While we’re just under two months to go before Opening Night for the 2021-22 season for the Orlando Solar Bears, and just under a month before the start of NHL training camps, hockey season has already begun in Europe.
In addition to the various domestic leagues that litter the continent, like soccer, European hockey also features international competition between the top club teams. While soccer has the Champions League, its on-ice counterpart is the Champions Hockey League, featuring some of the premier teams from the various top-tier leagues in Europe.
The 2021-22 season marks the return of Champions Hockey League competition, after last season’s tournament was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The tournament features 32 clubs divided into eight groups of four teams, with each team in each group playing each other twice between late August through mid-October. The top two teams in each group advance to the playoff stage, which begins with the Round of 16 in mid-November, and concludes with the championship game in early March.
At stake is the European Trophy, along with some significant prize money. When the tournament was first held in 2014-15, the winning team received 1.5 million Euros.
While the start of the ECHL season is still several weeks away, today’s commencement of the Champions Hockey League offers hockey fans the opportunity to see some high-caliber pro hockey. What’s more, there are 13 former Solar Bears players who are on the rosters of participating clubs.
The Solar Bears have the largest representation in the Champions Hockey League with Finnish club TPS. The team is making its sixth appearance in the CHL, but has only advanced as far as the quarter-final round. TPS boasts three former players on its roster:
A trade between the Anaheim Ducks and the Tampa Bay Lightning in the early weeks of the 2018-19 season ultimately brought Hults to Orlando, where he split the season primarily between the Solar Bears and with the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse. When his NHL contract expired that summer, he signed an AHL pact with the Stockton Heat, before heading overseas to Bratislava last season, and eventually landing in the top league in Finland this year.
Rodewald played his rookie pro season in Orlando while under contract with the Toronto Marlies. Rodewald eventually parlayed his efforts as one of the team’s leading scorers that season into a deal with the Ottawa Senators organization, where he made his NHL debut during the 2017-18 season, becoming one of seven former Solar Bears to advance to the NHL. After a trade midway through the 2019-20 season to the Florida Panthers, Rodewald spent last season with Czech club HC Ocelari Trinec, where he scored championship-winning goal for Trinec in the Czech Extraliga championship.
Tammela was a former fourth-round pick of the Lightning when he was assigned to Orlando during the 2018-19 season, and the second-year pro showed he could dominate at the “AA” level, scoring 26 points (13g-13a) in 23 games for the Solar Bears. Tammela, however, was placed on waivers and bought out of the final year of his contract by the Lightning, prompting the Finnish native to return to his homeland, where he won the Liiga championship with Lukko last year before joining TPS.
Lukko, Finnish for “lock,” locked up their qualification for the CHL as the defending champions of Liiga. Lukko is appearing in its fourth CHL tournament; its best result was a semi-finals appearance in 2015-16. Despite losing Jonne Tammela as mentioned above, the club did retain the services of another former Solar Bears player in Kristian Pospisil.
An intriguing combination of size and skill coming out of the USHL in the summer of 2017, the Toronto Marlies signed Pospisil to a contract and assigned him to Orlando, where the Slovak native put up 26 points in 53 games. When the Marlies’ ECHL affiliation transferred to the expansion Newfoundland Growlers, Pospisil spent the 2018-19 season on the injured reserve as the Growlers claimed the Kelly Cup. The forward returned to Europe, where he’s been with Lukko ever since.
The Devils are the lone entry in the CHL hailing from the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League, after claiming the regular season title in the 2019-20 season. It is Cardiff’s fourth appearance in the CHL, and the team looks to advance out of the group stage for the first time. Cardiff’s roster includes former Solar Bears Taran Kozun and Mark Louis.
Goaltender Taran Kozun was reunited with his brother Tad on the Solar Bears for a brief stretch of time during the 2020-21 season, one of six ECHL clubs Taran suited up for before finishing the year with the Wheeling Nailers.
Louis, a defenseman, was a lynchpin on defense for the Solar Bears in the 2015-16 season, appearing in 71 games and leading the team with 152 penalty minutes. Since then, Louis has primarily suited up for Cardiff, with the exception of last season when the EIHL suspended play because of the pandemic.
