Saturday, 3 November 2012

The true cost of racism.

Earlier this week I made a post the day following the news broke regarding racist chants directed at Bili Tygri Liberec forward Wayne Simmonds. Chants of 'opice' (monkey) at Simmonds dominated the news following the game between his Liberec side and Pirati Chomutov, with the fans of Chomutov accused of directing these chants at the Philadelphia Flyers forward . These fans have already been handed lifetime bans by the club, however, there has yet to be any concrete proof linking these fans to the racist abuse directed at Simmonds.

Wayne Simmonds scored twice against Kometa after
being subject to racist taunts against Chomutov
Photo: Joerg Stephan
I have conversed numerous times with a Chomutov fan Jirka Malis, on twitter (Follow him @, and I spoke to him about this incident in detail. Jirka, a passionate follower of Pirati Chomutov, gave me a different perspective on what happened during the game with Liberec. Of course, after I saw the news break on the Czech sites, I was disgusted at the fact that Simmonds had been subject to racist abuse, but there is more to this scenario that meets the eye.

To start with, it is right to give the fan culture in the Czech Republic some context. In terms of the Chomutov fans, Jirka gives me a correct example, in the fact that he divides the fans into three main groups. Firstly, you have what are described as the "passive fans" or the happy clappers, who only cheer when the team are winning. Secondly, you have the passionate fans who love their hockey. The drummers, the people who lead the majority of the chants. This is the group that Jirka identifies himself in, and these are the fans who on the whole, make the Czech Extraliga such a great league to watch because of the atmosphere generated by these fans. Thirdly, you have the "nationalist core" (or for the purpose of this article, the "deep core"). These people, supporting their far right ideology no doubt excerpt influence on the politics of their local region, but on the whole they appear to make their fans cheer louder in the games, and make sure that even when the side is losing, the fans are giving their all to support their team, Pirati Chomutov.

Following the game against Liberec, the clubs official Facebook posted that they would not accept the word "monkey" at their stadium any more, and a number of Chomutov fans were asked to testify against members of the deep core as arrests were made following the game. In fact, members of the deep core were kept locked for over thirty hours following their arrest and questioning by the local police following the game against Liberec. This situation got so drastic that a large proportion of the Chomutov deep core refused to attend their 5:3 victory against Trinec following the heavy handed action of the local police against a minority of Chomutov fans. Five people from the Chomutov fan group were arrested, as well as named and shamed on nationwide telvision as a result of the case brought against them following the game against Liberec.

I do not condone racism by any means, and I believe that criminal cases should be brought against those who have been proven to have racially abused Wayne Simmonds last Sunday's game against Liberec. However, what I do not agree with is the heavy handedness of the Czech police and the club in the wake of this incident. It is embarrassing for both Pirati Chomutov and the Czech Republic that the event happened, but it is completely unsuitable for good, passionate fans of Chomutov, who are not proven of racism, to be feel like they are cast aside as the fall out from the incident takes place. People who have refused to testify against the racists as a result of shaky evidence fear for their position as a member of the fanclub because of the fact that they did not see the people who started the chant, and that they only heard it take place. Is it right that these fans of Pirati, who spend such a large proportion of their wages on following their club, at home and away, are threatened by lifetime bans because they refuse to testify against people whose alleged crimes are not 100% proven?

It is embarrassing for both club and country that what happened, happened. However, by being heavy handed, it could end up harming the club, and the country, a lot more than taking a step back and evaluating the situation from an objective point of view. There are clearly two points of view here, the club's view, which states that the fan club is a harbringer of racist activity, and the fans point of view, which is that the majority are being punished for the actions of the minority. Obviously I do not know what is right, and as I have previously stated, it is disgusting that Simmonds should be treated to the taunts that he was subject to in Chomutov. However, I don't feel that the heavy handed approach proposed by both the club, Pirati Chomutov, and the Czech police will serve to eradicate these racist tendencies. This heavy handed approach, of handing banning orders to fans who have yet to be proven of committing the acts will only serve to make an already disgruntled populace, even more agitated.

We can all point the finger from our point of view, but the Czech Republic has been living under different conditions to the Western world for a good fifty years before 1989, and even then the differences in culture between the Czech Republic and what was previously described as the "First World" are deeply rooted within the populace.

There are no winners from this situation, only losers.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Racist chants directed at Simmonds cloud Czech hockey

Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds was
subject to racist abuse in Chomutov on Sunday
Wayne Simmonds became the first black player to play in the Czech Extraliga this season, as the Philadelphia Flyers forward recently left 2.Bundesliga side Eispiraten Crimmitschau along with Chris Stewart and signed up with Petr Nedved's Bílí Tygři Liberec. Simmonds, who had played two games in the Extraliga before Sunday's game in Chomutov had got off to a confident start with the Czech side, but unfortunately in the third game, the NHLer was subject to racial abuse by a section of Pirati Chomutov supporters. Chomutov, who only joined the Extraliga this year have got off to a solid start playing wise, but this incident will certainly pose problems for the club.

The racial abuse, claimed by iSport (source), involved monkey chants being directed towards Simmonds. The taunts, allegedly came from the 'boiler' section of the Chomutov crowd, which are better known around the world as ultras. The abuse is said to have come at the end of the game, after Chomutov won the game in overtime. While the club have been quick to disassociate themselves with the fans that abused Simmonds, it does give a sad reflection into the cultural issues which have continually clouded the Slavic world since the fall of socialism in the late 1980s. Only a few weeks ago, there were vehement claims of racial abuse directed towards black English U-21 footballers whilst they played an away game in Serbia.

Pirati Chomutov, and the majority of their fans do come out of this with some credit. On the mainpage of the clubs website, there is a long statement and a written apology to Simmonds. Marketing director David Dinda is quoted as saying: "We are disgusted by the behavior of a group of spectators, who greatly damaged the reputation of the club. We would like to deeply apologize to Simmonds and all the players of the Liberec team".

General manager Jaroslav Veverka was particularly honest in his assessment of the situation on the same page. "Today we got two points (important points). However, what some of  "our" fans showed was the worst I've ever seen at a hockey game! It was embarrassing and pathetic. I ask these people to not attend hockey games in Chomutov. The club in no way endorses their opinions and absolutely does not respect them! On behalf of the partners and the owners of the club, we say in addition: Do not come to hockey in Chomutov! We are not interested in fans like that!".

Veverka also went on to say: "We will do everything possible to prevent entry to the people who were the originators of these chants. And it will be permanent".

At the bottom of the page is a written apology to Simmonds, where the club claims that they do not consider those who gave the abuse fans of their club, and that they are sincerely sorry for what occurred.

All these words from Chomutov look good on paper, but unless they prevent it from happening again when Liberec play in Chomutov then they will be hollow. Also, steps must be taken nationwide to stop this from becoming a common occurence whenever Simmonds and his Liberec side are playing away from home. Sports and conservative opinions have always been closely linked, especially in the former Eastern Bloc, but it is simply unacceptable in this day and age, for such a quickly developing country for such events like this to take place.

Despite what Pirati try to state in their statements, the club and the Czech Republic comes away from this fiasco with egg on their faces. We can only hope that Simmonds is able to continue playing for Liberec without the fear of racist chants coming from the crowds, and that he is able to enjoy his stay in the Czech Republic, for however long he remains there.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Back with a bang: Why Martin Růžička is the best player in the Extraliga.

Martin Růžička - The best in the Extraliga?
Photo: Marian Ježowicz
Records don't get broken all that often. When in 2011, Martin Růžička broke Ziggy Pálffy's playoff points record which had stood for nineteen years, people knew that he was a special talent, possibly destined for better things than playing in Silesia. A KHL contract followed, and the 26 year old flew halfway across the world to ply his trade for Amur Khabarovsk, but alas things didn't work out all that great for him. Despite having two of the best Czechs in the KHL as teammates in the form of Jakub Petružálek and Petr Vrana, Růžička's tally of just 15 points in 33 games led many to believe that his miraculous playoff run was just a flash in the pan. However, he's back in Třinec, and boy has he still got it.

There's nothing much better that signalling your arrival home than scoring six points in the first two games of the season. Růžička beat up on Pardubice and Karlovy Vary as the team better known as the Steelers quickly vaulted to the top of the Extraliga tree. Nothing is more endemic of just how good of a scorer Růžička is at Extraliga level than looking at his points picked up during the ten games played so far. Not only has he scored 12 goals, but he opened the season scoring in nine straight games, only being blanked in his side's most recent loss to Zlin on Sunday. Not since his 33 points in 18 playoff games in Třinec's 2011 Championship run has he scored at such a rate of knots.

KHL: A step too far?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Another feature of his play is his ability to single handedly dominate a game. In Třinec's 5:0 victory over České Budějovice a week ago, Růžička had a hand in all five goals, finding the net three times, and picking up assists on the other two. It was a performance reminiscent of Game 5 of the 2011 semi-final series against Slavia Praha, where on the brink of elimination, he found the net four times in a 6:1 victory for Třinec, turning the momentum around in the series as the Silesians would go on to win Games 6 and 7 and advance to the final after a stuttering start against Slavia.

For many, that playoff performance was his great 'introduction' into the upper echelons of Czech hockey. His first entry in a journal which could possibly span for a good 8-10 years more. However, many will know that this type of production has been expected from the Beroun native. Of course, no expected him to shatter Palffy's record in the way he did, but he had been on the cusp of the national team for a good number of years following his break-out year in 2009-10, where he scored 47 points in the regular season, after going scoreless in 11 playoff games the season before. This got his name noticed and gained him a spot on the Czech Republic roster for both the EuroHockeyTour and the World Championships, although he failed to  really make a mark at either of these events.

