Sunday, 19 July 2015

Valábik to bolster the Blaze blue-line

Valábik reached the Kazakh Final with Arlan last season,
scoring 20 points in 33 games in the process
Last week the Coventry Blaze got pulses racing when they announced the signing of 29-year old Slovak defenceman, Boris Valábik. The Nitra native, who stands a mightily impressive 201cm joins the Blaze with 80 NHL games to his credit as a member of the now-defunct Atlanta Thrashers, before returning to Europe in 2012. Most recently, Valábik plied his trade for Arlan Kokshetau in the Kazakh Championship, where he was signed as a replacement for Ben O'Connor (not directly, obviously), whilst also being a team-mate of former much-heralded Blaze blue-liner Dustin Wood.

Anyone with an internet connection has probably already seen some of Valábik's fight videos on YouTube, and that's not really my interest in this article here. I tweeted quite extensively on the day the Blaze signed Valábik. See below:

I watched Valábik a number of times whilst he played for Kometa Brno in 2012/13, and even on the big ice, in an incredible quick league such as the Czech Extraliga, Valábik looked more than competent. The simple fact is, that a guy of his size, with his nose for physicality, would be playing in the NHL if it weren't for his skating. However, in the EIHL, a much slower league than the majority of other European leagues, coupled with the smaller ice surface which he will play on for the majority of his games, I think this signing makes sense. Often the Devils are praised for signing a hard-nosed team for the "small ice" of the Big Blue Tent. Why not the Blaze in the case of Valábik?

Now. Where am I going with this? I don't particularly want to go too in depth with my critique/thoughts as I haven't seen the guy play live for two years, whilst also, if my opinions were 100% correct, I'd be in the hockey business rather than writing on a blog. Additionally, I feel that it is a little terse to comment on Valábik before the Blaze have completed their defence line-up, and to see how he compliments Godfrey, Jorgensen, Quesnele, Chalmers and (when he's available) Clements.

However, seeing as the Blaze press release lacked an interview with Valábik, and I stumbled upon an interview in Slovak with the Nitra native on a Slovak hockey site this evening (link: dated 14/07/2015) which I thought would be a good read for Blaze fans, especially as it reveals some rather interesting information.

(Ed note: Before I start, a quick note of thanks to Tomáš Kmec [@Tomas_Kmec] for his help in interpreting parts of the article beyond my literal translation skills. This translation will be by no means 100%, and I will always go for a looser translation more to do with the tone of the article. My additions are within square brackets)

Hokejportal: During the last season, in an interview with Hokejportal, you described some wild practices in Kazakhstan with Karaganda. After a few days you asked us to withdraw the interview from the site. Can you say the reasons a few months later?
Boris Valábik: The agent, whom I worked with in Kazakhstan, asked me to withdraw the interview. I don't know why exactly, but he simply asked me, so I agreed. It certainly was not a good advertisement [for the Kazakh League], and I did not want to cause harm. It was a Latvian who works in Kazakhstan.

HP:You were not going to play in Kazakhstan this season?
BV: Not really. The financial capacity of the clubs has reduced significantly, closely linked to the financial crisis and the oil price. The teams there are highly dependent on oil, and the possibilities to finance sport are therefore reduced. They want to provide sport for people, but it does not matter what the league quality will be. They are not willing to give a player more money despite reducing the import quota. Now a team can only have five foreigners. Last season teams could ice 11 imports in each game, and I think there was one team with 14 imports on their roster. When all can't play, it doesn't make for a good environment in the locker room because there are significant bonuses for winning games.

HP: What in the end made you decide to sign in Coventry?
BV: I signed only on Monday [last week], and Coventry confirmed it very quickly. I was surprised because I signed an open contract*. Until the end of July, there is the possibility of finding something else, I can go. I debated moving home to Nitra and I am still thinking. But I wanted to have something in my hand, so I signed for them [Coventry]. They met all my requests so much so that it would have been stupid for me not to sign with them. What I desired, they fulfilled. Whether it be financial, or anything else.

HP: The terms were very good?
BV: My agent was surprised how good they were. I had no reason to say no. I know nothing about the British League. I have received some information from former team-mates from my time overseas. They told me that the level is higher than expected. A month ago, I was talking with another British team [seemingly Sheffield], but I said no. In the end I gratefully accepted Coventry's offer. I might surprise myself, but I am still searching for a team as the contract is open.

HP: People say that the British League is poor
BV: They say that, but I don't listen. What people say is secondary for me. I cared when I was 18, but not now. Even when I played in the NHL, I found people swore at me. Whether I was at the World Championships, winning in the AHL, I always found some who saw something bad in me. If I gave in to what people said, I would never be drafted, I wouldn't have played in the NHL and would have been sitting in an office somewhere today. If I paid attention to the words of people, my life would have taken a completely different direction.

HP: You mentioned interest with Nitra, can you elaborate?
BV: I am still in touch with Miroslav Kováčik and we will certainly talk. I'm not denying that at all. I know a lot of the guys on the team right now, and Miroslav seems to me like a man in the right place. England gives me a better financial offer, but I'm at home in Nitra, playing in the Champions League. Everything has its pros and cons, I still have to decide.

