Monday, 2 January 2012

2011 in review

The Christmas carp has finally settled, and the New Year's festivities are coming to an end, and 2012 is set to be a thrilling one in the Czech Extraliga. 2011 brought us excitement, drama and most of all great hockey, and 2012 looks set to be another great year for Czech hockey.

However, things aren't all shipshape in the higher levels of the league, as the big news that came out of the Extraliga in mid December was that the Union of Extraliga teams tore up their agreement with the Czech Ice Hockey Association, as the teams ramp up their efforts to 'close' the Extraliga, which would result in the termination of the end of season playouts for the teams that finish in 11th-14th place in the table. It would also mean an end to the possibility of teams from the 1.liga getting promotion, which would certainly anger the likes of Slovan Ústečtí Lvi and Piráti Chomutov who are sitting atop of the Czech second tier, as well as making it that more difficult for one of the greats of Czech hockey's history, Dukla Jihlava, from getting back to the top division. No concrete agreements have been made yet, but it could prove to be a very difficult situation if the Czech Ice Hockey Association lose their control of the Extraliga.

The other story that has cropped up a few times in the latter months of 2011 is the possibility of teams from Slovakia joining the Czech Extraliga. Slovakia's national league has already been placed somewhat in the shadow by the presence of Lev Poprad in the KHL, and the bigger spending teams in the Slovak Extraliga, such as Slovan Bratislava and HC Košice are hoping to spread their wings. Slovan have been linked with joining the KHL numerous times, although it remains to be seen whether or not they could raise the funds necessary to compete, as well as the issue of having Lev Poprad just next door. It remains to be seen what will happen to Slovakia's biggest teams, as their proposal to the Czech Extraliga was resoundingly denied, receiving no support from the Czech teams at all, whose concerns at the prospect of more teams sharing from the Extraliga cup resulted in thirteen no votes, and one abstention sealing the Slovak clubs fate. For Slovan, it appears that they will either have to stump up for the KHL, or remain as a big fish in the Slovak Extraliga, which may not be sustainable, especially as the rent on their brand new arena won't be cheap. Another option is joining the EBEL, which has already expanded into Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Croatia, but at the time of writing, there are no major inroads being made in this area.

Candles for the Czech trio in Staroměstské náměstí, Prague
2011 was a brutal year for hockey fans around the world, with the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy impacting every hockey fan in the world. The Czechs lost three of their greatest players in modern years, as Jan Marek, Karel Rachůnek and Josef Vašíček perished on that fateful flight. Slovakia was also struck by the disaster, as Pavol Demitra, the former captain of the national team before his retirement after the 2011 World Championships lost his life. Mourning took place all across the two countries, with remembrance services taking place in numerous towns and cities.

It was the culmination of what had been a terrible year for fans of Slovakian hockey, as the juniors flattered to deceive in the World Juniors, with arguably their best team for a number of years failing to reach the quarter finals, whilst on the biggest stage that Slovakia has played since their independence, they flopped at their World Championships, disappointing the fans in the brand new Apollo Arena and being sent into the relegation rounds. It marked the end of the road for Canadian Glen Hanlon, who could not repeat his relative success during his tenure as the Belarussian head coach for Slovakia, and the Slovak Federation moved quickly to appoint two time Russian Superliga winner,Vladimír Vůjtek as their head coach. In his first challenge as coach, Vůjtek steered the Slovakian team to the Deutschland Cup, their first victory in the tournament since 2006. 2011 could have been a great year for Slovakian hockey, and a great chance to build on their momentum after some of the performances during the 2010 Olympics, but the signs of life may be there for the Slovaks, and their spirited performances in this years edition of the World Junior Championships may be a boost that the national program desperately needs. In May it will be ten years since the great team of 2002 defeated the Russians in Gothenburg to win the World Championships.

Handed a horrible group in the World Juniors, it was no surprise that the Czech juniors ended up in the relegation rounds in 2011, and they scraped their way to survival. After three years out of the job, Alois Hadamczik returned to the head coach position of the National Team, replacing Slavia Praha head coach Vladimír Růžička, who left the position as his contract expired on a high, after capturing the 2010 World Championship. However, the Czechs were in no position to repeat this glory, getting outclassed by Sweden in the semi finals, but did end up with a bronze medal to their name as they beat the Russians in the consolation game. As the year concluded, the spotlight is back on the juniors of the Czech Republic, and although they are not the force they once were, the Czechs still know how to put on a performance, as their defeat of the United States showed that they still have a sting in the tail, as well as some characters, as Petr Mrázek fist pumped his way to victory, gaining numerous fans in the process.
Radek Bonk hoisting the Czech title.
Photo: Jan Belej

Domestically, the Czech Extraliga playoffs were as thrilling as ever, as Oceláři Třinec claimed their first ever title since their inception in 1929. The top seeds, with former NHLers Radek Bonk, Lukáš Krajíček, Václav Varaďa and Ladislav Kohn to their name. However, the man that stole the show was Martin Růžička, whose form in the playoffs earned him a contract with Amur Khabarovsk for the 2011-12 season. Růžička broke numerous records last season, as he smashed the record for goals in consecutive games, putting up a 10 game goal streak in March, as well as breaking Zigmund Palffy's playoff scoring record, as Růžička put up 33 points (17+16) in just 18 games. However, it wasn't all plain sailing for Třinec, as they were behind by 3 games to 1 in their semi final series with unlikely contenders Slavia Praha, as well as being down 3-1 in game six, but each time they managed to battle back, not least in game five, as Růžička scored four goals, to go with his sixteen in the seven game series. In the final, they dispatched of Vitkovice 4-1, the Ostrava club's second straight trip to the final, and their second straight defeat.

The 2011-12 season started with the league as competitive as ever, but after clearing out the old (David Výborný, Martin Ručinský and Ondřej Kratěna all moved to pastures new), Sparta Praha ended 2011 with a rather comfortable lead at the top of the standings, whilst their cross city rivals, still smarting from the losses of their best players over the past four seasons ended the season in 12th place. Slavia were shut out at home in four of five home games during November, and the o2 Arena is a very empty place these days. Sparta have finally found the goalie they have been searching for ever since Petr Briza hung up his blocker, as after a few indifferent years, Tomáš Pöpperle seems to be entering his prime, and with a goals against average of less than two, he is giving Sparta a chance in every game they play. Defending champions Třinec, rocked by numerous losses to the KHL sit in seventh place at the turn of the year, suffering from inconsistent goaltending from their tandem of Peter Hamerlik and Martin Vojtek. The contenders to Sparta this year come in the form of České Budějovice, who have added Aleš Kotalík to their line up, and are back stopped by young Jakub Kovář, whose getting better with each season. Pardubice are also up there, as well as Plzeň, who still have Martin Straka on their roster. At the bottom of the table, it is a similar story as last year, as Mlada Boleslav end the season propping up the table. The additions of Výborný and former Zlín ace Jaroslav Balaštík has given them a bit more of an attacking bite, but they simply ship too many goals. Karlovy Vary are only a place above them, after a dreadful start to the year. The 2009 champions look a shadow of their former self, but their performances have improved since signing veteran goalie Dušan Salfický off of Litomerice.

All in all, 2012 promises to be a fantastic year, and I'll be here to blog about it!

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