After all the notoriety of the lockout, with the likes of Jagr, Plekanec and Sobotka returning to the Extraliga, it might be strange to proclaim Růžička as the best player in the Extraliga. However, Růžička offers that something a little bit different. He's a gamechanger. A dynamic forward who can change the direction of a game in a split second. After a season of indifference last year, Třinec now sit in third, behind a Kometa Brno side not feeling the effects of a finals hangover, and Zlin, who always start well, but you can guarantee will not make it past the playoff quarter-finals come March. After a mammoth fall in his production last year, linemate and former NHL veteran Radek Bonk has blossomed once more, with 13 points in 10 games, and on pace for his best season since his return from the NHL back in  2009. Of course it can be argued now that Třinec are a one man team, and to use a football metaphor, he is very much like Robin van Persie was at Arsenal. However, he's a damn good player to be your solitary man. He may be overshadowed by the NHLers returning back to the Extraliga, and looking at performances, players like Plekanec have been scoring for fun.  However the threat of the lockout ending will loom over Kladno and other teams for the remainder of the season, and even then, I believe that come playoff time, Růžička will out-perform any of the NHLers (if they are still in the league, that is.)

Who knows what the future holds for him, as if he continues in this rich vein of form, surely offers from Russia or Switzerland will winging their way to the 26 year old. For the moment though, Třinec won't care, as in Růžička they have the best player in the Extraliga, and could very well be on their way to a second championship in three years.

Around the league:
Although we are only ten games into the season, a look at the Extraliga table is fascinating. After running away with the President's Trophy last year, HC Sparta Praha sit rooted to the bottom of the table with only five points. The season seemed to start out okay as they picked up two straight wins, but then the wheels have fallen off. Eight straight losses have put the capital side rooted to the bottom of the table. Michal Neuvirth has lost all of the six games he's started in, whilst Petr Ton is "slumping" with only eight points in ten games.

Chomutov's goaltending tandem
Photo: Jan Pidrman
However, for a number of other big teams, the 2012-13 season has been a cruel one so far. Bílí Tygři Liberec have had a shocker of a start, and are only three points better off than Sparta. With arguably the best goaltending duo in the league on paper in Marek Pinc and Ondřej Pavelec, and the return of Petr Nedvěd, big things were expected of the White Tigers, but they have flattered to deceive. Pavelec's stats are mindblowing bad. A 4.62 GAA and a 0.863 save percentage were not what the club. and the fans, would have expected. He's falling into Lukas Sablik territory.

While Kometa are looking as fresh as a daisy at the top of the table, their opponents in last years final HC Pardubice are still looking drunk from the party. Wallowing in ninth place, the losses of Jan Kolar and Petr Koukal look all the more devastating the way they have looked in front of goal. The reigning champions have looked nothing of the sort so far, but you would be a fool to count out Pardubice, no matter how bad they appear to be at the moment.

However, it would be wrong to just focus on the bad. After three truly awful seasons, have Litvinov finally turned the corner? Currently they sit in sixth place, and finally look to have picked up some solid netminding as 22 year old youngster Pavel Francouz looks to have made his name in the Extraliga. It will be interesting to see if they can keep it up, and whether or not they wheel Jiří Šlégr out of retirement one more time. Still, if Viktor Hübl continues with his incredible scoring pace, then they probably wouldn't need him! Another team defying expectations is KLH Chomutov, not least the fact that they seem to be playing remarkably well defensively. Veteran Slovak netminder Matúš Kostúr is looking a worldbeater with his .954 save percentage at the moment. However the season is still young, and they could still soon get 'found out' at the top level. Radek Duda still looks to be as good as ever, and the performances of Extraliga veteran David Hruška have been extraordinary. With seven goals, he's joint second in the top scorers race.

Dominik Pacovsky - The only light
in a dark season for Sparta so far
For the past number of seasons, the Extraliga has become somewhat of an old geezers league, not least because most of the prime Czech talent in Europe between the ages of 24-32 gets swallowed up by either the KHL, NLA or Scandinavia. Despite the likes of Tomáš Vlasák and Radek Bonk in the top scorers charts, there are a couple of relatively younger players who are certainly impressing. Leading the charge for Kometa at the moment is Jakub Svoboda. The 22 year old who bagged 15 points in last seasons playoffs currently has 14 points in 10 games so far, and is one of a trio of Svoboda's leading the charge for the side from the second city. Thank goodness Coach Venera doesn't put them all on one line. Another 22 year old who broke out last season and is keeping up the good work is Jan Kovář. The Plzeň forward bagged 51 points last season, and has racked up 12 so far. Very much a playmaker, he'll be key to Martin Straka's teams fortunes this year. One player who has impressed despite his teams rotten performances has been Dominik Pacovský of Sparta. Also 22 years of age, he got his first regular shift in the Extraliga last year, picking up 27 points, and is currently his teams top scorer with 10 points. We seem to see it every year, and once again, due to lack of budget, Zlin continue to pump out brilliant young forwards who make an almost instantaneous splash in the Extraliga. Last years hotshot Petr Holik may have struggled to find the net, but he does have seven assists to his credit, and this year, it looks like Antonín Honejsek will be the one to watch. The 21 year old returned to the Extraliga last year after a spell in the WHL, and after taking a while to adjust to the rigours of Extraliga hockey, the summer looks to have produced a completely different player, as he has 8 points so far, and looks to be another great Zlin prospect.

And finally, a special mention to Kometa's Jan Hruška. While no spring chicken at the age of 26, the Brno native has been waiting a long time for his shot at Extraliga hockey, spending a large amount of time between Hradec Kralove in the 1.liga and Technicka Brno in the 2.liga. However, after a very good season in Slovakia for Skalica last year, his hometown side Kometa Brno decided to take a punt on the centre, and their gamble looks to have paid off dividends. Sitting with 12 points (6+6) through ten games, Hruška looks to be another shrewd signing by the Kometa management, who have done wonders ever since the team moved up from the 1.liga.

The lockout may be overshadowing some of the performances by players mentioned, but in Europe's most competitive league, it remains the domestic Czech players who are putting on the performances that are making this the best league in the world to watch.

Friday, 28 September 2012

CZ/SK Lockout update: Jágr's Kladno steals the headlines.

With the NHL Lockout seemingly stretching from September into October, European hockey is buzzing with the news of locked out NHLers in many cases returning 'home' to play in their domestic leagues. The Czech Extraliga has been one of the most active leagues in the lockout, with a grand total of 18 NHLers taking up spots in the highest level of Czech domestic hockey. The Czech Republic's greatest ever play, Jaromir Jágr, has stolen most of the headlines so far, as the Czech's favourite son returned to lace them up for his hometown team, Rytíři Kladno. Incidentally, Jágr is also an owner of Kladno. However, Jágr is just one of a plethora of NHL stars now on the Kladno roster, as another Kladno native, Montreal Canadiens forward Tomáš Plekanec joined up. Plekanec is currently the top scorer in the Extraliga, racking up 11 points (6+5) in just four games. In comparison, Jágr has been somewhat subdued, with 9 points (2+7) in the same amount of games. Most recently, Plekanec scored a hatrick in a 6:3 rout of Pardubice, which has helped Kladno climb up to fourth place in the Extraliga, after beginning the season with three straight losses. Also featuring on the Kladno roster is another forward, Jiří Tlustý as well as veteran defencemen Tomáš Kaberle and Marek Zidlicky, who have been paired together on the powerplay.

Jaromir Jágr salutes the travelling faithful at the o2.
Photo: Josef Poláček
The furore around Jágr and Kladno has been so intense that the club has decided to move their home games to the o2 Arena in Prague, which is where HC Slavia Praha usually play their home games. In all seriousness it is not that preposterous, as Kladno is only just over 30km from Prague itself, plus the club is providing free transportation for all ticket holders coming from Kladno. Also, if the crowds continue to flock in their droves to watch the games, then long will it continue. Kladno have played two games at the o2 Arena so far, but over 15,000 attended each of the games. It is interesting to note that while HC Lev Praha, just across the city at the Tipsport Arena, are struggling to get over 6,000 to their games, that Kladno, playing in Prague, are getting well over double the crowds. It certainly was strange seeing Slavia playing as the away side at the o2 Arena last Wednesday, as Kladno brought forward their home game with Slavia and played it at the o2. However, it wasn't the debut that Jágr and his comrades were hoping for, as Slavia managed to snatch a 3:2 victory, with more than a little help from their locked out NHLers.

Last season was an awful one for Slavia, their worst in a long time. However, optimism is somewhat high after the club managed to nab Vladimir Sobotka and Roman Červenka. The latter was due to begin his rookie season for the Calgary Flames this year, after two very productive seasons with Avangard Omsk in the KHL. Červenka comes back to the Extraliga after two seasons away. His last campaign, in 2009/10 saw him single handedly carry Slavia to the semi finals. He won the scoring title by a mammoth 18 points, and had more than double the amount of points of anyone else on the Slavia roster. Červenka and Sobotka were paired with Slavia's main off-season acquisition, Jaroslav Kalla, in the game against Kladno, and both of the locked out NHLers had 1+2. However, Slavia still only sit in 10th place, as both Červenka and Sobotka have only added a point each since, and Slavia's anaemic offence has only managed to find the back of the net 10 times in 6 games. Still, if it's any consolation, they are still ahead of fierce rivals Sparta, who signed the extremely average looking Michal Neuvirth, whose save percentage is under .900.

Vladimir Sobotka (red) flattering to deceive with Slavia
Photo: Petr Vančura
Sitting at the top of the Extraliga tree so far is HC Oceláři Třinec, who have won five out of their six games so far. However, they have barely made a splash compared to the likes of Kladno, as they have only brought in Rostislav Klesla. Still, they did manage to bring back Martin Růžička, who has picked up where he left off after the 2011 playoff run, as the flashy forward has already found the back of the net seven times. Interestingly, sitting at the bottom of the table are Bílí Tygři Liberec and HC Pardubice. Petr Nedvěd's Liberec, who promise so much every year yet always fall short, have got off to a dreadful start picking up just three points in six games. Liberec signed defenceman Ladislav Smid and netminder/drunk driver Ondřej Pavelec to lockout deals, but they have yet to shine, with Pavelec being far outplayed by the mercurial Marek Pinc as of now. Even Nedvěd is having a shocker by his standards, scoring only 3 points in 5 games to go along with a -5 rating. On his showing so far, he made the right decision not to make the move to HC Lev.

