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.