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ZSC Lions: The stroke of luck Denis Malgin

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ZSC Lions: The stroke of luck Denis Malgin

It is the luck of the ZSC Lions that Denis Malgin was not able to develop properly in the NHL. Now the attacker could lead the Zurich team to the tenth title in the club’s history against his former club Lausanne.

Unstoppable: Denis Malgin’s ZSC has not yet lost a game in this play-off.

Claudio Thoma / freshfocus

Denis Malgin has to wait briefly because there is a traffic jam in his interview marathon on Friday afternoon. He uses the time to ask his own questions: “Is Zurich actually a hockey city? Or are people more likely to go to football? Where is the greatest media interest in Switzerland?”

He doesn’t accept the reply that he should know best; he says: “I really can’t assess that.” And the definition is not easy either. Especially for someone who already played in Toronto, where ice hockey is a kind of substitute religion.

Perhaps the answer is already buried in the question, because Malgin, 27, is the figurehead of the ZSC Lions. Actually, the entire National League. The tabloids described the Swiss national player with Russian roots as a “star striker”, which is undoubtedly true. But, and this is the other truth, ZSC has only sold 186 jerseys with his name and number 62 on them since Malgin’s arrival in July. That’s not a typo.

It’s difficult to market individual players in ice hockey, in Europe anyway, because the really big names play in the NHL overseas. The spectators, at ZSC there were an impressive 11,244 on average in 26 qualifying games, rush to the show because they like a club or want to be entertained. The proportion of people who get a ticket because they want to see a single player is tiny.

750,000 dollars in the NHL – but the ZSC contract is more lucrative for Malgin

Such are the circumstances in Switzerland, in a league in which almost all clubs have a structural deficit because the horrendous player salaries can hardly be refinanced – certainly not through merchandising.

But that doesn’t diminish the sporting importance of a player like Malgin. The number 1 center is primarily responsible for the fact that ZSC is currently dominating the league: the Zurich team were confident qualifying winners. And have won all eight games in the play-offs so far. They are huge favorites in the duel with Lausanne HC that starts on Tuesday.

Malgin shouldn’t actually be here. In the summer of 2022 he left the ZSC to make another attempt in the NHL. He had dominated the local championship almost at will, the experts agree that he is actually underchallenged in Switzerland – and belongs in the best league in the world.

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But he wasn’t really happy either in Toronto or Colorado. He could have continued his adventure; there were offers to do so. But he decided to return to Zurich in 2023. Because he was tired of playing little and receiving little responsibility. And also because he started a family with his partner. Financially he is better off in Switzerland: Malgin earned $750,000 in the NHL in 2022/23. Because almost half of this goes to taxes and deductions, he earns more in Switzerland.

The opponents are no longer Los Angeles and Chicago, and you can no longer take a private jet to the away games where you stay in posh five-star hotels. The reality is Langnau and guest appearances at HC Ajoie on a Tuesday evening.

Malgin says: “Well, at Ajoie the hall is usually full and the audience is louder than in Los Angeles. I actually like that better. Of course, I hoped that I would receive more appreciation in the NHL. But it’s really not like I’m depressed now because I’m back in Switzerland. I love Zurich and the ZSC.”

His contract here runs until 2028 and he has committed not to accept any NHL offers until 2025, although the transfer agreement between the NHL and Switzerland would actually make this possible. But 2025 is coming soon, and Malgin will only be 28. It is quite possible that he will then have a chance to increase his total of 264 NHL appearances to date.

Someone who also sees it that way is the Latvian attacker Rudolfs Balcers, with whom Malgin hit it off almost straight away in Zurich – perhaps because the two communicate in Russian and keep each other entertained with insider punchlines. Balcers says: “With his speed and game intelligence, Malgin should actually play in the NHL. But if you’re not in the right place at the right time, you can quickly find yourself out of the window. Players like him and me have to have a role in the first three lines, otherwise it will be difficult.” Balcers speaks from his own experience: He also fell between chair and bench in the NHL after five years, which is the only reason he ended up at ZSC.

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The long wait for the tenth ZSC championship title

Malgin was already the Swiss World Cup top scorer, play-off top scorer and 2016 ZSC Cup winner. But he was a master: never. In 2022/23 he and the ZSC lacked a single win, but the team missed a 3-0 lead in the final against Zug.

He still finds the question of whether the lack of a championship medal increases his hunger for success strange. He says: “You want to win every title every year. At least that’s how it is for me. It’s never happened to me that I said to myself: OK, I’m a little less interested in this winter.”

That’s a pretty obvious explanation, but around the ZSC it can be seen that the longing has increased over the last few years. The last championship title dates back to 2018; it is too long a dry spell considering the fact that the ZSC has the most noble, most expensive squad in the league practically every season. On the black market, tickets for the finals are sometimes charged five times as much. It’s an indication that Zurich can be a hockey city after all.

Lausanne’s long road to the top

For many years, Lausanne HC has been considered a kind of sleeping giant in Swiss ice hockey. A club with the public appeal and the economic opportunities to become one of the heavyweights in the industry. After returning to the National League in 2013, it seemed only a matter of time before Lausanne would be competing for the title.

But the club often got in its own way. Windy investors misused it as an object of speculation; Owners like Canadian businessmen Ken Stickney (who almost sank EHC Kloten into bankruptcy with the Avenir Group) and Hugh Quennec (responsible for the forced relegation of Servette FC to the third-tier Promotion League in 2015) destabilized the club.

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The club currently belongs to the Russian-American financier Gregory Finger, a billionaire phantom of whom not a single picture exists on the Internet. Finger has lived in the region for a long time, and in 2020 he joined Lausanne with the Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala and the former player agent Petr Svoboda (who looked after Jaromir Jagr and Denis Malgin, among others).

Bakala and Svoboda have long been history; the latter was said goodbye in autumn 2022 after he had driven almost everyone in and around the club to the brink of despair with rapid changes of opinion. He was the ice hockey answer to Konrad Adenauer’s quip: “Why do I care about my chatter from yesterday?”

He wanted to explain his point of view to the NZZ three times after leaving the club. He always canceled the appointment at short notice. Svoboda now lives back in North America, from where he complained in a podcast in January that he had experienced “racism and hatred” in Switzerland, without providing any evidence.

Several of the transfers he was responsible for flopped; striker Michael Hügli, who was signed from Biel in 2022 for an annual salary of more than half a million francs, is mostly sitting in the stands in this play-off.

The highlight of the team, trained by Canadian Geoff Ward, who has been involved in the NHL for a long time, is the defense; It would be a surprise if too many goals were scored in the final series. Things are likely to get heated: the last play-off comparison between these teams in the quarterfinals of 2021 was completely derailed, with several players injured after some harsh attacks.

The first declarations of war could already be heard from Lausanne after the victory in the semi-final against Gottéron (4-1 win): “That was just the beginning,” said attacker Damien Riat. The national player’s optimism is in honor: In terms of quality, the ZSC is significantly better and has a broader staff.

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