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 hokejportal.sk
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
Photo: vysocina-news.cz
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
Photo: Ziakoo.sk/hokejportal.sk
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
Photo: easternconferences.wordpress.com
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/shk37piestany.sk
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.