusion that it is not feasible either. Additionally, a reduced CHL competition would not live up to its name from a sporting perspective, and it would be a challenge from an economic one.
For fans who have already bought a ticket to a CHL game, what happens now?
As the clubs are organisers of the CHL games, fans must get in contact with the home club in order to receive further information.
What are the consequences of the cancellation?
First of all, as there is no 2020/21 CHL season being played, no 2020/21 CHL Champion will be crowned. As we have signed a long-term contract with our marketing and media partner until 2027/28 and have a healthy financial structure, in hockey terms we expect to come through this with just some minor bruising. But of course, we must now first analyse the situation internally in more detail and find out how to overcome this difficult time. Fingers crossed, that ice hockey, the economic and the whole world gets back to normal life in spring 2021!
Who is bearing the cost for the cancellation?
Obviously, our commercial contracts for the 2020/21 season will become void as the CHL is not delivering the product as agreed. This is a harsh blow not only for our operations but also from the point of view that we would have been able to pay out more than 3 million Euros in prize money to the clubs for the first time had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred. The CHL is a public company (Ltd; “Aktiengesellschaft/AG”) registered in Zug under Swiss Law and therefore owned by shareholders. As mentioned before, we are in a good situation and have a healthy financial structure. This will help us to get through this difficult time.
Is the CHL getting governmental support?
No. As the CHL is a pan-European competition, the company is not eligible to get funds from the Swiss government. However, the short-time work for employees was approved.
How is the CHL organisation dealing with the situation?
I want to take this opportunity and to express my special thanks to the team. The CHL Office does a tremendous job and showed tireless commitment during these uncertain times. They drafted and calculated various alternative playing formats, contacted numerous experts and government officials, composed a COVID-19 protection concept, updated our regulations repeatedly, adapted and calculated their budgets umpteen times, reshaped and/or skipped their projects again and again, etc.
All this, by changing to remote working from one day to the next without experience at all. This was a completely new situation for us, including the CHL Board. We have never had as many Committee and Board Meetings as in the last few months, and all of them took place online. But the digital transformation worked fine, and we even ran our first ever virtual General Assembly, as well as virtual Club Workshops.
Unfortunately, our team had to cope with and additional burden during these challenging times as our Senior Sport Advisor Bo Lennartsson passed away at the end of July after a short battle against cancer. He was an integral part of the CHL since the competition was established and will be greatly missed.
Will there be a CHL competition in the future?
We have a long-term contract with our media and marketing partner Infront until 2027/28. As of today, I’m convinced that we’ll be back in 2021/22 better than ever. But of course, no one can tell what COVID-19 brings. If the pandemic still affects ice hockey and the global economics a year from now, not only the CHL will be facing serious problems.
Which teams are qualifying for 2021/22?
We do hope that the national leagues can play their 2020/21 seasons and crown their champions as planned. If this is the case, the CHL qualification criteria are crystal clear. So far, ten of our participating leagues have started their national play. Fingers crossed that everything works well for them. Two national leagues are unfortunately facing issues. Should they not be able to deliver their qualified teams as usually, we will find a solution on a case-by-case basis.
Some final words?
I would like to thank the Infront management and their CHL team for the support during these challenging and uncertain times. They showed great commitment, put a lot of effort into replanning and were valued sparring partners in the discussions we had.
And, of course, a big thank you goes as well to all our participating clubs, shareholders, partners, and everyone else involved for the support we received in preparations for this very unique 2020/21 season. The pandemic is beyond our control, this is a fact we unfortunately must accept.