One place above Nedvěd's flounderers are last seasons champions HC Pardubice, who have forward Aleš Hemský and Jakub Kindl on their roster, as well as the distinct possibility of also grabbing David Krejčí, although insurance issues have been stalling the deal so far. Pardubice, who are desperate to become the first team to retain the Extraliga title since Sparta did it in 2007, are certainly experiencing the winner's hangover on their showings so far, although the losses of Petr Koukal and Jan Kolář to Neftekhimik in the KHL gutted the team of two top quality first liners. Pavel Brendl, their big summer signing, has been dreadful so far, putting up a paltry two points from five games. Martin Růžička's goals against average isn't looking too healthy when it's pushing four as well.

Petr Nedvěd and Ondřej Pavelec both need
to be better for Liberec
Photo: Joerg Stephan
Extraliga new boys Piráti Chomutov are doing well in eighth, and will only improve with the lockout acquisition of Michael Frolik, and the indirect lockout affected transfer of Radek Duda, who was released by Geneve-Servette to make room for locked out NHLers. Duda, arguably more renowned for his antics off-ice rather than on them, is still a top quality addition to a roster that looks big on grit but low on top end talent. If they can add a better goalie (Slovak press was hinting that Slovan outcast Ville Hostikka could be on his way), then making the playoffs should be an achievable goal. Martin Straka's Skoda Plzeň, who are the San Jose Sharks of the Extraliga, made their moves later than most teams, but certainly strengthened their team with the addition of Tuukka Rask in goal, as well as adding Michal Rozsival on the backend. České Budějovice added Canadian Andrew Ferrence and Radek Martinek to their defensive unit. Both incidentally played for the club in the last lockout. Lets hope Ferrence won't flip off the Czech crowds like he did in Bruins colours. The club will need him as the injury struck Jakub Kovář will likely have at least another month on the sidelines. Finally, Vitkovice penned Roman Polak and Pavel Kubina, with the Ostrava side desperate to move up from their current ninth place standing.

Ľubomír Višňovský celebrates
his goal against Avangard
Photo: Ján Skalican/Ziakoo
There is also obvious KHL interest in locked out players, and the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk have all headed back to their native land to lace up for Dinamo Moscow, SKA St. Petersburg and CSKA Moscow respectively. However, both HC Lev Praha and Slovan Bratislava have also jumped on the lock out bandwagon, and both have made some solid acquisitions. Lev bolstered their scoring ranks, signing Jiří Hudler and Jakub Voráček for the duration of the lockout. Voráček has certainly impressed, scoring four points in four games, including a beauty of an assist on his debut against Avangard Omsk. Lev certainly needed some forward help though, as apart from free scoring Jakub Klepiš, they have lacked consistent scoring from their forward ranks. Slovan Bratislava were not to be outshone by their Czech rivals, who sit a remarkable first in the Western Conference with 7 wins in 10 games. Slovan first put pen to paper to sign Ľubomír Višňovský. The former Slovan junior has already made his mark, shoring up Slovan's defence, with the club currently on a five game winning streak which has seen them move up to third in the Western Conference. He also bagged a goal on his debut against Avangard Omsk. The club has also managed to come to an agreement with another top quality Slovak defenceman, as Andrej Sekera will soon join up with the club.

Last but not least, a quick mention for Tomáš Tatar, the only NHL player at the moment who has taken up a place in the Slovak Extraliga, playing for the league's new boys, ŠHK 37 Piešťany. He was part of the roster which sent shockwaves through the Extraliga following his side's 8:2 demolition of HK36 Skalica, a side featuring a number of players in the Slovan system. However, his side were humbled 9:5 by HC Košice two days later. Tatar currently has four points in three games. It is interesting to note how hockey has changed in Slovakia, as the last lockout saw Pavol Demitra, Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa line up for Dukla Trenčín, Višňovský and Miroslav Šatan play for Slovan, Ziggy Pálffy for Skalica, Richard Zednik and Michal Handzus lace up for Zvolen, and even Ladislav Nagy played for Košice. Still, I guess that's a story for another day.

The lockout will once again increase knowledge of European competitions, if only for a few months, but it's certain that the Czech Extraliga, already incredibly competitive, will benefit (from an entertainment point of view) from the influx of Czech NHL talent to the league. It's a boost that the league desperately needs.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Sweden downs Slovakia in opening game of Ivan Hlinka Memorial

The good memories of the U18 World Championships in Piešťany back in April wouldn't be repeated in the opening game of the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament, as the heavily favoured Swedish side put in a professional performance to defeat the Slovak side 7:3.

Slovakia rallied in the third, but Sweden's dominant 
offence was too much for Slovakia to handle
Photo: Mário Petlák via
Slovakia can be pleased with certain aspects of their performance, but Sweden's superior quality, especially their strength in depth, was far too much for the Slovak side to handle. Slovakia were a side already smarting after the expulsion of talented young forward Martin Réway, who was asked to leave the team by head coach Anton Bartánus for undisclosed disciplinary reasons. This is not the first time that Réway's behaviour has got him into trouble, and now the team will pay the price, as the young Gatineau Olympiques forward was set to be Slovakia's bright light on the forward lines for the tournament.

As it happens, the Swedes were able to control the game from start to finish, restricting Slovakia to very few chances, and giving them very little time in the offensive zone. Sweden had 48 shots to Slovakia's paltry 16, and although he conceded seven, netminder Denis Godla made a number of important saves, especially in the early going. The goal was inevitable, but it took fourteen minutes for Sweden to break the deadlock, as Victor Crus-Rydberg managed to make Godla move first before firing the puck home. It only took two minutes for Sweden to double their advantage, this time defenceman Robert Hägg was the player on target, as the defenceman's point shot was too hot to handle.

Unfortunately for the home fans, the second period was more of the same, and in the opening minute of the frame, Sweden stretched their lead to three. After marvellous play by Julius Bergman, Victor Öhman found the net whilst on the penalty kill to set the tone for the rest of the period. The Swedes would score once more before Slovakia would finally get on the board, as on the powerplay, Swedish based Adam Kasanický's point shot on the powerplay scorched the twine, giving the players and fans something to cheer about. It came after coach Bartánus had called a time-out, and started a period of where Slovakia started to play better hockey. However, once again the Swedish offence was simply too good, and after the Slovaks overcommitted in the Swedish zone, they were made to pay, as André Burakovsky finished off the counter-attack.

With the score at 5:1, the Slovaks had little more to play for than pride, but they did improve as a team throughout the game. Jacob de la Rose made it 6:1 to Sweden, but a minute later, Slovakia scored their second goal of the game, as Róbert Lantoš pounced on an error of judgement by the Swedish defence, and went in alone on goal and fired home. Two minutes later and the score was 6:3, as great effort by Simon Beták on the forecheck created time and space for him to score. However, there was to be no miraculous comeback, and with two minutes to go, the Swedes would have the last word, as Alexander Henriksson scored on a penalty shot.

The result was disappointing, but if Slovakia can build on their third period performance then they may spring a surprise or two as the tournament progresses, although they will have to get their act together sooner rather than later, as they face Switzerland today in the battle to finish third in the group.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Exploring new waters: A look at the Czech Extraliga's newest team.

The re-branded Piráti Chomutov side get their
first crack at the Extraliga in over half a century
After three rotten years propping up the table, it was high time that BK Mladá Boleslav were relegated and gave the 1.liga champions from 2011-2012, Piráti Chomutov, a crack at the elite level for the first time in almost half a century. The club, who were re-branded in the run up to the 2011-2012 from the old KLH Chomutov side have had an awful lot of money pumped into them over the past two seasons, and after defeating HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi in seven games in the 1.liga final, went on to defeat Mladá Boleslav in the relegation playoff.

It was fitting for Piráti, who moved into a new 5,250 seater arena at the beginning of the 2011 season, to get promoted to the Extraliga, as it marks a rapid rise from relative obscurity to now becoming one of the biggest up and coming teams in the Czech Republic. If the backing continues then they could perhaps even follow in the footsteps of HC Kometa Brno, who reached the Czech Extraliga playoff final last season.

Last season was always a two horse race between 1.liga stalwarts HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi and Piráti, as they raced ahead of the rest of the pack in the Czech second tier. Eventually Slovan finished the season as the regular season champions, with Piráti trailing 12 points behind in second place. Fifteen years ago, the Chomutov franchise was playing in the depths of the 2.liga, and they were lucky in order to secure a 1.liga license in 1997. From the get go, Chomutov were able to make their mark in the Czech second tier, being runners up in 1999-2000, before being victorious the season later, winning the final series against HC Liberec 3:0. However, that alone is not enough to get promoted, and they ended up facing Karlovy Vary in the relegation playoff, where the Extraliga side were victorious.

Thus followed a barren spell, with the team consistently making the playoffs, but often falling in the early stages. 2009-2010 saw Chomutov victorious in the 1.liga playoffs for the second time in their history, but once again they couldn't win the relegation playoff, going down to Mladá Boleslav. However, fast forward two seasons and Chomutov would be able to reverse the result against Mladá Boleslav, as the 1.liga side won the series 4:3.

The 1.liga final against HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi was one to remember, as the teams went back and forth with three of the games going to overtime, including a thrilling 7:6 overtime victory for Piráti in Game 3. After five games, Slovan had a 3:2 advantage, but Chomutov were able to rally back for a 4:1 victory on home ice in Game 6, setting up a thrilling winner take all Game 7 in Usti nad Labem. This game would also go to overtime with the score poised at 2:2. Step forward Jakub Grof.

That goal by Grof sealed the championship victory for Piráti in great style. However, as they have already experienced, that would not be enough to get them to the Czech Republic's top table. Mladá Boleslav awaited, and once again the series would go to seven games. Mlada Boleslav seemed able to pull back the deficit at each step, winning Game 6 to take the series to a seventh game. However, David Hruška's second period goal would turn out to be the series winner as Chomutov won Game 7 to the delight of the travelling fans.

