And so, another Champions League campaign draws to a close for the Belfast Giants, rounded off by their 4-1 loss to Swedish Hockey League leaders Skellefteå.
expected to be the whipping boys in Group H, the Giants instead emerged with their heads held very high. One win from six doesn’t sound all that impressive, but bear in mind they were playing against their superior teams.
Skellefteå is top of the best League in Europe. Oceláři Třinec have won the Czech Extraliga the past three seasons running. Davos has a budget that considerably dwarfs that of the Giants.
And yet in at least five of the six outings, they have come away thinking the game was there to be won. Apart from their capitulation in Davos, when they conceded four goals in just over four minutes, one bounce going their way could have made a difference in each fixture. To even be in with a chance of beating teams like this is a credit to the roster.
The win over Třinec was the crowning moment, but taking a tied game into the final three minutes against a side as good as Skellefteå was just as impressive, and it just goes to show how competitive the CHL is that the Giants played superbly in five- and-a-half of their six games and only took two points.
Certainly one of the biggest takeaways from the Giants’ group campaign is that the powerplay can be the winning and losing of a tie — for instance, two Matej Stransky thunderbolts proved crucial in their home loss to Davos, while Skellefteå’s three on Tuesday proved to literally be the difference. As good as the teams they were playing were, the Giants’ special teams needed to be better across the six games if they were to reach the last 16.
So, now that it is all over, there is time to take a look at the bigger picture, namely what the Giants have gained from this.
While results didn’t go their way, they have earned plenty of plaudits for pushing their opponents as close as they did. Unlike in 2019, they were not underestimated by any of their foes.
Off-ice they have also made their mark. Officials from Skellefteå were reportedly left extremely impressed at how the Giants organization is run, while it is no secret that the IIHF and CHL both love Belfast as a hockey city and host venue.
However, the reality of the Champions League is that it is a competition the Giants will not win. Against teams with astronomically bigger budgets and much deeper rosters, it simply isn’t a level playing field. It is also a much bigger financial burden on the team than competing in the second-tier Continental Cup — whether they hosted or were on the road — given the amount of travel they have to endure.
Bridging the gap is a pipe dream. Even if they got a favorable group draw, the odds of them beating four of Europe’s elite club sides and lifting the trophy just isn’t realistic given the resources at their rivals’ disposal.
Understandably, fans have voiced their frustration at that. As much as it is a novelty to see their team go toe-to-toe with the best Europe has to offer and pushing them close, being subjected to five defeats is not as fun as competing for and winning titles, and it also places a significant stranger on the early season.
Now, don’t misread this, the Giants aren’t going to throw away a potential Elite League title in order to play in the Continental Cup instead of the CHL. And while they are not obliged to take their place in the CHL if they feel it detracts from their League campaign, it is telling they have not taken that option in the last two years they’ve qualified.
So while the tournament may have its detractors, it is still the crown jewel of European hockey, and a significant status boost for the Giants to be involved. While short-term they have to endure the pain of their defeats, long-term other teams are taking note.
That is the true victory.