Reading this first interview, I was intrigued about Valábik's contract situation and the concept of an "open contract". What I presume this to stand for is the typical two-week notice period that Valábik could, if he so chooses, hand in his two weeks notice, seemingly before the end of July, and sign with Nitra if they match the financial offer. It seems to be a bit of a strange scenario, but it remains to be seen. Clearly, this article is for a Slovak audience, so this perhaps explains the continued discussion of the option of moving to Nitra.

Valábik scored 1+2 on his debut for Piešťany in 2013,
including an overtime winner
Photo: TASR/Č
However, thankfully conducted another interview with Mr. Valábik at the time of the signing which provides more information about this "open contract", as well as who he snubbed in the lead up to signing in Coventry.

Pravda: Why did you decide to sign in Coventry?
Boris Valábik: The first word that comes to mind is stability. One month ago, I declined an offer from the Nottingham Panthers. However, I still kept the EIHL in mind. I began to take an interest and my former team-mates gave it praise. People from their club called me every day and convinced me that they wanted me. Most importantly, the club always pays its players on tie, the full amount.

Pravda: Were there other teams competing for your services?
BV: There were, and are still offers. I have a clause in my contract that if I receive a better deal I can leave. Currently I am debating an offer from Nitra. Playing at home is a massive draw. However, at my age, it is mainly about the money. I look at hockey pragmatically, I want to restart my career.

P: What do you know about the British EIHL?
BV: Firstly, I was surprised that a few hours after signing the contract, I received calls from my friends Branislav Mezei and Ivan Čiernik. The marketing is at a good level there. They immediately wanted me to have a Twitter account so I could interact with the fans. I heard that the league is physically tough, there are many foreign hockey players, and I won't shy away from fighting, although I have slightly calmed down. But I have always been the type to provoke things on the ice.

P: How will you remember your season in Kazakhstan?
BV: It was an interesting experience that opened my eyes. I went to Kazakhstan purely for the money. I went through three clubs. The whole sport and life in the country is linked to oil. As its price dropped, there was less money for sport and it has made a big impact on the league for next season.

P: You have had injury problems for a lot of your career, how do you deal with it?
BV: It's challenging. Few people know that I played almost my entire NHL career hurt. Torn pectoral muscle, shoulder sprains, a sprained ankle, which I convinced myself I could play with. Within five years I had six operations. I appreciate my health more now, especially now that I am healthy and I don't have any problems at present.

P: Have you reconciled with the enforcer label that followed you in the NHL?
BV: I was a defensive defenceman. I did not score a lot of points, so therefore the media only reacted when I fought. I was not a typical enforcer. I always defended team-mates when it was needed. I never started a fight over an argument or during the warm-up. I admit that maybe I was not able to concentrate on my normal game as much whilst I had such a reputation

[Ed: The interview goes on to ask a number of more questions about his NHL career, but I've limited it to just what I think is relevant for Valábik's time in the EIHL].

Obviously the picture is a little clearer with the help of that second interview. Valábik, like I think a large number of players in the EIHL has a clause (typical two-week release clause) which allows him to leave for a better offer. Therefore, I don't think this is anything for Blaze fans to get too worried about.

All in all, Valábik looks like he will be donning a Blaze jersey come September, and I can think of many of the Skydome faithful who will be delighted to see that, especially if he puts in performances like his debut for Piešťany in 2013/14. Two assists and the overtime winner:


Vítame vás, Boris. Veľa šťastia v Anglicku!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Around the Boards #3: Crisis in Zlín?

Welcome to Around the Boards, Velvet Hockey’s guide to the week that was in the Czech Republic and Slovakia hockey world. This week, Slovan picked up a new head coach, Zlín continued to struggle and Ryan Hollweg picked up a ten game ban.

Petri Matikainen named new Slovan coach
Former Avangard coach Matikainen takes the helm
Despite all the Miloš Říha was due to return to Slovan, the club announced this week that former Avangard Omsk head coach Petri Matikainen would take up the post as Slovan Bratislava head coach. Matikainen, who was previously the assistant coach of the Finnish side for two years, joins after a disappointing year where he lost two jobs, one at Avangard Omsk and the other at EBEL club Graz 99ers. The 37 year old left Finland in acrimonious circumstances in 2012, after HIFK sent players to Espoo Blues in order to secure his services, only for Matikainen to jump ship to the KHL (Credit to Antti Laurila, @supermurs for that story).

Slovan’s website quotes General Manager Maros Krajči in saying: "From the group of candidates for the position of head coach, we have chosen Petri Matikainen based on excellent references. He is an experienced Finnish coach, an excellent motivator and strategist, with the added bonus of experience on the bench at Avangard Omsk. Our new trainer promises to bring us a more attacking style, especially at home. A strong Slovan support team is already at Matikainen's disposal today, ready to do all they can to help him adapt to our country as quickly as possible."

Matikainen will get his first taste of KHL action later on Wednesday, as Slovan host Medveščak Zagreb at the Slovnaft Arena.

Zlín in crisis?
Zlín currently prop up the Extraliga after four straight losses
Photo: Jiří Zaňát,
It has not been a good start to the year for last season’s champions PSG Zlín. Despite keeping nearly the exact same roster from last season, it seems that a cloud is hanging over the Moravian club at the moment. Losses to Extraliga newboys Mladá Boleslav and Olomouc in the opening few games of the Extraliga season have taken the stuffing out of the champions, who on Tuesday night, were battered in Sweden 8-0 by Djurgården in the Champions Hockey League.

