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The Swiss league's 50-game season, beautiful setting and energetic crowds are an enticing draw for locked out NHL players.
The NHL lockout hasn't just driven players overseas. It's also driven hockey-starved fans to seek alternative leagues to follow.
One good one to keep track of is the Swiss league, the National League A (NLA), which is one of Europe's better-attended league and which has established something of a habit of attracting NHL stars when they're locked out.
San Jose Sharks star Joe Thornton and New York Rangers acquisition Rick Nash have both returned to Switzerland, where they won the championship with Davos during the 2004-05 lockout, but there are plenty more on the way.
What kind of league are they joining? Here's an overview of the top league in the small but wealthy Central European country.
The NLA consists of 12 teams that play a 50-game season, after which the top eight battle in a playoff tournament similar to the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs. The bottom four teams enter a relegation tournament with the second tier (National League B) champion, although that's no guarantee that an NLA team gets relegated.
Last year, all four bottom teams survived the tournament and avoided relegation. In fact, the last team to be relegated was Basel at the end of 2007-08.
Like international tournaments, the NLA works on a three-point system: Regulation wins are worth three standings points, overtime wins are worth two points, shootout wins (and overtime losses) are worth one point.
That's how you end up seeing last season's regular season champs, EV Zug, finishing with 98 points in a 50-game season while the last-place team, Rapperswil-Jona Lakers, managed only 48 points (and an ugly minus-73 goal differential at that).
As mentioned above, a team hasn't been relegated in five seasons now. The playoff champions are also fairly consistent too. The Zurich Lions won the title in 2011-12 despite finishing in seventh during the regular season. That was Zurich's fourth title since 2000, and they have combined with HC Davos, SC Bern and HC Lugano to cover all of the championships since 1999.
NHL Stars and Other Players
In any given year you'll see some marginal ex-NHL players dot the scoring leaderboard in the NLA. Rico Fata, Jeff Tambellini and Glen Metropolit are some of the NHL/AHL tweeners who have found success in the Swiss league. And of course no mention of the NLA is complete without referencing Hnat Domenichelli, the Edmonton-born former Hartford Whaler and Calgary Flame who has compiled over 350 points with several NLA teams since 2003-04.
This year, another NHL lockout means the return of more legitimate NHL stars like Nash and Thornton. In 2004-05, both of them found themselves in the top 15 in the league in scoring once they joined HC Davos, and this year they're with Davos again and off to a productive start.
Other prominent NHLers headed to the NLA during the lockout include Tyler Seguin (Biel), Jason Spezza (Rapperswil), Logan Couture (Geneva) and Tyler Ennis (Langnau), as well as Swiss nationals Mark Striet (Bern), Luca Sbisa (Lugano), Roman Josi (Bern) and Yannick Weber (Geneva).
Play and Popularity
Obviously the NLA does not measure up to NHL hockey, but NHLers don't simply run roughshod over the league when they show up.
Better yet, the league plays well and draws well for European leagues, drawing great crowds full of energy. (The video above is of a crowd for the Swiss national team, but it's representative of the energy at each club team's rink.)
Contracts can include a car and place to stay, so it draws good players looking to earn money playing hockey in a beautiful country. (Here is where we must note that Thornton met his Swiss wife during the last lockout.)
For locked out players, it's no NHL. But it will do for now.