David Hruška is no stranger
to the Extraliga
Photo: Jan Pidrman
So where do Chomutov stand now? Well, looking at their roster for the coming season, the top line is a who's who of past Extraliga stars. David Hruška will return to the Extraliga for the second time after leaving Slavia in 2010 to move to Chomutov. Hruška, who is now 35 and with five Extraliga titles to his name scored 55 points last season, and his performances on loan at Karlovy Vary in 2010-2011 show that he can still contribute at the top level. Also on their roster is Milan Kraft. The former Pittsburgh Penguin had a 56 point season last year, but has yet to flourish in the Extraliga following his return from North America. 35 year old Milan Procházka is another with considerable Extraliga experience who makes the move up from the 1.liga, as well as netminder Milan Řehoř, who was simply sensational through the playoffs, and fully deserves his shot at the Extraliga.

The club have made some interesting signings going into the new season as well. Former HK36 Skalica star Miroslav Zálešák moves to the Extraliga after captaining HC Košice in the Slovak Extraliga last season, whilst their defence has been boosted by the acquisitions of Martin Rygl and Martin Lučka, the latter on loan from PSG Zlín. Another on loan from Zlín is Michal Důras, who can certainly contribute at the Extraliga level, and will be looking to bounce back from a pretty poor season with Zlín last year. As it happens, overtime hero in the 1.liga final Jakub Grof won't be there to take his place in the Extraliga, as he has moved on to the Landshut Cannibals in the 2.Bundesliga.

There is no doubt that it is going to be a struggle for Piráti next season, as from the look of their roster so far, they do need a bit more talent added in each area if they aim to make the playoffs next season. It does appear that they are looking for a consolidation year in 2012-2013, with the hopes that the large attendances which they stand to gain will help them boost their finances. Over 3,000 showed up for the clubs European Trophy game against HC Slovan Bratislava on Wednesday, and this should be a great boost to the club.

However, as is the way in a league which has the risk of relegation, their period of consolidation may not be enough to help them survive, as HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi can attest to, as they only survived one Extraliga season on their last trip up to the country's top division.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Keeping heads afloat: Slovak hockey's long summer

As the long summer days slowly start to wind down, and players and coaches alike return to the rinks, it's time to start looking back on the summer that was, which in turn was one of conflict and strife in many corners of Slovakia's domestic hockey market. A number of teams have changed divisions, while money problems created by the Eurozone crisis really bit hard on a number of the smaller market teams. However, even some of the big names in the Extraliga were touched by financial woes, with the Poprad side still not out of the water as of yet.

So let us start with the Extraliga, which saw arguably it's biggest club depart the league in search of bigger and better things. HC Slovan Bratislava, after winning their first championship for four years decided that the Extraliga was no longer for them, and managed to make the jump to the KHL. There had been rumblings for a while that the club from the capital was looking to expand outwards from the Extraliga, and with the success that they had not only on the ice, but off the ice after the reconstruction of the Ondrej Nepala stadium turned out to be a smart move. With increased capacity of over 10,000, and spirits high after the Slovak Extraliga championship, as well as the silver medal achieved by the national team, Slovan are in a good place at the moment in Slovakian terms, although their tight budget constrictions could hinder their KHL form.

Who knows what the future holds for Košice
HC Košice, who have been the most successful club in Slovakia over the past five years will be smarting after their run of three straight championships game to an end in 2012. Košice, who have apparently been looking into "two central European alternatives" this off-season look like they are set to try and reclaim their Slovak Extraliga crown, but the future after that is far less clear. At the start of the summer, before Slovan made the jump to the KHL, a proposal was made to allow Slovan and Košice into the Czech Extraliga, creating a "Czechoslovak Extraliga". However, this proposal was rejected by 13 of the 14 teams, citing extra travel costs as a key concern (link). A couple of years ago, the prospect of a Slovak team joining the EBEL would have been laughable, but with a weaker Extraliga after the departure of Slovan, it may just be that Košice could end up in the Central European EBEL after all. Featuring teams from Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia, the EBEL has spawned into a mid-tier league which is starting to grow in terms of the calibre of players joining the league, which may just make it more appealing for the side from Eastern Slovakia. It certainly seems that the KHL is out of reach. At least for now.

For Dukla Trenčín, most of their concerns have been around having a rink to play in. A huge ammonia leak in the main arena has rendered the rink unsafe for now, but there were major issues over whether or not the local government will have the funds available to embark on the repair work, which was estimated to be at €55,000. However, the city of Trenčín have seemed to have taken control of the Pavol Demitra Arena as of late, after the team had been forced to practice on the rink owned by Marian Gaborik, as well as the local rink in nearby Dubnica. Mayor Richard Rybníček has offered to lease the arena to the Dukla club for just one euro for training sessions and matches, as well as putting up the money for the repair costs, in order to secure Extraliga hockey in Trenčín for the coming season. The city claims that the arena will be repaired by late August (link).

Poprad went from KHL & Slovak hockey to
almost no hockey this offseason
However, other clubs have not been so lucky. Poprad, who have been reeling following the move of the HC Lev franchise to Prague after just one year in the Slovak mountain city have had huge financial problems in the run up to the coming season. After their Extraliga season, all contracts with players to the club expired, leaving the club without any players, as executive director Tibor Turan claimed, "I will not sign any players, if I do not have the money" (link). A lack of sponsorship, especially within Poprad has left the team strapped for cash, as Turan claimed that last season, 65% of the teams sponsorship money came from outside Poprad, and this summer seems to have changed little. However, the latest news coming out of Poprad is that they will be able to field a team for next season, as they have already scheduled pre-season games, as well as being included on the fixture lists for the coming season.

Another with money problems going into the season was MHC Martín. One of the smallest clubs in the Extraliga, Martín, who have missed the playoffs for the last two seasons have struggled to keep a hold of a number of their players, but finally this week started to begin pre-season preparations with a new head coach Róbert Pukalovič, featuring a team mainly made up of junior and local players. Despite this, it does seem that  Martín have managed to gather enough money together for the coming season, although their prospects are quite bleak. It is also worth mentioning HK Skalica, who have entered an agreement with Slovan which will allow a number of players to be loaned down to the Extraliga club who don't make Slovan's KHL roster. At present, Andrej Kudrna, Adam Trenčan and Peter Trška have been sent down to Skalica.

New beginnings for Piešťany in the Extraliga
Photo: Laco Duračka/
However, there are more teams than Slovan embarking on new adventures next season. After initially toying with the prospect of playing in the EBEL, former 1.liga side ŠHK 37 Piešťany have moved up to the Extraliga, replacing the Bratislava side's spot in the Slovakian top tier. Piešťany, who won the 1.liga in 2009 and 2010 will face a tough task in next years Extraliga, but they have picked up a couple of good players with Extraliga experience. Another team moving onto pastures new are HK Nove Zamky, who have entered the MOL Liga, which features Hungarian and Romanian clubs. Interesting, one of the main reasons that Marián Lukáčik claims moved Nove Zamky to the MOL Liga was due to the new junior rules in the Extraliga, which forbids overagers from playing in the junior leagues. He hopes that by having Nove Zamky in the MOL Liga, it will allow these 21 and 22 year olds will develop better than being dropped in at the deep end in the Slovakian professional leagues, while also the cost of playing in the league is much lower (link). Another looking to enter the MOL Liga were Slovak talent factory HK 38 Dubnica. The club from Pavol Demitra's home town have consistently struggled with securing top level senior hockey in the town, whilst losing many of their best players to the nearby Dukla Trenčín side. However, the SZLH refused to grant permission for Dubnica to join the MOL Liga, while allowing Nove Zamky to enter the international competition. The reasons why Dubnica were not allowed to join the league are rumoured to be due to being unable to secure the merger between the 'new' HK 38 side and the old MHK Dubnica. The outfit look set to take part in the 2.liga next season.

So, another summer of turmoil in Slovakian hockey, which sadly seems to be nothing new. Who knows what the next year will have in store, and although I always try to put a positive spin on things, I am struggling to find anything 'good' about the situation that Slovak hockey finds itself in at this current stage. Maybe things will change, but sadly it seems that the success of the national team at the World Championships may be a failed success if nothing is done by the government or the SZLH.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Staying at home or making the jump.

It's a question that has certainly been getting more heated over the past couple of years, especially in countries such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose junior programs are certainly nowhere near as successful as they were a decade or two earlier. Numerous young players are making their way over in droves, and last season saw a total of 33 Czechs playing in the combined three leagues which make up the Canadian Hockey League, as well as a further 15 Slovaks. Not only does this mean a large amount of youngsters are moving away from home at an early age, playing in a foreign country, but it also deprives the junior leagues of often their best talent, which means that players who have missed their chance of getting to the CHL are stuck in lower quality junior leagues, or are forced to make the jump to professional hockey at an earlier stage than perhaps they would otherwise.

There are clearly both pros and cons to each side, but an interesting interview by the great SlovakProspects site (link) with Matúš Matis, a 1993 born prospect who made the move to North America in 2009. He was then drafted by the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in the QMJHL 18th overall in 2010. Matis would then go on to play 33 games with the Saguenéens 2010-11, scoring only three goals. He was then sent down to the GMHL and the Bradford Rattlers, where he had played in 2009-10, scoring 14 times in 12 games. The Saguenéens once again left Matis out of their plans last season, and the Košice born forward played in the second best American junior league, the NAHL.

Julius Sinkovic (left). A tale of unfulfilled potential?
Matis' situation isn't anything new, but it once again highlights how it can be the off ice pressures at such a young age which can derail careers. In the aforementioned SlovakProspects article, he talks of the complete lack of communication with the Francophone head coach of the Saguenéens. Matis could not speak French. There are also the differences in the training regiments, as the extra focus on individual training seems to go against what is preached at the Slovakian junior schools. Couple these off ice issues, with the huge stress of trying to impress NHL scouts in order to get drafted can often push a player to breaking point, and a number of players who spent their junior years in the CHL have often failed to shine when making the jump to professional hockey. Julius Sinkovic seemed to have all the tools to have a great career, and he made the jump to the QMJHL in 2006, scoring 50 points in his debut season with Val-d'Or, whilst having a great World Junior Championships with Slovakia. Fast forward six years, the Slovan Bratislava junior is now playing in the German fourth tier. Martin Bartos is another who looked like a star in the making in the QMJHL, scoring 81 points in 2006-2007 with Acadie-Bathurst Titan, to only then fail to make the grade with Vitkovice. He spent last year in the Austrian Nationalliga after bouncing around the 1.liga and 2.liga for a while.