Now, there were some mitigating circumstances for the loss in Sweden, as veterans Petr Čajanek, Petr Leška and Ondřej Veselý did not travel, but it is endemic of a side whose defence has gone from being feared to looking as porous as a colander. Luboš Horčička conceded 6 goals on 18 shots against Djurgården.

In an interview posted on Tuesday, Ondřej Veselý said: ‘It would be more useful if we regenerate and rest in order to prepare for Friday’s home game with Pardubice. The worst part is the travel. If we were playing at home it would be something else. When I woke up at eight am, I remembered the guys were already on the road for three hours. I felt sorry for them.’

Speaking about his team’s rotten start to the season, where they currently sit bottom of the Extraliga without a point, Veselý added: ‘Maybe we underestimated the first games we played against the newcomers. It may be that in the middle you lose four times in a row. For us it has happened at the start of the season, and we hope we can improve soon' (source).

Sparta thrash Slavia while Karlovy Vary get going
Delight at the o2 Arena for Sparta as they thrash city rivals Slavia
Photo: Pavel Draslar,
Sunday saw the first Prague derby of the season take place, and it was bad news for Ladislav Lubina, as his charges capitulated in the first period and went down 5-2 at the o2 Arena against a rampant Sparta side. Sparta chased Dominik Furch from the game in the first period, as they ended the first period three goals to the good. After a false start to get the season underway, it looks like Sparta are starting to fire on all cylinders, as they have climbed up to 8th in the table. Slavia’s ill-discipline cost them the points, as Sparta scored three times with the man advantage. Goaltender Adam Svoboda, said after the game: 'We did not skate. Sparta skated great. We unfortunately just stood there and then the guys have to take penalties. If we do not play a disciplined game at 100% for 60 minutes, then we don’t have a chance against a team like Sparta'.(source). 

Another team who had a good week after a rotten start to the season was Karlovy Vary. The unfancied side from the spa town picked up their first two wins of the season to get off the bottom of the table. A 4-1 win over Sparta in Gameday 4 was followed by a close fought 2-1 win over early season flyers Hradec Kralove. In both games, 23 year old Vladislav Habal was in top form between the pipes. In the two games this week, he made 75 saves on 77 shots. Habal spent most of last season in the 2.liga with HC Banik Sokolov.

At the top of the table, Litvinov continue to set the pace picking up two more wins to give them a one point lead over Vitkovice. A Jiří Gula goal with just 14 seconds left in the third period gave the Bohemian side a 4-3 victory over Mladá Boleslav, before thrashing Kometa Brno 6-1 on Sunday. Vitkovice also had two wins out of two this week, edging fellow contenders Třinec and basement dwellers Zlín.

It is starting to look a bit grim for Olomouc though, as the Moravian newcomers lost to Kometa Brno and Pardubice this week. With only four points through five games, they have slipped into 13th place in the early Extraliga table.

Six point night for Patrik Moskal
In Czech 1.liga news, Salith Šumperk forward Patrik Moskal made headlines last Wednesday, as he picked up six points (2+4) in his side’s 7-4 victory over Motor Češke Budějovice. Moskal currently has 13 points through 5 games as Šumperk sit 5th in the 1.liga table.

The current pacesetters in the Czech second division are Horácká Slavia Třebíč, who are undefeated through five games. Hot on their heels are Benátky nad Jizerou and Stadion Litoměřice, with the latter having a remarkable defensive record thanks to the early season performances of Tomáš Kral, who has a save percentage of 96.5% through in the four games he has played for Litoměřice.

Piráti Chomutov have continued their rotten form from last season in the Extraliga, as they currently sit in 10th place having lost their last game against Benátky nad Jizerou. The other relegated Extraliga side, Rytíři Kladno, are searching for consistency but currently sit in 4th place in the table with three wins from five games. A 5-2 win last Wednesday was followed up by a lacklustre 2-0 loss to Češke Budějovice.

Player of the week: Martin Ručinský (HC Verva Litvinov)
Ručinský celebrates with Viktor Hubl, who just recorded
his 550th game in a Litvinov jersey
The oldest player in the Czech Extraliga is currently the best, as 43 year old Martin Ručinský takes this week’s accolade. The former NHLer picked up six points in two games, including a goal and three assists in Litvinov’s demolition of Kometa Brno on Sunday. Still, the Olympic gold medal winner from the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano was coy about his resurgence, saying, ‘I don’t care that much [about points]. The only points that interested me today are the three points we got as a team.’ Ručinský almost retired during the off-season but was convinced to take the ice for one more season by coaches Radim Rulík and Miloslav Hořava, and the Most native has repaid their faith as Litvinov currently sit top of the Extraliga table and Ručinský is currently the Extraliga’s top scorer (source).

This week’s pick of the action:
Friday: Kometa Brno vs Sparta Praha (17:20 GMT)
Sunday: Plzeň vs Hradec Kralove (16:30 GMT)

Tuesday: Poprad vs Banska Bystrica (16:00 GMT)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Plzeň’s Ryan Hollweg handed ten game ban

Another week and seemingly another ban for HC Škoda Plzeň’s Ryan Hollweg. The 31 year old American was handed the ban by the ČSLH (Czech Hockey Association) for his knee-on-knee hit on former teammate Tomáš Vlasák in the game against Slavia Praha at the o2 Arena on Friday. For Hollweg, it is another strike on his ever increasing Extraliga rap-sheet. An video of the incident can be found below:

With the speed that Hollweg barrelled into Vlasák, it is surprising that the Slavia forward didn’t come off worse for wear, and despite his lack of injury, Hollweg was still handed the maximum ten game penalty for a knee-on-knee hit. Quoting from the press release, the ČSLH ruled that Hollweg had intended to bodycheck Vlasák, but when the latter attempted to dodge the hit, Hollweg moved to make sure that he connected with Vlasák, with the result being a knee-on-knee hit.