The 2019-20 Continental Cup winner, SønderjyskE represents Denmark’s Metal Ligaen, making its third appearance in the CHL with no appearances outside of the group stage. Forward Mathieu Foget is the lone former Solar Bears player participating in Group D with the club.
Foget led the Solar Bears with 20 goals as a rookie in 2018-19 before a trade during the 2019 preseason sent him to Brampton. He subsequently has played for Greenville and Indy, before joining Slovakia’s HK Nitra last season.
Swedish club Leksands IF is making its first-ever appearance in the CHL. The team signed former Solar Bears goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo this summer.
Another former NHL graduate of the Solar Bears, Kaskisuo played his first full season of pro hockey with the Solar Bears in 2016-17 after signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth. After seeing limited action in the NHL with Toronto and Nashville, the Finnish goaltender decided to head to Europe to continue his professional career, signing with Leksands IF.
Dragons de Rouen
Rouen is the sole representative of France’s Ligue Magnus in this year’s edition of the CHL, making its third appearance in the tournament. The Dragons have never advanced past the group stage. Two former Solar Bears players are on Rouen’s roster.
Johnston was a former Philadelphia Flyers prospect who was assigned to Orlando during the 2013-14 season, following his former Trenton Titans coach Vince Williams to the Solar Bears. In 50 games with Orlando that season, Johnston posted 19 points. Over the last several seasons, he’s won a few championships playing for a Hungarian team, but has primarily played in France.
Yeo was already in his seventh season of pro hockey with a Calder Cup championship under his belt when he suited up in four games for the Solar Bears in 2013-14 while a prospect in the Toronto pipeline, chipping in one assist. Prior to this season, the defenseman had played the previous seven seasons in Germany’s top league, before joining Rouen.
The Klagenfurt, Austria-based team is making its fourth appearance in the CHL, never advancing past the group stage in three prior outings. EC KAC qualified by winning the International Central European Hockey League championship in 2020-21.
Arguably one of Orlando’s stars in its inaugural season in the ECHL, Petersen picked up 26 points in 22 games for the Solar Bears, and became the first-ever member of the Solar Bears to receive ECHL Player of the Month honors, earning the distinction in the month of October. Since 2012-13, Petersen has split his pro career in Germany and Austria; he’s been with EC KAC for the past three seasons, winning two ICEHL championships and was playoff MVP in 2021.
Italian club HC Bolzano earned its spot in the CHL, its third appearance in the tournament, thanks to a regular season championship in the ICEHL. Its highest finish was the Round of 16 in 2018-19. Also known as the Foxes, Bolzano’s roster is bolstered by former Solar Bears forward Brett Findlay.
The forward spent parts of three seasons with Orlando from 2014-17, racking up 95 points in 96 career games with the Solar Bears while he was a prospect in the Toronto Maple Leafs system. Findlay left North America after a season with the Stockton Heat, and has primarily played for Bolzano along with a season in Germany’s DEL. During the club’s previous Round of 16 appearance in 2018-19, Findlay tied for the team lead in scoring with six points in eight games.
Frisk Asker is making its second CHL appearance after failing to escape the Group Stage in its previous outing. The regular season champions of Norway’s Eliteserien have former Solar Bears forward Jacob Lagacé on its roster.
A former fifth-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2008, Lagacé appeared in 26 games with Orlando in the 2013-14 season. Since then he’s bounced around several teams and leagues across Norway, Sweden, France and Germany.
JKH GKS Jastrzębie
The Polish club is making its first-ever appearance in the CHL, with former Solar Bears forward Jean Dupuy on its roster:
A playoff hero for the Solar Bears in the 2018 Kelly Cup Playoffs, Dupuy scored in overtime of Game 4 of the South Division Semifinals to send Orlando to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in their history. After not playing competitive hockey the following season, Dupuy resumed his career with stops in Belfast and France, before settling in Poland last season.
How can I watch?
Here in the United States, the NHL Network airs select games throughout the Champions Hockey League season. However, if the games aren’t being televised on NHL Network, those games are available on the Champions Hockey League Website and App.