Often described as the oldest invitational ice hockey competition in the world, the story of the Spengler Cup is the history of the European game in one event.
The Cup’s creation in 1923 came about at much the same time as serious hockey was getting off the ground – sorry, ice – on the continent. It was the brainchild of Davos-born Dr Carl Spengler (1860-1937), a pioneer of immunotherapy and an ardent sportsman, who provided a silver trophy at a cost of 500 Swiss francs.
He saw the tournament as a means of reintegrating teams from German-speaking Europe, who might otherwise have suffered ostracism in the aftermath of defeat in World War One. From the start it has been hosted in Davos, a hotbed of the sport.
Even the good doctor, however, could hardly have anticipated the event’s popularity. In 94 tournaments over the last century, many of Europe's top clubs and national teams have taken part, including Soviet, Czech/Slovak, Swedish, German and Finnish powerhouses.
National sides from outside Europe include Team Canada, Team USA and Team Japan (in 1971, building international experience before hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo). Nationally ranked U.S. college teams, reigning AHL Calder Cup and Ontario Hockey Association champions have also competed for the Spengler Cup.
When the Cup eventually received official recognition from the international governing body in 1926 and 15 teams entered, it was established as the most prestigious prize in European ice hockey.
That doesn’t mean it’s been free of controversy. The 1935 final between Milan and Davos was marred by fighting among the spectators after a questionable decision by the referee, and three years later the deciding match between Prague and Davos was stopped after a fist fight and replayed in the February.
Innovations came in the 1960s with television and artificial ice, and the first Soviet team from Moscow entered in 1967 – winning first time, of course.
When the outdoor venue was roofed over in 1979, the crowds at the games set a new record of 40,000. This was topped four years later when the sold-out stadium packed in a total of 54,000.
Even this figure paled in 1984 when 62,000 were on hand to witness the first appearances of Team Canada. Over 84,000 roared their approval of the 11 games played in 2002, and two years later when the home club beat Sparta Prague for the Cup, Davos’s locked-out NHLer Rick Nash declared: “Only the Stanley Cup and the World Championships have a higher rating.”
One-time Great Britain coach, Chris McSorley, took his Geneva-Servette team to Spengler Cup glory twice, in 2013 and 2014, beating Russian sides on both occasions.
In total, club or national teams from 13 different countries, including Great Britain, have won the trophy, with Team Canada gaining the most with 16 since 1984, closely followed by hosts Davos with 15, the first coming in 1927.
Great Britain? When did a team from the off-shore island take part? It not only took part, it was the very first winner. Even more than that, Oxford (University) Canadians won four of the first nine cups, though they had to share the 1932 trophy with LTC Prague.
In the early 1920s, the students were frustrated by the absence of rinks in England – there was just one, in Manchester – and took to touring Europe in search of games during their Christmas vacation. With European hockey in its infancy, the mostly Rhodes Scholars racked up some pretty impressive scores and consequently received an invite to the inaugural Spengler Cup.
Three wins in three games – over Berlin (7-3), Vienna (3-0) and Davos (8-1) – brought them the silverware. After settling for bronze the following year, they regained the Cup in 1925, shutting out their opposition twice in three contests. But the Europeans learned quickly and the varsity then went empty-handed until 1931.
Their third Cup success was achieved mainly on the back of a superb new rink in Oxford with a huge ice surface measuring 200 by 100 feet and space for 3,000 fans. Few Brits will recall this as it existed for just 40 months in the early 1930s, but it enabled the Dark Blues to capture their last two Spenglers. Goalie Herbie Little was glowingly described in the continental papers as ‘the best netminder in Europe’.
“In Davos, the people are real hockey fans,” said one of the Oxford Canadians approvingly. And they still are.