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.

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