This is not the first suspension for Hollweg this season, as he received a one match ban for an altercation in a game against Sparta Praha, where he gave Slovak forward Martin Reway a hiding in front of the Sparta bench (see below). This, along with Hollweg’s previous suspensions were taken into account by the ČSLH in deciding the severity of the ban.

It is interesting to note that in an interview after the game, Vlasák said, “He is not a malicious player. It was a penalty, but I do not think it was an attempt to injure”

Hollweg has truly made a name for himself
in the Czech Republic in his two seasons
Photo: Milan Podpera,
Hollweg, who has over 200 NHL games to his credit, moved to the Czech Republic in 2012, and has been taken to heart by the Plzeň faithful, who love his bang and crash style, which few have tried before in the Extraliga. In his first season with the club, Plzeň won the Czech Extraliga, and was given a relatively large amount of ice time by the club. Last season it was a different story, as a serious injury brought an end to the Downey, California native’s year after only 20 games, in which he tallied four points.

It is unfair to call Hollweg a loose cannon, as consistently through his Extraliga career, he has been physical but has largely toed the line. 180 penalty minutes through 60 games before this season is not what one would call excessive, and it seems that the ČSLH have thrown the book at him.

It was a nasty knee-on-knee hit, which could have been a lot worse. It definitely deserved some form of suspension, but I feel that ten games is somewhat excessive for Hollweg. In addition, Slavia’s Michal Poletín, who attempted to confront Ryan Hollweg, was handed a fine for his part in the fracas. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Čada calls time on Slovan career

Hockey fans in Bratislava woke up to a shock this morning, as Slovan Bratislava announced on their website that the team and head coach Rostislav Čada had come to an agreement over the termination of the latter’s contract. For all intents and purposes it appears that Čada asked to be released from his contract rather than being fired by the club.

Photo from Rostislav Čada's last game in charge of Slovan
Čada has had a mixed bag of success since joining Slovan Bratislava in 2012, upon their entry to the KHL. The Czech born coach had floundered with Avangard Omsk, but found his niche with a battling Slovan side, and whilst his brand of defensive hockey may have been dour at times, it did get results. Slovan’s first season in the KHL was an unmitigated success, as the team with one of the smallest budgets in the KHL made it to the Gagarin Cup Playoffs.

However, Jaroslav Janus and the rest of Slovan’s capitulation to Dinamo Moscow in the 2012/13 playoffs set the tone of things to come, and last season was one of frustration at the Slovnaft Arena. The sole Slovak team in the KHL toiled but could only finish 11th in the Western Conference, meaning it was the Nadezhda Cup rather than the Gagarin Cup they were playing for.

Despite this, Rostislav Čada’s time in Bratislava will be well remembered, as he managed to make what should’ve been a struggler, into a competitor. Slovan have consistently punched above their weight against the giants of Russian hockey, and Čada’s style of play has been an integral part of the club picking up historic victories over the likes of SKA St. Petersburg, Ak Bars Kazan and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. Over the past two seasons, Čada’s brand of counter-attacking hockey, relying on the speed of players like captain Milan Bartovič and Libor Hudáček has proven successful, especially when paired with the incredible performances of Jaroslav Janus, especially in 2012/13.

The announcement on Slovan Bratislava’s webpage is as follows:
“HC Slovan Bratislava thanks Rostislav Čada for the honesty and responsibility he showed during his 29-month tenure in Bratislava for our cub. We wish him every success in his future work and private life."

Without wishing to enter the realm of counter-factual reporting, Slovan’s recent turn in results may have convinced Čada that he had achieved all that he could have with his limited resources. After three wins out of three to start the current campaign, Slovan’s luck has turned, and most recently a toothless 3-0 loss on home ice to strugglers Severstal Cherepovets may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Slovan's fans have supported the team in their droves, yet
budgets remain tight at the Slovnaft Arena
To try and give some context to Slovan’s financial battle, GM Maroš Krajči announced last week that Slovan’s budget for the coming KHL season would be €13million. Using figures compiled by, for the 2013/14 season, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alexander Radulov make €8million and €5.8million respectively on their own. What’s more, no Slovan players featured in the top-90 paid KHL players according to the same website. According to official figures released by the KHL Slovan’s budget was the second lowest in the KHL last season, a startling seven times less than top spenders SKA St. Petersburg. Within this environment, it is a miracle that Čada was even able to get Slovan to the playoffs in the first place.

