Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Why the Czech Extraliga is the best in the world.

It's like an addiction at the moment. Every day, at around quarter past five I set my browser to in wait of the next Czech Extraliga playoff game. Now at the semi final stage, with both series' looking like they are heading for seven games, I'm basking in the glory of watching what is in my opinion, the best hockey league in the world. Yes, the NHL, KHL and probably even the Elitserien, SM-Liiga and NLA have more talented players. Yes, the quality of the hockey on a technical level is probably  better in all of those aforementioned leagues. However, after watching a large amount of the KHL this year due to my Slovan commitments, and also having a resurgent interest in watching the NHL due to the performances of the Ottawa Senators, I will hands down say that you could give me a relegation play-out game between Liberec and Olomouc over any of the other leagues.

The enthusiasm and passion of the fans is summed up
by the raucous lot from Kometa Brno
Photo: Ivo Dostál
'Well you are a blogger on Czech hockey, of course you'll want to watch that league more'. Yes, that could be true, but while my long standing interest (dating back to my first game, a Prague derby between Slavia and Sparta in October 2006) in Czech and Slovak hockey makes me perhaps more receptive to that league due to my knowledge of the players and the teams, I can honestly say that come playoff time, the Czech Extraliga is the most entertaining hockey you will see. I make no apologies for being a Slavia fan. Throughout the years I have probably been to around twenty Slavia games and have enjoyed every one. Even the 6:0 spanking by Vitkovice with Milan Hnilička in goal in 2009 was an enjoyable game. However, I'm finding the second semi final series, between PSG Zlín and Oceláři Třinec to be as equally thrilling. Zlín, lead the series 3:2, but the two games they lost, they got dominated by the immensely talented Třinec forwards, losing Games 2 and 5 6:2 and 6:1 respectively.

But what makes the hockey so great? Why does this nobody want to lecture me on the best hockey? Honestly, I can't really tell you what makes it so great. Come playoff time though, there's one word that sums up the Extraliga. Passion. You can see it on the faces of every player. Every goal is celebrated to the fullest, and although the term giving 110% gets thrown around far too often, with these players, they truly are giving everything and more in order to bring their team to victory. There is also an incredible parity in the league, which means that you can never count any team out. After looking dreadful in Game 1, losing 3:0 at the o2 Arena to Slavia, Plzeň, led by former NHL stalwart Martin Straka, won Games 2 and 3 and looked to have the upper hand, only to lose Game 4. It is this same sort of parity which sees Liberec, who have been consistently one of the best teams in the regular season over the past four years, now playing in the relegation playoffs. The two finalists from last year, Pardubice and Kometa Brno are both out of contention, while Sparta Praha, who were sitting bottom of the table in November, ended up making the playoffs and losing in seven games in the quarter finals. I go into every game I watch never knowing who is going to win, and I've lost far too much money over the years trying to use my knowledge on betting, only to lose my winnings to a last minute goal or the like.

My favourite hockey photo. Tomáš Svoboda after scoring
the game tying goal vs Liberec in the 2011 Playoffs.
Photo: Michal Beránek
So are you going to see the best quality hockey from a technical level? No. No you're not. The Extraliga is often a very offensively inclined league. Goals are often scored in abundance, and teams often look for a good defensive unit as the third priority between a potent offence and a lights out netminder. You'll very rarely see a netminder with a save percentage under 2.00, yet save percentages stretch into the 0.930s regularly, highlighting that these teams love to shoot the puck. Yes, you're not going to get huge body checks in the corners, and to see a full gloves off, Queensbury rules fight is very rare, but rile them enough, and the Czechs love a scrap. Often it'll be frantic flying of the fists, and often they forget to take their gloves off, but what does this highlight? Passion. You're not going to get guys like Colton Orr who get 27 minutes of penalties in two seconds of ice time. You're getting guys who love hockey, and who can also play it. You're also getting fans that don't stop singing for the whole sixty minutes. It creates an atmosphere that is intoxicating, and keeps me wanting more. The chants are engaging, the banners and the tifos creative and often hilarious, and just a love for hockey that permeates throughout the Czech Republic.

Cocky or brilliant? Robert Kysela showboats in the 2001 Playoffs

I know the adverts are often distracting. I know that the jersies are often garish  and that the foreign commentary can make it difficult to follow and difficult to get into, but with a bit of effort, and an open mind, the world of the Czech Extraliga is an accessible place. The names are difficult, granted, but I really think people are missing out by not giving foreign leagues more of a try, especially when reliable, decent quality streams are always going to be available. There are characters in the league. Guys like Radek Duda, guys like Martin Straka make headlines, and their play on the ice reflects that. There's the nostalgia of seeing former NHL players like Radek Bonk, Petr Nedvěd and Václav Varaďa finishing their careers in their native land.

So this is my plea to you, from one hockey fan to another. I write this as I have half of my screen taken up by my beloved Slavia, currently losing by one goal to Plzeň in Game 6, which if they don't win, means their season is over. God forbid that they do lose this game, sure, I'll be downhearted, but it's a joy to watch this Plzeň team, and wish them all the best in the future.

The Czech Extraliga is the best hockey that you're not watching. Change that now.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Jaroslav Janus to bolt to the Lightning?