There are always going to be different circumstances for different people though. For some players, the move to the CHL appears to have been one that has paid off. Marek Hrivík, who was an exceptional junior in the Žilina program made the move across the Atlantic, and has now secured himself an NHL contract after finishing his junior career and scoring a point per game in the AHL playoffs. Richard Paník and Jaroslav Janus were both part of the 2012 Calder Cup winning Norfolk Admirals team after finishing their junior careers and being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning. However, it is too early to say whether these players will go on to meet the potential which they clearly have. Two players who seem to have benefited greatly from their experience in the more physical WHL have been the pair of Košice born defencemen, Martin Marinčin  and Martin Gernát, the cornerstone of recent Slovakian national junior teams who are both in the Edmonton Oilers system. Another WHL star, Andrej Kudrna, who scored 82 points in 2010-11 has gone on to secure himself a KHL contract with HC Slovan Bratislava at the tender age of 21. 

There is no doubt that there are potential advantages to going abroad to the CHL, not least the increasing exposure and in recent years, the better likelihood of getting drafted. However, it seems that the players that go on to pursue great things in the CHL are simply better than the majority of players that go over and try to chance it in the CHL. Players such as Hrivík, Kudrna, and Memorial Cup winner Tomáš Jurčo had extremely impressive junior numbers, and seem to have all the tools to make it at the next level. However, it seems for many players that aren't at that elite level, the move to the CHL can be one which has disastrous consequences. No doubt the exposure to different coaching styles, smaller ice, and increasing competition against their North American counterparts can be an exciting prospect for many, but for quite a few players, the move to the CHL fails at setting them up to make the jump to professional hockey. That is why there is many an argument tohave a player stay in their domestic leagues and slowly be blooded in the elite professional league.

Sweden came calling for Matej Paulovič,
but was it the right move?
Photo: Andrej Čičman
A player that seems to have benefited from this is Marko Daňo, who has progressively worked his way up through the Dukla Trenčín system, being given a chance in higher age groups as he grew as a player has seen him make his professional debut at the age of 16, sign a KHL contract at the age of 17, and be Slovakia's top scorer at the World Under 18 Division 1 Championships. There is obviously a long road ahead of him, but over the next two years it will be interesting to compare his progression with the likes of Martin Réway and Tomáš Török, with both of them looking set to make the jump across to the CHL. Another currently playing abroad is big bodied forward Matej Paulovič, who is currently playing in Sweden. However, Paulovič really failed to shine when playing for the Slovakian side at the Under 18 World's, and next season will really be make or break for him.

Do I have a conclusion for what I think is best? Of course not. Each player and each person reacts to different situations in different ways. I believe that for the best young players, it doesn't matter the route that they take as I think they will get to the next level one way or another. However, I can't help thinking that the experience of playing in the Extraliga at the age of 17 or 18 goes a long way to helping a player bridge the gap between junior hockey and professional hockey. Even though he played a season in the WHL, Marian Hossa had already played a season of Extraliga hockey before that, while Marian Gaborik made the jump straight from the Extraliga to the NHL. Many people want the big chance to come quickly. To come on a plate. However, maybe the youngsters of today should be making their decisions more carefully, and take things a bit slower.

Perhaps the juniors of today should take note. More haste, less speed.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Slovakia roster for Ivan Hlinka Memorial announced

Slovakia really struggled at last years Ivan Hlinka
Memorial, finishing the tournament in 8th place.
Photo: Erik Ďuriš
Friday morning saw the roster for Slovakia's team at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament confirmed, with no real surprises. The tournament, which is seen as the start of the scouting season for the 2013 NHL Draft will feature the best 1995 and 1996 born players in the world, who will look to stake their claim for a high draft spot next June.

The tournament, which takes place between the 13th and the 18th of August in Piešťany and Břeclav never fails to disappointment, and often reveals some diamonds in the rough, especially from the lesser hockey nations.

Anton Bartánus will coach the team, while the roster is as follows:

Denis Godla (Birth year: 1995/Club: HK Spišská Nová Ves, Slovakia),
Juraj Halo (1995/HC Topoľčany, Slovakia), 
Marek Mikoláš (1995/MsHK Žilina, Slovakia),

Patrik Bačik (1995/HC Slovan Bratislava, Slovakia), 
Martin Boboš (1995/HC Košice, Slovakia), 
Dávid Gál (1995/HC Nitra, Slovakia), 
Matúš Holenda (1995/Dukla Trenčín, Slovakia), 
Adam Kasanický (1995/Luleå HF, Sweden), 
Peter Kuzma (1995/Dukla Trenčín, Slovakia), 
Martin Pavlíček (1995/HC Nitra, Slovakia), 
Adrián Sloboda (1996/HK 36 Skalica, Slovakia), 
Michal Solár (1995/MsHK Žilina, Slovakia),
On reserve list: 
Mário Ramaj (1995/HC ´05 Banská Bystrica, Slovakia), 
Stanislav Tomko (1995/P.H.K. Prešov, Slovakia)

Martin Blaho (1995/Slovan Bratislava, Slovakia), 
Peter Cehlárik (1995/Luleå HF, Sweden), 
Kristián Horvát (1995/ P.H.K. Prešov, Slovakia), 
Patrik Koyš (1995/Dukla Trenčín, Slovakia), 
Róbert Lantoši (1995/MsHK Žilina, Slovakia), 
Andrej Lištiak (1995/MHk Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia), 
Matej Paulovič (1995/BK Färjestad, Sweden), 
Martin Pleša (1995/HK 36 Skalica, Slovakia), 
Dominik Rehák (1995/MsHK Žilina, Slovakia), 
Martin Reway (1995/Gatineau Olympiques, QMJHL, Canada),
Timotej Šille (1995/HK 36 Skalica, Slovakia),
Juraj Šiška (1996/HC Nitra, Slovakia),

Dávid Šoltés (1995/HC Košice, Slovakia), 
Juraj Talán (1995/PSG Zlín, Czech Republic),
Tomáš Török (1995/Sherbrooke Phoenix, QMJHL, Canada),
Róbert Varga (1995/HK Trnava, Slovakia),

On reserve list:
Šimon Beták (1995/HC Olomouc, Czech Republic),
Samuel Petráš (1995/HC Slovan Bratislava),

From this roster, it is clear that the biggest strength is the crop of young forwards. Both Réway and Török are heading to the QMJHL next season, and it is no surprise as they represent two of the top young players coming out of Slovakia. Török had a poor season, punctuated by injuries on his return to Slovakia after a very promising season with Slavia Praha in the Czech Republic in 2010-11, whilst Réway went in the opposite direction, shining in the very competitive Czech junior leagues for Sparta Praha. Also present at the Ivan Hlinka will be Patrik Koyš. After his first few seasons in the Slovakian junior program, Koyš was touted to become the next best thing out of Slovakia, but he has yet to meet the hype. He was overshadowed at the IIHF Division 1 Under 18 World Championships, being shunted on the lower lines as the team favoured the likes of Réway and also Marko Daňo. However, he is still two years away from being drafted, and will be looking to have a dominant in the U20 Extraliga. Another with a point to prove will be big bodied forward Matej Paulovič. Paulovič, who moved to Sweden last season did well, earning a call up to the SuperElit, but struggled in international play for Slovakia. 

It should be an interesting tournament to gauge just to what level the next crop of Slovakian youngsters are at. However once again, it appears that there are 1-2 very good players, but as always, the depth simply isn't there.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Reway heads for Gatineau, whilst Dano stays at home.

Fresh of winning gold with Slovakia-18, Martin
Reway will move to Gatineau for the 2012/13 season
Highly skilled forward Martin Reway looks set to follow in the footsteps of many Slovak prospects before him and try his luck in the QMJHL next season. The Gatineau Olympiques will be Reway's team next season, as the Prague born forward leaves HC Sparta Praha and aims to increase his draft stock by playing in the top junior league in Quebec. Reway's path is the one heavily trodden by young Slovak players, who see their best chance of getting drafted to the NHL by playing at least one season in the Canadian Hockey League system. 15 Slovaks (both drafted and undrafted) played in the CHL last year, including 2011 second round pick to the Detroit Red Wings Tomáš Jurčo, who won the QMJHL championship for the second season in succession with the Saint John Sea Dogs. Also present in the QMJHL was undrafted forward Marek Hrivík, who earned an entry level contract with the New York Rangers following a very impressive season with the Moncton Wildcats.

Reway will likely succeed in the QMJHL, a big reason being that it is significantly less physical than the other two Canadian junior leagues. The Prague native is still on the small side, weighing in at only 78kg, so will be introduced slowly onto the smaller ice surfaces and the North American style of play. Reway will likely be the first Slovak taken in the 2013, as the small, speedy forward boasts an array of offensive talent. His point totals at the recent IIHF Division 1 Under-18 World Championships were no doubt inflated by his incredible performance in the game against Norway, where he scored twice and had five assists in the 9:2 victory. While this championship was meant to be Reway's coming out party, it was in fact his team mate, and fellow 2013 prospect Marko Daňo who stole the headlines.

Marko Daňo looks set to shine for Slovan and Slovakia
Daňo, the son of former Slovakia national team player Jozef Daňo is slowly rising through the ranks and is now a highly touted prospect for the future. He was, like Reway, drafted by HC Slovan Bratislava in the 2012 KHL Draft (Daňo went in the first round, Reway in the second), but instead of moving across the Atlantic, Daňo looks set to be staying in Slovakia, after penning a multi-year deal with the Bratislava based club. However, it is unlikely that the 17 year old forward will play for Slovan next year, with rumours suggesting he will be loaned back to his hometown Extraliga club HK Dukla Trenčín.