Vladimir Országh becomes Slovan's interim coach
along with Ján Lipianský
Slovan announced that their interim coaches would be former NHLer Vladimir Országh and former Slovan fan favourite Ján Lipianský, who played for the club during their first KHL campaign before hanging up the skates. While this coaching pair will only have the job temporarily, it will be interesting to see how the team performs under the tutelage of the pair. Országh is being tipped as one of Slovakia’s best young coaches and will potentially be given the job when current national team coach Vladimir Vůjtek leaves the post. Országh had spent the last two seasons as head coach of Banska Bystrica in the Slovak Extraliga, and was named assistant coach of the Slovak national team in the summer of 2013 as a nod towards his potential. Still only 37 years of age, Országh has a lot to learn, but getting thrown in at the deep end may not be the worst thing for the former Nashville Predator.

It doesn’t get much tougher for Országh, Lipianský and Slovan as they look to break their three game losing streak against Alexander Radulov and his CSKA Moscow side at the Slovnaft Arena on Saturday. CSKA have won five games out of six so far this season, whilst a Slovan loss may see the team fall out of the playoff positions already.

I, for one, will miss Čada. I think he did a fantastic job with what he had before him, and has made Slovan into a competent and competitive KHL team. I’m going to miss seeing him on the bench at the Slovnaft Arena, where peculiarly he stood in front of his players, right at ice level. Who knows what is next for the Brno native, but Velvet Hockey wishes him all the best.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Around The Boards #2: Unlikely Leaders

Welcome to the second edition of Around The Boards, Velvet Hockey’s weekly digest giving the lowdown on all the biggest news from the Czech and Slovak hockey worlds. Both the Czech and Slovak Extraligas got underway over the weekend, and there are some unlikely faces at the top of both leagues. However, the weekend was a tragic one with Slovak hockey.

Slovakia still coming to terms with tragedy
Miroslav Hlinka
It is with great sadness that despite the great action on the ice this weekend, I begin this week’s Around The Boards dealing with events that have taken place away from hockey. The Slovak hockey world is without three major figures this week, as two former players and the long-serving Slovak national team doctor Vladimir Luptak passed away. Velvet Hockey discussed this in depth on Monday, following the details of the suicide of former Nitra player Miroslav Kováčík, two days after Miroslav Hlinka also took his own life. Hlinka, a World Champion with Slovakia in 2002, was due to take up the assistant coach’s role at Banska Bystrica.

The news has resulted in a large amount of soul-searching in both countries, as fans and officials alike attempt to come to terms and ascertain the reasons behind the tragedy. No news has been forthcoming since Velvet Hockey posted its reaction to the deaths on Monday. 

Slovan quickly unravelling
Slovan Bratislava got off to a fantastic start to their third KHL campaign. Velvet Hockey waxed lyrically about the KHL’s sole Slovak participant, after the won their first three games of the season. However, the wheels have come off somewhat this week, as losses to Ak Bars Kazan, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod and Severstal Cherepovets, the latter of which was a dire 3-0 defeat on home ice.

Ladislav Nagy continues to lead the line, having scored five times in six games, but the likes of Michal Vondrka, Rok Tičar and Tomáš Surový have flattered to deceive in front of goal. Jaroslav Janus got his first action of the season in Slovan’s shootout loss to Torpedo, and acquitted himself well, but looked average in their capitulation to Severstal, which leads me to believe that Johan Backlund will start for Slovan’s next game against CSKA Moscow, which comes after a brief four game break. Slovan will be boosted by the return from injury of new defenceman Kurtis Foster, who played for Medveščak Zagreb last season.

Cancelled games cause problems in CZ and SK

Banska Bystrica got the game postponed, but
Zvolen were awarded the three points
Photo: TASR
The first weekend in the Czech and Slovak Extraligas brought some peculiarities, including two games that were postponed whilst in play. In Slovakia, Zvolen hosted Banska Bystrica on the first gameday of the season, but the game was postponed with only ninety seconds to go due to flares let off by the Banska Bystrica fans as Zvolen led 4-3. It was a miraculous comeback by Zvolen, who had been 3-0 down in the third period, and as tensions ran high in the Banska Bystrica fan section. The smoke from the flares which were set off covered the ice in smoke, and despite the officials giving an hour’s grace, the smoke would not dissipate. Vladimír Baluška, one of the referees, said in an interview, “We saw how the smoke spread and the situation is unusual and dangerous meaning we had to interrupt the game as we have to protect the player’s health. This is the first time we have encountered such a situation.” The SZLH ruled later that the result would stand, handing Zvolen the 3 points. (source)

Unplayable conditions at the Kajot Arena
Photo: Ivo Dostal
Lack of visibility was also the culprit at the Kajot Arena in Brno, as Kometa’s game against PSG Zlin, which was being broadcast live on the major sport channel in the Czech Republic (ČT Sport) was brought to a halt after just 13 minutes. A warm September in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia has made mist a problem in many arenas. The fog was especially bad at the end where Kometa were attacking, and Zlin’s goaltender Libor Kašík was notably animated. There was no score in the game before it was postponed.

