Six months after Cocks Riihimäki won the Baltic Handball League’s 2015/16 season, we are beginning again. A new season in BHL starts this weekend and it will be a historical one, as for the first time teams from six different nations will take part, after ZTR Zaporozhye becomes the first Ukrainian club to play in BHL!
Clubs from three Baltic States, Finland and Belarus have been familiar faces in BHL for years, but ZTR definitely brings quality and more excitement to the league. Furthermore, with SKA Minsk and Granitas-Karys Kaunas still among participants, for the first time BHL has three former European Cup winners in the league!
Urmo Sitsi: ZTR will make BHL stronger
“ZTR was already interested last year, but then we did not manage to find an agreement,” says BHL’s manager Urmo Sitsi. “This time the Ukrainian club announced about their firm interest very early and I am very happy, that through their participation the BHL will get stronger.”
“The reasons behind ZTR’s participation were clear – lack of top level matches in the domestic league. We also held negotiations with another club from Zaporozhye, Ukrainian league fourth-placed team ZNTU-ZAS, but did not come to an agreement,” adds Sitsi.
Compared to last season, another newcomer – or rather returning team – is VHC Šviesa Vilnius, who joins the BHL after one-year break. Among the participants are champions of Estonia, Finland and Latvia, but also runners-up from all three Baltic countries, Belarus and Ukraine.
New system brought a new winner
BHL system for the 2016/17 remains the same after going through major changes before last season. “11 teams were divided into two groups, four best from each group will qualify to the quarter-finals. Those eight will then determine in two-legged quarter-finals the participants of the Final Four,” explains Sitsi.
Manager of the BHL adds that the changes made before last season proved to be very successful: “We had very interesting season and even when four best teams might be clear before final matches, the fight for a better position and possibly weaker opponent in the quarter-final continues.”
The Final Four of last season was played in Põlva and for the first time in BHL history, Cocks Riihimäki triumphed as a winner, beating the champion of previous three years SKA Minsk in the final. Serviti Põlva finished third after overcoming Granitas-Karys Kaunas in the bronze-medal match.
Group of champions and group of runner-ups
Title-holder and Finnish champion Cocks will start in Group B, where also the other two domestic champions – Serviti and Tenax Dobele – were drawn. Group B consists five teams and the remaining two come from Lithuania, last year’s domestic cup-winner Granitas-Karys and the returning Šviesa.
In Group A we have curiously all five domestic runners-up of the 2015/16 season – Dragunas Klaipeda, Celtnieks Riga, HC Viljandi, ZTR and SKA. Estonian cup-winner HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper completes the six-team group.
“The rules of BHL are in principle the same as last season with all matches to be held on the territory of three Baltic countries, except the head-to-head games between ZTR and SKA,” confirms Sitsi. “However, we also reached an agreement between Group B clubs, that title-defender Cocks can play this season at home, in Riihimäki, as they will compensate the travelling costs for the visiting clubs.”
The matches of 2016/17 BHL season will kick off on Saturday in Viljandi, Kehra, Dobele and Riihimäki, followed by four more matches on Sunday. More detailed preview of the first weekend will be published tomorrow.