Standing at 181cm and weighing in 83kg, Daňo is likely the most "NHL ready" out of recent Slovak prospects, and shone at the IIHF World Junior Championships in Alberta, where he played after just turning seventeen years old, even scoring a goal against Finland. Playing at the lower U-18 level, Daňo racked up the points, scoring 13 points (10+3) in the five games at the Division 1 World Championships.

In an interview with on his new club's website (link), Daňo said: "I had the chance to play overseas, in the WHL [he was taken 60th in the CHL Import Draft by the Prince George Cougars], but when the offer came in from the KHL I cancelled that and came here. The senior league is definitely better for me".

Reway arguably has the higher potential upside, and will probably be taken in the top two rounds, it is fair to say that Daňo doesn't trail far behind. Reway mixes above average skating with soft hands, which make him a netminder's nightmare. Daňo may not have the footspeed of Reway, but he has already shown that he is not one to shy away from contact, and can put the puck in the net with alarming regularity.

Slovakia may not have produced a prospect to rival the likes of Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborík and the late Pavol Demitra in recent years, but in these two, along with the likes of Jurčo, 2010 NHL 2nd round pick Richard Paník as well as the likes of Hrivík and Marek Tvrdoň, there is some optimism in Slovak quarters that the well hasn't completely dried up just yet.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Czech Extraliga 2011-2012 Review: Part 3

The champions, and those so close.

Thus begins the concluding part of my look back on the season that was, featuring the two sides which fell at the semi final stage, as well as both finalists, including the champions.

HC Plzeň 1929
Regular season result: 2nd place (99 points)
Playoff quarter-final result: Defeated PSG Zlín in seven games.
Playoff semi-final result: Lost to HC Kometa Brno in five games in the semi-finals.

So close, yet so far once again for Martin Straka
Photo: Milan Podpera,
So near, and yet again so far for Martin Straka's men. The team which has been the most successful in the regular season over the last three years once again crashed out of the playoffs before having a chance to play for the Extraliga trophy. Straka must think by now that he, or his team, are cursed, as the great hockey that they seem to play in the regular season always disappears come the post-season. Still, at least the team went one better this year, and managed to make it out of the quarter-finals. Plzeň were the top seeds in the semi-finals due to the elimination of top seeds HC Sparta Praha, and faced off against an eighth seed full of confidence in Kometa, who then put Plzeň to the sword, taking the first three games of the series, and eventually winning in five games. On seeing their playoff performances, few could believe that Plzeň were the team that were running Sparta so close for the regular season title in January. Through the festive period, Straka's team went on a twelve game winning streak, not least helped by the form of Radek Duda. The journeyman forward, who had spent the previous two seasons bouncing around the 1.liga came back with a bang. During Plzeň's fine form, he netted 16 points in the month of January, helping his team climb to the top of the table. However, as the season progressed, Duda's form began to dip, reflecting his teams drop in play. Plzeň closed the season winning just three of their last ten games, and the two week rest period whilst the play-ins were conducted did nothing to turn around the team's run of form, as despite winning their quarter-final against Zlin, they looked less than impressive. Duda, who finished as the second top point scorer in the Extraliga with 59 points struggled to replicate his form in the playoffs, picking up just 7 points in the 12 games his side played, and the same could be said of his team-mates. Václav Pletka and Ondřej Kratěna both underperformed in the playoffs, failing to continue their fine scoring pace in the post-season. 22 year old forward Jan Kovář could well be excused from scathing criticism, as the promising young forward had his best season so far, scoring 51 points and forming a lethal partnership with Duda. Kovář managed 8 points in the playoffs, but even that wasn't enough to help his team reach the final. Plzeň were the top scoring team in the Extraliga regular season in 2011-2012, mainly thanks to the high scoring Duda and Kovář, but another name that should not be overlooked is that of Martin Straka himself. Despite doing almost every job behind the scenes at Plzeň, he still proved to be a quality player at the Extraliga level, even at 39 years of age. A 47 point regular season, combined with a team high 13 points in the playoffs showed that he's still the knack of scoring points, and could explain why he's signed up to play at least one more season on the ice. It was a surprise not to see Tomáš Vlasák at the top of the scorers charts this season. The 37 year old forward, who bagged a 68 point season in 2010-2011 struggled with injuries throughout 2011-2012, which limited him to only 18 regular season games, and meant that he was never able to reach his top form in the playoffs. Vlasák, who was Plzeň's top scorer for the previous for seasons was a big gap to fill on the forward lines, not least due to his almost telepathic chemistry with Martin Stráka. The one thing that stopped Plzeň from reaching top spot in the table was their defensive performance, which really should have done better, considering the big name talent it possessed. Featuring former NHLer František Kaberle, Jiří Vykoukal, Jiří Marušák, Jiří Hanzlík, and even Jaroslav Modry, who came out of retirement for the final part of the season, Plzeň had some of the best defencemen of the Extraliga era on their roster. Albeit, aging defencemen, as all of the players listed above were in their mid to late thirties (except Modry, who is now 41!). Perhaps the rigours of a long regular season were simply too much for the veterans to handle, although it's fair to say that Adam Svoboda struggled to reach his best form playing in the Plzeň net. The veteran netminder, who has one championship ring to his name with Slavia, was solid, but unspectacular, and unspectacular doesn't win you championships. He was far outplayed by Jiří Trvaj in the semi-finals, and numerous times he was left to sit on the bench, as young back-up Marek Mazanec took to the ice. 

So the playoffs came around with Plzeň really struggling to find their best form, and play-in qualifiers Zlín took them to seven games, with forward Nicholas Johnson scoring the series winning goal late in the third period of the final game. The semi-final saw them up against HC Kometa Brno, who were the form team going into the semis following their victory over title favourites HC Sparta Praha in the quarter-finals. However, two and a half minutes into Game 1, you could be forgiven for thinking that Kometa simply got lucky against Sparta. Goals by Johnson and defenceman Dan Růžička gave Plzeň a 2:0 lead in no time at all. The tide began to turn though, and despite Johnson getting his second in the middle frame, Kometa would score twice in the remaining two periods, with Jakub Svoboda scoring the winning goal with five and a half minutes to go in the game. So Plzeň had lost the home ice advantage, but now it was imperative to not lose both games at home. One man would not hear a word of it though. Jiří Trvaj was in imperious form in Game 2, making all 28 saves as Kometa shut out the previously free scoring Plzeň, with Róbert Petrovický getting the only goal in the third frame. The series moved to the Czech Republic's second city, and once again, Trvaj was at his best. Kometa were outshot 32:18, but Trvaj stopped all 32 shots as Kometa took a second 1:0 victory in a row. Plzeň were on the verge of getting swept, which many would have thought preposterous at the start of the playoffs. Pavel Vostřák scored two minutes into Game 4, finally snapping Trvaj's shutout streak after the veteran keeper shut up shop for 152 minutes in succession. Plzeň would be spared the blushes of getting swept by Kometa, as they took Game 4 by a score of 3:2, but Game 5 would be the end of the line. Plzeň went with Marek Mazanec in goal for the fifth game, but the young goalie lasted only five minutes, as Kometa scored three times in that spell. Plzeň were humiliated in front of their home fans, as Kometa thrashed them 7:2, leaving a forlorn Martin Straka looking crushed on the bench in the final few minutes of the game. It was another playoff collapse for Plzeň, and Straka must believe that his luck will turn sooner rather than later.

Player of the season: Radek Duda
This was a really difficult one, as it's sometimes unfair just to pick the player that scored the most goals. However, after a turbulent career, and countless teams, it seems that Duda really began to find his groove in Plzeň. The bad boy of Czech hockey, Duda polarises opinion, and it's fair to say, has a pretty big ego on his shoulders. The now 33 year old had his best season points wise so far, and although he has yet to decide on where he will be playing for next season, it's inconceivable to think that he'll end up back in the 1.liga. Duda disappointed in the playoffs, but against the defensive juggernaut that Kometa were in the playoffs, the blame can't fall squarely at his feet. Duda has talent in abundance, and maybe Stráka was finally the man to direct that talent and aggression in the right direction.

Bílí Tygři Liberec
Regular season result: 4th place (84 points)

Playoff quarter-final result: Defeated České Budějovice in five games. 
Playoff semi-final result: Lost to HC Pardubice in six games.