Zlín still without a win
Libor Kašík hits the deck in Zlín's season opener
Photo: Jiří Zaňát
The cancelled game at the Kajot Arena has left Zlín in a rather sorry state, as the defending Extraliga champions currently sit in 13th place after three gamedays. The Moravian side started the season in perhaps the worst possible way, looking average as Extraliga new boys Mladá Boleslav humiliated them 5-2 at the Zimni stadion Luďka Čajky. It didn’t get much better on Tuesday, as other Extraliga newcomers HC Olomouc, defeated their Moravian rivals to claim their first Extraliga win under their belt. Zlín went 2-0 up in the first period through goals from Bedřich Köhler and new signing Roman Vlach, but Olomouc rallied back in the third second period to take an unassailable 3-2 lead. Defensively, Zlín look fragile, and that’s not something that you would have thought after they retained all of their defensive unit bar Petr Zamorský. Certainly more will be expected from last season’s top Extraliga goalie Libor Kašík, who has conceded eight goals in two games and a save percentage well below 90%

Litvinov and Mladá Boleslav impress, while Sparta splutter
The first three gamedays have left my Extraliga preview looking rather silly, as two of the teams that I had pencilled in to finish in the bottom four, are in first and third place respectively. Whilst Zlín’s goaltending has been a problem, current league leaders Litvinov have arguably the best goaltender in the Czech Republic. Pavel Francouz, who was Litvinov’s one shining light in a dreadful season last year, has continued his fine form, picking up three wins out of three. The 24-year old shutout bottom of the table Karlovy Vary in the first game, before shutting up shop in the shootout as the side from North Bohemia defeated both Plzeň and Třinec. Both victories are massive scalps for a side desperate to get back into the playoffs.

Mladá Boleslav yet to lose in the Extraliga this year
Photo: Jan Pavlíček,
Despite all of their summer signings, it is the old boys at Mladá Boleslav who are leading the charge. The 1.liga champions have taken to the Extraliga like a duck to water, and have won two games out of three in what was an incredibly tricky start to their return to the Czech top flight. Their aforementioned win against Zlín was followed by a loss in Pardubice, but on Monday the side got their first win against Sparta at the Tipsport Arena in their history. Former Sparta captain Michal Broš had a goal and an assist and Tomáš Klimenta bagged a brace as Mladá Boleslav battled to a 4-3 victory. Tomáš Hyka and Dominik Pacovský have struggled to adapt to their new surroundings though, as Mladá Boleslav’s two major summer acquisitions only have one point between them so far.

Sparta’s loss to Mladá Boleslav sums up what has been a so-so start to the season. Despite sitting top of an extremely tight Group G in the Champions Hockey League, Sparta have already lost two games this season, with Mountfield Hradec Kralove picking up a solid 3-1 victory on home ice against last season’s regular season champions. The pieces are there but it doesn’t seem that Josef Jandáč has worked out how best to use his abundance of talent. As defenceman Michal Barinka said following the loss to Mladá Boleslav, “We have to start from zero. The results will come.” Sparta will be hoping that the results will come, especially with the first Prague derby of the season being on Sunday.source)

Zvolen leading the way
In Slovakia, the surprise league leaders after four games is Zvolen, who are the only team in both countries to still have a 100% record. In front of goal, Zvolen have been imperious, netting 13 times in the three games. Most remarkably, the team already has twelve different goal scorers to its name, as Andrej Podkonický is the only player to have found the back of the net twice. Despite their loss to Zvolen, Poprad are currently in second place, a remarkable achievement for a club dogged by financial uncertainty. The side from the Tatras has gone through a number of difficult years especially following the failed Lev Poprad project, are at least doing the business on the ice. Tomáš Sýkora already has three goals to his name. Defending champions Košice sit in third place after three games where they have only conceded eight goals.

Player of the week: 
Michal Hlinka
Michal Hlinka (HK Dukla Trenčín)
Any other week would’ve been Litvinov’s goaltender Pavel Francouz, but special mention must go to Michal Hlinka, the son of Miroslav Hlinka. The 21-year old forward has dealt with the death of his father like a man far beyond his years, and continues to train and even featured for the club in Tuesday’s victory against Skalica. Richard Lintner, who plays for Dukla and was a national team teammate with Michal’s father for a number of years said, “We, Dukla, are Michal’s second family and we stand by him and will try to create the conditions to help him as a young male support his family.” All games in Slovakia were marked by a moment of silence before faceoff on Tuesday. (source)

Play of the week: Ladislav Nagy (Slovan Bratislava)
This week, we turn to the KHL and Ladislav Nagy’s beautiful coast-to-coast goal against Ak Bars Kazan. Sadly, Slovan couldn’t pick up the win, losing 4-3 in a close fought game, but this goal by Nagy will live long in the memory.

This week’s pick of the action:
Friday: Mladá Boleslav vs Litvínov (16:30 GMT)
Saturday: Slovan Bratislava vs CSKA Moscow (16:30 GMT)
Sunday: Slavia Praha vs Sparta Praha (17:20 GMT)

Monday, 15 September 2014

Deaths send shockwaves through Slovak hockey

The first weekend of a new season is where all the hope and optimism generated during four months without hockey comes together. Fans go into the year hoping for the best, and while for some it will be a season of success, for others, this may just be the only happy time during the whole season… Well until at least it ends.

However, Slovakia is waking up on Monday morning to the news that three people within the hockey world have passed away over the course of the weekend. The deaths of Miroslav Hlinka, Miroslav Kováčík and long-time Slovak national team doctor Vladimir Luptak, all before their time, has left a number of questions to be answered and has cast a sombre veil down on Slovak hockey. Hlinka and Kováčík took their own lives, whilst Luptak, who died following a long battle with illness. He was 50 years of age.

