European competition for Manchester Storm

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The Independent Online
Ice hockey

Manchester Storm are preparing to take a leap into the big time as Europe's ice hockey leaders announced details of the high-profile European League in Vienna yesterday.

After their successful inaugural season, winning promotion to the British Premier League, Manchester was confirmed as one of 20 clubs from 12 countries to contest this ambitious new venture.

Manchester was catapulted to European prominence because of the backing of a world-ranked venue - the Nynex Arena - and a huge fanatical following that regularly provided crowds of 15,000-plus for home matches.

The sport's governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation, revealed that more than pounds 3m had been earmarked to launch the new league and another pounds 1m will go towards providing television coverage.

The European Hockey League will begin in September with the teams playing each other in midweek in a tournament that will culminate with semi-finals and finals late in January.

The new competition will replace the 30-year-old European Cup, which will continue but in a different format with Britain's Sheffield Steelers as home representatives.

That leaves both Sheffield and Manchester free to compete at weekends in another new competition, the British Super League, also scheduled to start in the autumn.

The format of the European Hockey League will resemble football's highly successful European Champions' League but only two reigning national champions will be included in the inaugural tournament - Lulea of Sweden and Jokerit Helsinki of Finland, though plans to include all of Europe's league champions will be phased in over several years.

But Manchester general manager, John Lawless, still intends to bring in another four or five players to strengthen his squad for these two demanding competitions.

Although the world's most powerful competition, the National Hockey League, will not be involved directly in the new European League, it has pledged to send a club to Europe in September 1997 to play in a three-team Super Cup against the European League champions and the winners of the European Cup.

The IIHF president, Rene Fasel, said he was aiming for an annual Super Cup that would eventually have the NHL's Stanley Cup champions against Europe's best clubs.

"This will take time, and I know the NHL has certain problems, but this is my dream," Fasel said.

"The European Hockey League and Super Cup are works in progress that will evolve over the next few years."