Extraliga player of the year Petr Nedvěd was
nigh on impossible in 2011-2012
Photo: Petr Zbranek,
It could just as easily say "Petr Nedvěd" for the team name for Liberec. The veteran forward scored almost twice as many points as anyone else on his team, and the 40 year old captain was the integral cog in Liberec reaching the playoff semi-finals. The White Tigers, who showed flashes of brilliance alongside puzzling results had a fair season, finishing in a respectable fourth position in the regular season. They could have finished higher if they hadn't have gone on an eight game losing skid in December, which saw them go from regular season championship contenders to looking over their shoulder towards the play-ins. However, the side managed to recover, and ensure that they would go into the quarter-finals with home ice advantage, where they dispatched of České Budějovice in five games, before going down to Pardubice after winning two of the first three games in the series. As has been touched on, there were simply not enough superlatives for Petr Nedvěd in 2011-2012, who had his best season since returning to the Extraliga in 2007. Injuries have hampered his progress in his five years back in the Czech Republic, but a 55 point season in 2010-2011 was followed up by a league high 61 points in last season's campaign. He played his way into the Czech Republic national squad, representing his country for the first time since the 1996 World Cup, and helped the Czech side to their second consecutive bronze medal at the World Championships. It was clear that Nedvěd was the key player to shutdown when facing Liberec, and he was put under all sorts of pressure in the playoffs, but shone in the later games of the České Budějovice series, scoring twice in both Games 4 and 5 to lead Liberec over the top. However, he wasn't so prolific against Pardubice, who managed for the most part, to keep a lid on his scoring talent. Nedvěd had one assist and a -4 rating in the final two games against Pardubice, whilst he only managed to find the back of the net once in the series, which came in the Game 1 victory. Nedvěd was inspired in 2011-2012, and whilst he did have some assistance from his teammates, on the whole, it was lacking. Jaroslav Kudrna and Milan Bartovič comprised the secondary threat for Liberec, and no doubt an injury to Bartovič which saw him miss nearly twenty games hindered Liberec's progress. Kudrna put up another 30+ point season, but he has never really been able to recapture his scoring touch which he possessed for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the RSL and KHL. Both found their form drop in the playoffs, as they were unable to break into double figures for points in the playoffs. Below their first line, Liberec had very little to shout about. Tomáš Vak had a rotten season compared to previous seasons, whilst Lukáš VantuchTomáš UrbanAntonín Dušek and Daniel Špaček struggled to find consistent form throughout the season. There was some optimism in the Liberec camp, as two young forwards began to establish themselves in the lineup as Michal Bulíř and Lukáš Krajíček both impressed on their first full seasons in the Extraliga, with the former shooting to prominence following a hatrick in Game 1 of the quarter-final series against České Budějovice. In Marek Trončinský, Liberec possessed the most productive defenceman in the Extraliga, and although the defensive side of his game often leaves a fair bit to be desired, his 28 points from the blueline proved invaluable to Liberec, and he will be sorely missed next season, as he makes the jump to the KHL to play for Yugra. Defensively the White Tigers were average. Martin Čakajík had an impressive playoffs after having a disappointing regular season, whilst the duo of Jan Holub and Lukáš Derner were able to log up big minutes on the blueline. Liberec went into the season with Marek Pinc as their #1, which was surprising after his awful performance in the playoffs the season before. However, the often temperamental goalie had a fairly solid season. Statistically he was the third best goalie who had played over thirty games, with a .928 save percentage, and he especially in the first half of Liberec's playoff run, composed and played well. It was a bit of a netminding merry go round in the series against Pardubice, as Pinc started Game 1, only to be replaced by 22 year old Tomáš Vošvrda in Game 2. The flashpoint game in Game 6, where Pinc flew off the handle after his side had an awful first period. Pinc conceded three goals on 12 shots in the opening 17 minutes. He would go on to play Game 6, only to then seemingly pull himself after the second period with Pardubice 3:0 up. Strange times indeed!

After their relative dominance (in Extraliga terms) against České Budějovice, the series against Pardubice was shaping up to be a very intriguing one. With Game 1 in Pardubice, Liberec played one of their best games of the playoffs. Jaroslav Kudrna scored a hatrick, whilst Jan Víšek had three assists as Liberec took the first game by a score of 5:3, taking home advantage away from Pardubice. Game 2 saw Pardubice blow away Liberec in the second period, scoring three goals to take a strangehold of the second game of the series, with the game finishing 4:2 to the hosts. The series moved back to Liberec, and in front of a raucous home crowd, Liberec once again took the lead in the series. Jaroslav Kudrna, after being held pointless in the first five playoff games, was proving to be Pardubice's achilles heel, as he scored a first period brace against his former club. Kudrna's efforts were all Liberec needed on the goals front in Game 3, as Pinc made 30 saves to take a close game by a 2:1 scoreline. Game 4 in Liberec was the White Tigers' chance to take a hold of the series, but they were undone by Pardubice's scoring depth. Two second period goals by Václav Kočí and Lukáš Radil helped Pardubice on their way to a 3:1 victory, levelling the series at two, and giving Pardubice home ice advantage once again. Game 5 was a real turn up for the books, as Pardubice dominated the game from start to finish. The home side scored four times in the first period, with Radíl and Petr Koukal both scoring two goals as Pardubice romped to an 8:1 win, which knocked the stuffing out of Liberec, who could never really rebound from such a crushing loss, as they slumped to a 4:2 loss in Game 6 of the series, which saw them knocked out of contention. It was strange to see how it all suddenly went so wrong for Liberec. Pardubice's superior scoring depth no doubt was a key factor in their defeat of Liberec, but as champions often do, Pardubice were able to find that extra gear when they were in trouble, which helped them over the challenge of Nedvěd and his White Tigers.

Player of the season - Petr Nedvěd
A no-brainer here, as the veteran forward had his best season on home soil and the Extraliga player of the year will surely be the player of the season for his team. Leading the league in points with a whopping 61, Nedvěd rolled back the years and arguably displayed form reminiscent to his NHL glory days for Liberec, and they will be delighted that they managed to secure his services for the upcoming season, fighting off the temptations of retirement or the jump to Lev Praha in the KHL. Nedvěd's knack of finding the net, plus his poise on the puck are arguably unmatched in the Extraliga today, and it will be no surprise if he is at the top of the scoring charts in 2012-2013, that's of course if his body can stand up to a full season of regular season play.

HC Kometa Brno
Regular season result: 8th place (75 points)
Playoff qualification result: Defeated HC Kladno in three games.
Playoff quarter-final result: Defeated HC Sparta Praha in six games.
Playoff semi-final result: Defeated Bili Tygri Liberec in six games
Playoff final result: Lost to HC Pardubice in six games. 

Extraliga runners up Kometa Brno
impressed with their play in this years playoffs
Photo: Michal Eger,
Where do you start with Kometa Brno? Their Cinderella story was only two victories away from a perfect ending, but after a miraculous playoff run, it finally came to an end in the final. This was the first time that Kometa had made the playoffs since their return to the Extraliga in 2009, and they certainly made their mark, cementing their position in the Extraliga after two years of flirting with relegation. Kometa's season was full of winning runs followed by losing skids. The team got off to an average start, but an 8:2 hammering by Kladno threatened to derail their season in the early stages. Kometa went on a terrible run of one win in nine games which stretched from October to November, and the team were always dangling between the play-in and play-out places. However, as the year turned, the team began to find some form, going on a fine run of 13 wins in 15 games to cushion the gap between themselves and the relegation fodder. The team couldn't lift themselves up into the top six after three straight losses to close out the season, but considering they had finished in 12th and 11th in their two previous Extraliga seasons, there were clear signs of progress. Kometa went into the play-ins facing a Kladno side who they had mixed fortunes against in the regular season. Both teams won twice, with both of Kometa's victories being 1:0 shutouts. Buoyed by their raucous home support, Kometa managed to defeat the resurgent Kladno side, sweeping the play-in thanks mainly to Tomáš Divíšek, who had six points in the three games. Divíšek, who joined Kometa on loan from Swiss side Davos in the second half of the season was in inspired form in the playoffs, and eventually finished as the top point scorer in the post-season. He had 17 points in 26 regular season games after joining the Brno side, but he was arguably back to his best in the playoffs. Divíšek has always been an enigma. The big bodied forward seems to have all the talent in the world to go far, but often is never able to put it all together on the night. 26 points in 20 playoff games has put his name back on the map as one of the premier Extraliga forwards; although Kometa will be hoping that his form wasn't just a flash in the pan. Divíšek's main partners in crime in the playoffs were Jakub Svoboda and Leoš Čermák. Jakub Svoboda had a break out season in 2011-2012, and the 22 year old went from a bottom six grafter to a top line forward in the space of a year. He had 7 goals and 8 assists in the playoffs, benefitting greatly from the experience of players such as Čermák. Now 34 years of age, Čermák has split the majority of his career between the Extraliga and the Russian top divisions, and after a poor season with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, Čermák returned to the Czech Republic with Kometa. He impressed with 33 points in the regular season, but his clutch performances in the playoffs were key Kometa's miraculous run. He also picked up 15 points. Kometa's scoring depth could not compete with Pardubice's in the end, and part of the reason for this was the loss of regular season top scorer Miroslav Holec, who after picking up 37 points in the regular season was unable to play more than five games in the playoffs. Holec, who has bounced between the Extraliga and 1.liga for the past five seasons broke into life after finally leaving Slavia. The 24 year old centre had never scored more than five points in an Extraliga season before moving to Brno. However, another Slavia product had another solid playoff performance, as Tomáš Svoboda, who shone in Slavia's run to the semi-finals last season sparkled once again after moving to Kometa mid season. He bagged eight goals for Kometa, highlighting that he is arguably one of the premier playoff producers in the Extraliga at present. Kometa were able to outshoot their opponents in the majority of their playoff games, which was in part due to the brilliant defensive system orchestrated by head coach Zdeněk Venera and anchored by Extraliga veterans Tomáš Žižka, Radim Bičánek, Jiří Vašíček and Tomáš Malec, whilst Slovak defenceman Jozef Kováčik impressed after joining from Slovak Extraliga side Nitra. However, a solid defensive unit needs a top quality goalie, and despite now being 38 years of age, Jiří Trvaj rolled back the years and provided his team with some outstanding goaltending, especially in the playoffs. He kept a 152 minute shutout streak in the semi finals against Liberec, whilst he only conceded three goals in the final three games of the quarter-final series against Sparta. Trvaj, who spent the previous two seasons competing with Finnish netminder Sasu Hovi for the starters jersey outplayed his counterpart towards the end of the season, and despite getting off to a slow start against Kladno in the play-ins, he ended up starting each playoff game for his side. Trvaj gave his team every chance to win in the playoffs, but by the end of the final series he ran out of steam, as Pardubice scored a combined 11 goals in Games 5 and 6 to seal their championship victory.
Jiří Trvaj celebrates the victory
over Sparta Praha in the quarter-final
Photo: Michal Eger

Kometa's series' against Kladno, Sparta and Liberec have been covered in more detail in the respective teams reviews, whilst the final will be covered in Pardubice's section. After a brave fight, where Kometa won Games 2 and 3, Pardubice unlocked the secret to defeating Kometa, winning the final three games of the series. Kometa's run, which was seized upon with fervour in the Czech Republic's second city was a joy to watch, and the emotion and spirit they played the game in was palpable. Whilst it was not Kometa's year, they have shown that are now a true player in the Extraliga, and as their progress continues, they will rise further up the table, and you would not put it past them to have their name inscribed on the championship trophy within the next decade.