Miroslav Hlinka won gold with Slovakia in 2002
Photo: Imago/East News
Miroslav Hlinka was one of Slovakia’s premier European-based players during the first decade of the 21st century. The Trenčín native learned his trade with his home town Dukla, before movig first to the Czech Republic, and then on to the rest of Europe. He played for Sparta Praha for four seasons, before having a prolific career in Finland with Jokerit, Sweden with MODO and Russia with Dinamo Moscow. Wherever he went, Hlinka brought success, having won the Czech Extraliga in 2004, Finnish and Swedish silver medals in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Most notably, Hlinka was a member of the famous Slovak team which won IIHF World Championship Gold in Sweden in 2002. He scored two points in the tournament which is still down in the history books as Slovakia’s greatest hockey triumph.

Cousin of former NHLer and prolific forward Jaroslav Hlinka, Miroslav Hlinka was more than just an on-ice force. He was given the captaincy at Pardubice and Chomutov, and kept on playing into his 43rd year, as he spent last season in the Slovak 1.liga with HK Trnava, before hanging up the skates and taking an assistant coaching position with Slovak Extraliga team, Banska Bystrica.

In an interview with Czech press, Jaroslav Hlinka said that he found out about his cousin’s death immediately after Sparta Praha’s 3-1 loss to Hradec Kralove on Sunday. “When I heard the news, I began to remember our experiences. When I was younger, Miro was like a big brother. He played hockey and I looked up to him. We did not grow up together, but when I knew that he was a good hockey player…I guess, in public, Miro always appeared chilled, but probably was hiding something.”

Tributes came from other major figures within Slovak hockey. Hlinka’s teammate from his time with the Slovak national team, Ladislav Nagy, said, ‘I’m shocked. We were in contact when we [Slovan Bratislava] played in Banska Bystrica during preseason. He looked fine then. I don’t understand what happened.”

Additionally, HC Košice defenceman and also fellow national team teammate Martin Štrbák said, “When someone leaves the world who you know very well, it is very sad. I don’t know what was the cause, but he must have suffered greatly … Miro was my roommate at the World Championships when in 2002 we became the world champion and we got together three medals. It is difficult for me to talk about. I’m in shock. I do not have words.”

News of Miroslav Kováčík's death broke Monday
Most recently, news broke on Monday morning about another Slovak hockey player taking his own life, as forward Miroslav Kováčík passed away at the age of 35. Born in Nitra, Kováčík had a prosperous career which saw him play in Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He also featured for Slovakia at three World Championships. Last season, he was part of the HK Nitra team who were beaten finalists in the Slovak Extraliga, with Kováčík scoring 20 goals during the regular season. The news was broken by MHK Dubnica, for whom both Hlinka and Kováčík both worked for in off-ice capacities.

This recent blow to Slovak hockey has left many asking the same questions which emerged following the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien three years ago. It just may be that the timings of these deaths were coincidence, but the fact that hockey players continue to be plagued by ailments such as depression is something that still needs addressing.

More news will come in due course as investigations take place into all three deaths which have dealt a body blow to Slovak hockey this weekend. The words tragedy and saddening have been used in the Slovak press as adjectives to describe the deaths of Hlinka, Kováčík and Luptak, which perfectly captures the shock and grief that is now with Slovak hockey fans.

Quotes come from here and here

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Around The Boards #1: Time to play the game

Welcome to Around The Boards, Velvet Hockey’s new weekly digest out every Wednesday giving the lowdown on all the biggest news from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. With the hockey season in its embryonic stages, today’s ATB takes a look at Slovan’s scintillating start, Kladno’s new life in the 1.liga and a brief Slovak Extraliga season.

Slovan Bratislava flying high on the road
Three games, three wins. Slovan have started in top gear
It is fair to say that last season was somewhat of a disappointment for Slovan Bratislava. The team impressed in their debut season in the KHL, before crashing to eventual Gagarin Cup champions Dinamo Moscow, but last year Slovan struggled to gain any sort of momentum and missed out on the postseason. The team has strengthened, especially defensively, during the offseason, and it looks like a new lease of life has been given to Rostislav Čada’s team, as they currently sit third in the Western Conference with a 100% start.

Two of the keys to Slovan’s hot start have been new signings Ladislav Nagy and Johan Backlund. Nagy, who split last season with HC Košice and Jokerit in the Finnish Liiga, signed for the club after making his return to the Slovak national team after a three year absence. Somewhat of a journeyman since his return from the NHL, Nagy appears to be enjoying an Indian summer as the 35 year old has found the back of the net four times in three days. He had the best debut possible for his new team, scoring a hattrick at the Slovnaft Arena as Slovan defeated Medveščak 5-2 in their opening game.

Nagy would also score the game winner for Slovan against reigning Gagarin Cup champions Metallurg Magnitogorsk, an incredible result on the road for the Slovak side. Most recently, they scraped a 3-1 victory over Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg.

Key to all three of these victories has been the performance of new Swedish goaltender, Johan Backlund. After two seasons, Slovan finally realised that they had to spend some money in order to get a quality backup for Jaroslav Janus, who has been prone to suffer from burnout due to his heavy workload during the regular season. Backlund was given the start against Medveščak and has kept his place in Slovan’s other two games so far. Whilst not the most convincing goaltender, and prone to conceding a soft goal such as Metallurg’s opener on Sunday, Backlund has been on the whole stellar, and a 93.2% save percentage is nothing to sniff at. I will admit that when his signing was announced, I was rather wary following his disappointing numbers for Vityaz Podolsk last season, but the 33 year old Swede is proving both me and other doubters wrong with his play so far.

