Austria on hockey map

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:42 AM ET

VIENNA -- The rink organist doesn't dress like Mozart in a powdered wig, but club hockey in Austria is still something special.

Inside the naturally lit Albert Schultz Eishalle, near the Danube River, a slap shot from the centre of Europe's "most livable city" is the best of both worlds.

The appeal of Viennese culture is obvious, but so is the rapidly improving 10-team Erstebank Liga, which has caught the attention of many on both sides of the Atlantic.

Two ex-Maple Leafs have become prominent here --defenceman Ric Jackman, leaving the Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks for the big-budget Salzberg Red Bull, and forward Kelly Fairchild, moving to the Vienna Capitals after five years in Germany with the Berlin Polar Bears.

The Caps also have brought in ex-NHL centre Pascal Rheaume and goalie J.F. Labbe, and made a significant move behind the bench, where Moncton, N.B., native Kevin Gaudet takes over after years of coaching in Germany.

"(Germans were) definitely a serious sports-minded people, who either love you or hate you," Gaudet said with a laugh. "If their team loses, it's liked being stabbed in the heart.

"But this country and this city strike you as being more laid-back. I think the hockey will be great, but you also look at the location. Vienna is the perfect-sized big city, about 1.5 million people, an hour from Prague, an hour from Budapest, 30 minutes from Bratislava, 21/2 hours to the Alps and 41/2 to Venice. That's going to be an attraction (for new players).

"I think we'll be going with about (six) NHLers, who've played between 50 and 500 games."

Austrian advertising executive Hans Schmid is president of the Caps, which play a 36-game schedule against seven Austrian teams, two from Slovenia and one from Hungary.

"It's going to be pretty good hockey," said Fairchild, who played 23 games for Toronto in the mid 1990s before stints with Dallas and Colorado. "Maybe I left the NHL too early because they've now opened up the game for we smaller guys, but we have that same (offensive) style here."

The Caps draw a capacity 5,000 fans, but are in tough against Salzberg, controlled by billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, in addition to his soccer club and Formula One racing team. He's bent on beating out the Caps and Innsbruck Sharks and heightening the profile of the sport in his country.

Austria moved to a unique salary cap system this season, in which each team is allotted a maximum of 65 'points'. A good North American import is worth the most at four points, while an Austrian national counts for three and junior-aged players or back-up goalies represent one point. The goal is to introduce more native players to the national team through club hockey and gradually reduce the cap towards 60 points. Austrian youth and women's hockey is also on the rise.

The fall of the former USSR has made it tougher on Austria's development, as Belarus, Ukraine and Slovakia entered the world stage with competitive teams that have forced the nation to the B pool. But Austrian-born NHLers are making an impact, such as Tomas Vanek in Buffalo, Tomas Pock with the Rangers and Reinhard Divis, who departed the Blues to return to Salzberg.


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