The Champions Hockey League’s 32 teams were drawn into eight groups for the 2021/22 Group Stage. Continuing our series of draw reactions, we’re taking a look at the only Norwegian club, two domestic rivals, and newcomer JKH GKS Jastrzębie from the Polish Ekstraliga. Representatives from the respective teams look ahead to the upcoming season as they share their thoughts on their squads and their Group Stage opponents.
Competing against GKS Jastrzębie are the regular season winners of the ICE Hockey League, HC Bolzano, with this their third CHL appearance. These clubs will have to stave off the likes of CHL veterans Red Bull Salzburg and Norwegian side Frisk Asker, who will be appearing in their second CHL campaign following their debut in 2019/20.
"We wanted strong, attractive rivals."
Robert Kalaber, JKH GKS Jastrzębie Head Coach
Despite only competing in one season prior to qualifying for the upcoming season, Frisk Asker expect to improve upon their early exit from the Group Stage during the 2019/20 season. The team were crowned regular season winners of Norway’s top tier, the GET Ligaen, this past season and Head Coach Jan Andre Aasland believes his club can take full advantage of this opportunity to gain a wealth of experience going forward.
“We are also looking to gain experience for our team. By playing against good international opponents, we can get a feel, knowledge and experience that can help us as a team to reach the next level,” says Aasland.
The Head Coach goes on to identify what will make his group so difficult to play against, noting, “We do have a solid defensive game and we like to turn the puck up the ice quickly after we win it. We are trying to play a controlled game, but like to put pressure on the opponent when we have the chance.”
"We like to think we are a team that’s really playing with passion and that the team goes first."
Jan Andre Aasland, Frisk Asker Head Coach
Identifying his squad’s strengths is not the only focus on Aasland’s mind. Even if his club has never competed against the likes of the other contenders in Group H, the Norwegian bench boss is well aware of whom he is going up against. Especially when it comes to ICE Hockey League clubs Bolzano and Red Bull Salzburg.
“I do know a little bit about each team, but do possess a little more knowledge about Bolzano and Salzburg, after following the Austrian league a bit closer over the last couple of years.”
While Aasland has been doing his research regarding the other teams, Red Bull Salzburg's Head Coach Matt McIlvane admits, “we will be learning a lot about our Polish and Norwegian opponents, but we’re excited for the opportunity to play against them.” Though he notes, “Bolzano are an opponent we’re very familiar with and they always present a good challenge.”
This will be Red Bull Salzburg’s sixth appearance in the CHL. Their biggest accomplishment to date? Making the Semi-Finals of the 2018/19 season. Of course, this year, Salzburg have higher hopes and McIlvane believes they can achieve success because the team are, “built on pressure and an attacking mentality. We want to play with the puck as much as we can but when we don’t have it, we work to get it back as soon as we can.”
Competing on this stage, though, is special for every team, every player, and every coach and McIlvane is no different. “The tournament is exciting and gives us an opportunity to compete against teams from other countries and experience different styles of hockey.”
As one of three teams representing the ICE Hockey League, Red Bull Salzburg will be skating against some familiar faces in Italian side HC Bolzano. Bolzano made it to the Round of 16 in their second stint in the CHL, but haven’t qualified for the CHL since the 2018/19 season.
Earning a place in the competition is a highlight unto itself according to CEO and Sport Director of Bolzano Dr. Dieter Knoll: “Qualifying for this European tournament is always one of our main goals for the season.” Once that has been achieved, an understanding of their eventual opponents comes next.
For Knoll, facing off against the likes of Salzburg and Frisk Asker will bring their own challenges, but Jastrzębie is not to be taken lightly either. “They are definitely teams not to be underestimated. We found this out three years ago when we struggled against the then Polish champions, Tychy.”
About their domestic rivals Red Bull Salzburg, whom they defeated in 2018 to win the EBEL title, Knoll went on to say, “It will also be interesting to play against a team from our league for the first time in a European context.”
" We understand the challenge this tournament presents, and we are excited for the challenge!"
Matt McIlvane, Red Bull Sazburg Head Coach
Bolzano’s time in the CHL hasn’t fared as well as Knoll would like as he recognizes that his club, “have a limited budget compared to many other competitors.” Yet, he is quick to point out, “we have managed to achieve great success over the years.” As to why the club has been able to achieve such success, Knoll notes, “this is because we focus on a group that shows passion and attachment to the jersey, with the help of some top players.”
Buying into that passion and the attachment to the jersey is something Knoll sees as keys to their success moving forward, in addition to embracing the moment and respecting your opponent: “we are aware that we could be up against some of the best teams in Europe, but in a challenge made up of two games anything can happen.”
As Knoll mentioned, no team can be counted out, and that couldn’t be more true for JKH GKS Jastrzębie who will be skating in their inaugural CHL season. In fact, Head Coach Robert Kalaber appears more than ready to meet these new challenges. “We wanted strong, attractive rivals,” he says, “I think we have succeeded.”
As Head Coach of Jastrzębie since the 2014/15 season, Kalaber, who has experience coaching the Polish National Team on the international stage, attributes his squad’s success to those both inside as well as outside the locker room: “I think it is a success of our entire club, activists, sponsors, coaches, players who have achieved in the last season.” Skating in this competition is the culmination of efforts all around and Kalaber is prepared to show what his team can do on the ice.
When asked what his team brings to the table, Kalaber explained, “we try to press,” but understands that, “of course the opposition team also gives us their own conditions to play, which we always have to adapt to.”
Adapting, though, is already part of the make-up of Jastrzębie. With many players from last season gone, Kalaber admits, “for now, we’ve had to rebuild the squad.” Yet, regardless of the rebuild, the Polish club managed to do something special this season: “For the first time in the history of the club, we managed to win the National Championship, thanks to which we will take part in the Champions Hockey League.”
While some familiar faces are competing in Group H, no one club can be coined a favourite. This makes the match-ups all the more exciting, especially considering the history between HC Bolzano and Red Bull Salzburg. Newcomer JKH GKS Jastrzębie will look to prove their mettle on the ice as Frisk Asker will vie to bring the European Trophy back to Norway.
Think you know your stuff about these four contenders? Take our Group H quiz and test your know-how with a chance to win three CHL European Trophy keychains!