Slovan will be looking to keep up their good form today as they face Ak Bars Kazan in the final game of their opening three game Russian road trip. The side from Bratislava should enter the game with little fear though, as they have a good record over their Tatar opposition, however, one should bank on the game going to overtime, as all of the games over the last two years between the two teams have ended equal after 60 minutes.

Drop that puck
HK Poprad kicked off the SK Extraliga
season with a 4-2 win over HK Orange 20
League action is finally underway in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Slovak Extraliga kicked off with a game between HK Orange 20 and Poprad, who just about managed to gain entry back into the league after another summer of financial problems. They were given an extension to apply for their Extraliga licence, and fortunately the club from the Tatras managed to complete all their obligations in time. Poprad ran out 4-2 winners with Tomáš Sýkora bagging a hattrick. Marquee summer signing Luboš Bartečko, Lev Poprad’s captain back in 2011/12, added two assists on his return to the Slovak Extraliga.

It has been somewhat a stranger summer in the Slovak Extraliga, and a number of veterans have returned to their native land. Dukla Trenčín, rebuilding after a disasterous year where they finished ninth last season, picked up former Slovak national team regular Branko Radivojevic, as well as signing former Extraliga winning goaltender, Branislav Konrád, looking to get his career back on track after Slovan had to leave him behind in their jump to the KHL. Richard Lintner also returns after splitting last season with Dukla and Dinamo Minsk.

Other big signings in the Slovak Extraliga this summer include Milan Kytnar moving to Banska Bystrica, Radoslav Illo returning from seven years in North America to sign for Martín and Žilina’s signing of Jaroslav Kristek.

Košice look favourites to win the Extraliga, although one would be remiss to ignore Nitra. Jozef Stümpel was in fantastic form last season, scoring 67 points and leading Nitra to the Extraliga finals, where they eventually lost in seven games to Košice. Now 42 years of age, Stümpel signed on late in the summer for another season with his hometown club, with the hope of delivering Nitra its first Extraliga title.

Kladno start off life in the 1.liga with a win
Jaromir Jágr behind the bench at Most
Photo: Tomáš Kostečka,
There has been a lot of soul searching at Kladno over the summer, as the Knights (Rytiři) have been licking their wounds following their relegation from the Extraliga in rather calamitous circumstances. Team owner Jaromir Jágr was on the bench as Kladno began their promotion campaign in Northern Bohemia, where they took on Most. A third period brace from Jan Eberle helped Kladno secure a 5-1 victory on the road.

It has been a summer of change for Kladno, not least as captain of seven seasons, Pavel Patera, left the club to keep his Extraliga career alive with new boys HC Olomouc. Tomáš Kaberle’s return to the NHL also leaves a massive void in the defensive unit, as does Třinec’s signing of the Doudera brothers.

News in Brief:
In some of the least surprising news ever, Slavia today announced that top scorer and all round good guy Jaroslav Bednář will be the team’s captain for the coming Extraliga season after Petr Kadlec left for Plzeň. The 37 year old forward, who angered the Sešívani whilst still a youngster after making the cross city switch to Sparta, will start his ninth season with Slavia with the C on his jersey after being an alternate captain last season. (source)

ŠHK 37 Piešťany president Jaroslav Lušňák announced this week that the EBEL was now a “closed door” for the club. Piešťany are the Slovak Extraliga’s newest club, having joined the Slovak top tier two seasons ago and have taken like a duck to water, reaching the playoff semi-finals twice in two years. Whilst still plugging away in the 1.liga ŠHK 37 attempted for three seasons to gain entry to the EBEL, only to be denied permission by the Slovak Federation. “It certainly would not have been a bad thing that we would have represented the whole of Slovakia, but what happened, happened, and we are happy we can play in the Extraliga”, added Lušňák. Piešťany also felt the financial pinch over the offseason, and budgets look to be lower there for the coming season. (source)

HC Olomouc have strengthened once more following my preview three weeks ago that pencilled them in to finish bottom of the Extraliga table. Petr Fiala's team have just announced they have penned a deal with Slovak forward Martin Cíbak, who split last season with Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk and Vityaz Podolsk of the KHL, scoring 15 points in 54 games. Cibak has represented Slovakia at two World Championsips and was a member of the 2010 Olympic roster. (source)

Finally, all signs are pointing towards Martin Ručinský signing on for one more season with Litvinov. A number of Czech journalists on Twitter today have confirmed Ručinský's signing. The 43 year old played 45 times for Litvinov last season, scoring 27 points. He looks set to join Jiří Šlegr on the North Bohemian team's roster. (source)

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The Czech Extraliga is arguably the best for live free streaming in the whole hockey world, as every Extraliga game is streamed live, for free on their media platform ( The quality of the live picture has improved year on year, and there are commentators present at every game. It is already the best hockey in the world, and it is a bonus that they provide such a good service for fans. These streams are not locked geographically and no sign up is required!

This week's pick of the action
Wednesday: Ak Bars Kazan vs Slovan Bratislava (16:30 GMT)
Friday: Třinec vs Pardubice (17:20 GMT)
Sunday: Nitra vs Piešťany (16:00 GMT)
Tuesday: Slovan Bratislava vs Severstal Cherepovets (18:00 GMT)