(First, perhaps an apology to regular readers. A curse of writers block they call it. I was miffed that I went four months without posting on this blog. I guess with the rigours of every day life, plus my continued work with HC SLOVAN Bratislava taking up any time that I wanted to give to myself to doing hockey writing saw me neglect this labour of love in favour of my 'work'. However, I'm hoping this will be the recommencement of regular postings on this blog. I've spent too long working on it before to let it die out now).

Recent news reports coming out of the Slovak capital hint at a possible NHL return for HC SLOVAN Bratislava and Team Slovakia netminder Jaroslav Janus. The 23 year old Prešov native shone in his first year in the KHL, leading his club, predicted to prop up the Western Conference, to a 6th place finish in the West, and a playoff spot in the club’s first season at this level. The playoff match-up against defending champions Dinamo Moscow may not have gone to plan, with Janus being replaced by Branislav Konrád after conceding five goals in Game 1, and returning in Game 4 but being unable to stop the big blue machine, who won the final game in the series 3:2 and completing the sweep of Slovan.

Jaroslav Janus shone for HC SLOVAN Bratislava in 2012/13
However, to focus on Janus’ disappointing playoff performance would be a misnomer, as behind what can only be described as some frantic defending, especially following the loss of lockout additions Ľubomír Višňovský and Andrej Sekera in January, Janus consistently played lights out. A .928 save percentage put him among the top ten in terms of starting netminders in the KHL, while his five shutouts were good enough for joint-third out of KHL netminders. One could also attribute the downturn in performance to burnout. Janus, who went without a pre-season due to being a last minute addition by Slovan, ended up starting 47 out of Slovan’s 52 regular season games, which was the most out of any netminder in the KHL, with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod’s Vitali Koval the only one coming close, having played one game less.

However, while I could write a whole post raving about Janus’ performances this year, as having seen first-hand some of his desperation saves in games against SKA St. Petersburg and Ak Bars Kazan, it could be the last that Slovan fans see of Janus, who came through the club’s junior system. The source of this news comes from a brief posting on the news tab on, which featured a quote from Janus’ agent, Robert Spálenka. This has been cited by both SME in their article (link) and the news was also made public by HC SLOVAN Bratislava themselves on the club’s website (link).  Spálenka is quoted as saying “Tampa is interested in Janus; the matter is under discussion”. That one line quote could be make or break for Slovan’s offseason plans.

Janus, who was drafted in the 6th round by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009, is perhaps most famous in North America for his incredible performances in goal for Team Slovakia at the World Junior Championships of that same year. Janus backstopped Slovakia to an incredible 5:3 victory over the United States in the quarter finals, despite being outshot 49:17. Although Slovakia would go on to lose their semi-final game to Sweden, and eventually the bronze medal game too, that one game, along with his performances in the round robin stage got Janus’ name known, as before that his OHL record with the Erie Otters was hardly exceptional.

Just one of Janus' many saves against the United States in 2009

The Lightning had a prospect netminding logjam at this point, with Riku Helenius and Dustin Tokarski and Janus competing for the two goalie spots with the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, with Janus being sent down to the Florida Everblades of the ECHL during the 2010-2011 season. Janus was a part of the Admirals’ plans during the 2011-2012 season, starting 34 games and playing the 1b role behind Tokarski as the unstoppable Admirals led the march to the Calder Cup. Last season, which Janus played in the KHL, was technically the final year of his three year entry level deal signed on the 1st January 2010, which means that Janus is now a restricted free agent, with Tampa Bay holding his NHL rights. There is also further complication in the KHL, as upon signing the contract with Slovan in September, Janus’ services were looked into by another party. Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, who then owned Janus’ KHL rights originally wanted to sign Janus due to an injury to starting netminder Curtis Sanford. News of the deal that took place between the two clubs was hushed up and eventually Janus ended up with Slovan.

Janus in goal for the Lightning during 2011/12 pre-season
Photo: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America
With a transfer agreement between the KHL and NHL looking to be somewhat in place following the Ľubomír Višňovský fiasco in late January, Janus may certainly have room to manoeuvre his way back to Tampa Bay, who have had netminding woes this season with Anders Lindback, Mathieu Garon and Cedrick Desjardins all flattering to deceive. However, to add yet more confusion to the situation, Janus was quoted by the HC SLOVAN website at the start of the month with saying ‘Srdce mám belasé’, which translates as saying ‘I have a sky-blue heart’; sky-blue being the traditional colours of Slovan (link). Also, as stressed in both of the Slovak media releases, Janus is supposed to have a contract in place with Janus for next season in accordance with the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Yeah, more plot twists than a M. Night Shyamalan flick.

Currently it remains whether or not to be seen where Janus will end up next season. Slovan have already said that they do not expect this matter to be resolved until after the Easter weekend, while Janus’ participation with the Slovakia squad at the World Championships may protract the saga further. Is Janus ready for the NHL? At 23 years of age he is still young for a netminder, and I think it would be rash to throw him in at the deep end and expect him to be a solid NHL starter right off the bat. He’s an exceptionally agile netminder, which allows him to compensate for his sometimes poor positional play. Perhaps it came as a result of the scrambling Slovan defence in front of him, but many a Slovan fan would often see Janus on his front, diving across his crease to make yet another save. There’s no doubt that his season with Slovan will have prepared him for the rigours of an NHL schedule. For Janus, it will surely be the NHL or KHL next season.

However, I don’t have a crystal ball, and my predictions are usually terrible so who knows what will happen. If he doesn’t make his way back to the Slovnaft Arena though, Slovan are in a world of trouble.