Player of the season - Jiří Trvaj
This was perhaps the most difficult choice I've made so far. Miroslav Holec was the star in the regular season, but his injury woes excluded him from the playoffs, whilst Tomáš Divíšek only joined the team half way through the season, despite his incredible playoff performances. Therefore, I found it fair to go with veteran netminder Jiří Trvaj as my player of the season for Kometa. No doubt his teams system helped him,  but Trvaj was back to his best, reminiscent of his days as Znojmo's top talent in 2004-2006. His incredible performances against Liberec were the toast of the town, as he was only beaten by feared scorer Petr Nedvěd once in six games, whilst he kept Sparta's feared line of Ton-Bližňák-Tenkrát under wraps for the majority of the series. Trvaj doesn't have many more yewars ahead of him, but with another fine team assembled around him, who's to say that he can't play as he did in the playoffs again. Of course, the team will need another quality goalie beside him, because fatigue will eventually set in, which is why Kometa have brought in Martin Falter, who has been around the block before. So despite the fine scoring form of Divíšek, in my opinion, Trvaj was Kometa's player of the season.

HC Pardubice
Regular season result: 3rd place (86 points)
Playoff quarter-final result:  Defeated HC Vitkovice Steel in seven games
Playoff semi-final result: Defeated Bílí Tygři Liberec in six games
Playoff final result: Defeated HC Kometa Brno in six games

Jan Kolář was part of Pardubice's feared 1-2
punch alongside Petr Koukal
Photo: Jan Jedlička,
Pardubice were the team that eventually hoisted the Extraliga crown, after a thrilling series with Kometa, it was the Bohemian side who won their second title in three years. A team that was somewhat inconsistent all season managed to turn on the heat when it mattered, as they came back from series deficits in all three of their post-season match-ups in order to take overall victory. It was testament to a side which may not have shown up every night, but when everyone came to the party, Pardubice were simply unstoppable. They were able to bounce back from a 6:1 loss against Vitkovice in Game 6 of the quarter-final series, only to win Game 7, as well as coming back from 2:1 down in both the semi-final and final. Pardubice only managed to finish third in the regular season, as their inconsistent form hindered them from going on the long winning runs that their rivals at the top of the table were able to do, but whilst they were not able to pick up a big run of wins on the spin, they were able to prevent themselves from going on long losing skids. It's difficult where to start with Pardubice, as the one thing that they did better than any other side in the Extraliga this year was the ability to get a goal from every single one of their forward lines. At the top of the order it was a familiar story, as club captain Petr Koukal and Jan Kolář both topped the clubs scoring charts with 51 points each. Koukal and Kolář both enjoyed their most productive seasons to date, and Kolář especially shone, scoring 26 goals which was the second most in the Extraliga this season behind Karlovy Vary's Petr Kumstát. Koukal is one of the most complete players in the Extraliga, as the 29 year old centre is adept at both ends of the rink, and his hard working nature made him one of the most highly prized Extraliga players this off-season. However, the championship win in 2011-2012 will be the last time these two don a Pardubice jersey  at least for the time being, as both players have signed with Neftekhimik Nizhekamsk in the KHL, where they will be hopeful that their form will continue in the second best league in the world. However, Pardubice have been able to keep a hold of arguably their best player in the playoffs, as Slovak forward Martin Bartek has signed with the club for 2012-2013. Bartek, who suffered an injury plagued regular season was back to his best in the playoffs, top scoring for his side with 22 points in 19 games. Bartek was a huge part of what everything Pardubice did this season, and was scoring at a fine rate before injury struck him, as he was limited to just 28 regular season games. Bartek has impressed significantly since joining from the DEL in 2010, and has consistently scored near a point per game in his two seasons for the club so far. However, it is not just about the big guns for Pardubice, because as already mentioned, their secondary scoring was superb all season. Jan Starý and Robert Buchtele led the charge from this department, scoring 31 and 28 points respectively, but Starý shone in the playoffs, bagging 13 points for joint second best on the team. Buchtele, who is still only 21 years of age, had his breakout season in the Extraliga, and although his playoff performance was somewhat lacking, he could go a long way to replacing Koukal's production next season. Also adding to the bounty were Robert Kousal, Radovan Somík, Lukáš Radil and Tomáš Zohorna with the latter shining in the post-season, where he joined a host of other Pardubice players with 13 points. Daniel Rákos was another that made a name for himself in the playoffs, as the 25 year old who has never really been able to cement an Extraliga place prior to this season burst onto the scene, scoring the series winning goal against Vitkovice in the quarter-finals, as well as four other key goals to help his team reach the trophy. However, it's not all about goal scoring, and Pardubice possessed a very strong backline and a brilliant young netminder in Martin RůžičkaRůžička, who was the backup to Dominik Hašek in 2009-2010 had a somewhat disappointing regular season compared to his first year as starter the year before, but the 25 year old Pardubice native shone in the playoffs, starting all 18 games and recording a 0.928 save percentage. Leading the charge on the backend were Aleš Píša and the second Jan Kolář, with the former scoring 24 points this season, whilst contributions by Vladimír SičákVáclav Kočí and Václav Benák went a long way to securing the Extraliga crown, especially after the departure of Jakub Nakladal mid way through the season.

Pardubice lift the title in Brno
Photo: Martin Kocourek,
So Pardubice were extremely close to leaving the playoffs at the first hurdle, as after a back and forth series with sixth seeds Vitkovice after Daniel Rákos' 55th second overtime winner in Game 7, and this result seemed to galvanise the side and make them even stronger. They were in trouble against Liberec in the semi-final, as they lost both Games 1 and 3 before going on a tear in the final three games of the series, which included an 8:1 victory in Game 5 which really broke Liberec's resistance. This led the team on to the final, where they faced the unlikely opponents of Kometa Brno, the side who had previously defeated the first and second seeds in the playoffs. Game 1 was in Pardubice, and was a thriller of a contest. Pardubice took the lead four times in the contest, only to be pegged back at each occasion. Both teams combined for six goals in a frantic final period of regulation play, with Tomáš Žižka's game tying goal coming with four minutes to go in bizarre circumstances, as the defenceman's weak attempt from the red line went straight through Růžička's five hole. The game went to a shootout, with Sasu Hovi getting the nod for Kometa. Petr Koukal scored the first goal in the shootout in the third round of shooters, before Růžička made a stunning glove save on Leoš Čermák to win the game and make up for his previous mistake. Game 2 was also in Pardubice, and once again it was an incredible contest. Kometa seemed to have command of the game, as they were 3:1 up through two periods, which was stretched to 6:2 with eight and a half minutes to go. Few would believe that Pardubice could get back into the game, but three goals in ninety seconds turned the game completely. Goals by Píša, Jiří Cetkovsky and Jan Starý put Pardubice in it, and then Píša struck the post on a 5 on 3 powerplay with just two minutes to go. Kometa would hold on to the game, and the series was all square as it headed back to Brno. The series calmed in Brno, despite the raucous home side for the outsiders. It was a bit of a tepid affair, with Radovan Somík scoring the only goal through two periods. However, Kometa turned on the style in the final frame, scoring twice through Jakub Svoboda and Hynek Zohorna to give them a one goal lead with ten minutes to go. Trvaj made 30 saves for the home side as they took the lead in the series. Game 4 was a carbon copy of Game 3, with the game going scoreless through forty minutes. If the first two games was a showdown between the shooters, then the second pair of games was a battle of the netminders. Trvaj made 38 saves in Game 4, whilst his counterpart in the Pardubice net made 29. Jozef Balej broke the deadlock at 45 minutes for the hosts, but Martin Bartek found the twine with little over five minutes to go. The game would once again go to a shootout, with Pardubice winning once again, as Jan Kolář I. bagged the winning goal. The series went back to Pardubice all square, and once again there were goals to be had at the ČEZ Aréna. Pardubice dominated in the opening frame, scoring three times through Cetkovsky, Lukáš Nahodil and Radovan Somík, and in the second period they scored once more through Píša to get Trvaj pulled from the game. Kometa rallied back in the second period, scoring three times to send the teams into the second intermission at 4:3. However, Pardubice had too much for Kometa to handle in the final frame, as Cetkovský scored his second before Bartek added the empty netter to seal Game 5, and leave Pardubice with just one more win necessary to lift the Extraliga title. Kometa had to win on their home ice, but instead of finishing strong, they bowed out with a whimper. Starý scored six minutes in, and although defenceman Jiří Vašíček was able to reply in the dying minutes of the first frame, Pardubice were able to pull away in the second. Benák, Koukal and Zohorna found the net in the third period, to give Pardubice, who were outshot 40:25 in Game 6, a commanding lead. Kolář I. put the icing on the cake in the third period by taking the score to 5:1, which was how the game, and the season would finish, to the delight of the travelling fans, and to the dismay of the home support. Pardubice, who have been a powerhouse of the modern Czech game, once again lifted the title.

Player of the season - Petr Koukal
Another difficult call to make, but Koukal is one of my favourite Extraliga players, so there might be some bias in this listing! Koukal is your archetypical number one centre. Incredibly skilled offensively, an amazing ability to link the play between the forwards and the defence, whilst having an impeccable work rate and two way game. Koukal has been a great servant for his club over the past decade, and it's only right that he goes off to make his payday in Russia. A 51 point season with a further 9 in the playoffs all added up to make him, in my opinion, the most valuable player on the Pardubice roster, and a huge hole to fill for next season.

So there you have it folks, this long, winding journey comes to a close, and it's only right to toast what was an incredible Extraliga season, featuring thrills and spills, brilliant individual efforts, and in the end, a brilliant team performance by Pardubice to win the crown. 

With my work with Slovan, I may not have as much time as I used to to concentrate on the Czech Extraliga, which is a shame, but is a fact of life. It will still remain one of, if not, my favourite league to watch, and from a fan point of view, I'll be sure to keep tabs on Slavia's results in the coming season.

Hope you enjoyed it! A lot of work went into this!