Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The boys of winter are back: Reflecting on the Czech summer

It is with great pleasure that Velvet Hockey returns from an extended break. After taking a year break from engaging with hockey, I’m feeling refreshed and ready to bring news and views from the Czech Republic and Slovakia and (hopefully) neatly summarise them in English.

HC Zlin: Extraliga Champions 2013/14
Photo: Lukáš Urbanik,
It has been a busy summer in the Czech Extraliga, and I could write reams on the major stories which have filled those long summer days. With pre-season now two weeks in and the league season a little under a month away, most teams are putting the finishing touches to their rosters and seems the perfect time to reflect on the summer that has been.

Two in, two out

Ever since the Extraliga/1.liga relegation playouts were changed to a round robin format (somewhat resembling the Swedish Kvalserien) featuring the top two 1.liga teams and the worst two Extraliga teams, the potential for a massive shift has always been there. HC Pirati Chomutov survived by the skin of their teeth in 2012/13, but this year they were not so lucky. Joining Chomutov in 1.liga next year is Rytiři Kladno. Kladno, owned by Czech legend Jaromir Jágr, were a perenial bottom feeder before the team rebranded under the name Rytiři (meaning Knights) in 2011.

It's 1.liga hockey once again for these Chomutov fans
Photo: Jan Pidrman,
Kladno has been one of the biggest talent producers in Czech hockey over the last century. The club was founded in 1924, and won five Czechoslovak championships between 1975 and 1980. The NHL lockout in 2012/13 was testament to the quality that Kladno has produced, as Jágr, along with Tomáš Plekanec, Marek Židlický, Jiří Tlustý and Tomáš Kaberle all laced up the skates for the Knights. The aforementioned five players were all products of Kladno’s junior system, but the senior squad has always flattered to deceive. Kaberle returned to the Extraliga following a fourteen season NHL career, but he was unable to solidify a leaky defence which conceded an average of over three goals a game. It is not the first time Kladno have fallen to the 1.liga though. In 2002/03 the team bounced straight back following their relegation the season before. This author has his fingers crossed they can do the same in 2014/15.

Chomutov’s two year stint in the Extraliga is a cliché for what could have been. 2012/13 saw the team get off to a flyer, hovering around the playoff places as they seemed to catch teams by surprise and pick up victories at home on the road. However, the racism incident involving Chris Stewart (read here) appeared to take more out of the team than was first thought, as they dropped like an anchor to the bottom of the Extraliga pile by the end of the season. Last season, Chomutov started awfully and continued the trend. A paltry six wins was all the team could muster, 20 less than 13th placed Kladno.

HC Olomouc celebrate their promotion "Czech Style"
Photo: Eva Holásková,
Taking their place are BK Mladá Boleslav and HC Olomouc. The former are no strangers to the Extraliga, as they had a four season spell between 2008 and 2012. However, it was hardly a successful stint in the Czech top flight, finishing last in three of those four seasons, and only managing to finish 13th in 2009/10. In one of the most interesting facts of Czech hockey, HC Olomouc were the first winners of the independent Czech Extraliga in 1993. However, in 1997, the club sold its Extraliga license to Karlovy Vary, and in 1999 the club collapsed all together. Hockey returned to Olomouc in 2001, and they have risen through the ranks from the 2.liga (Czech third tier) and have finally returned to the Czech top flight, having finished runners-up to Mladá Boleslav in the 1.liga final but beating both of the Extraliga teams in the relegation playout.
Both teams have looked to strengthen in order to make sure their stays in the Extraliga are not limited to a solitary season. Mladá Boleslav have retained their three top scorers from last season (Tomáš Klimenta, David Výborný and Michal Broš). Adding to this trio, the club has penned contracts with young forwards Tomáš Hyka (from Farjestad in the SHL), Dominik Pacovský, who failed to make an impact with Lev Praha in the KHL, but has a proven track record with Sparta and David Květoň, who has a number of solid seasons with Třinec to his name.

On the other hand, Olomouc have strengthened the back end. Tomáš Halász’s transfer to Pardubice opened up a space in goal alongside the rejuvinated Tomáš Vosvrda, which has been filled by Jiři Trvaj. Additionally, Olomouc penned deals with Martin Vyrůbalík, who has an exceptional record in recent years in the Slovak Extraliga with Skalica, and Joni Tuominen, a Finnish defenceman with over 350 games experience in the Finnish Liiga and 22-year old Peter Hraško, who made his Slovakia national team debut this season.

The New Slavia

"Lubina Out" - Slavia fans make their voice heard
Photo: Pavel Mazáč,
The club undergoing perhaps the biggest change this offseason is Slavia Praha, not least because coach of fourteen seasons, Vladimir Růžička, left the club to take up the post as Czech Republic head coach on a full time basis. Along with the coach’s departure, club captain Petr Kadlec left for Plzeň after over 1,000 games with Slavia. The ownership fiasco of the last two seasons seems to have got itself sorted and now Slavia can look to move on…right?

Wrong. Or so that’s how it seems to be at present. The man chosen to replace Růžička as coach is Ladislav Lubina, who had a distinguished career with Pardubice as a player and a so-so period as head coach. However, Slavia’s fan club (Sešívaní) have been vocal in their unacceptance of Lubina, with a ‘Lubina ven’ (Lubina out) banner being held proudly at all Slavia’s pre-season games at Eden so far.

The root behind the dislike of Lubina? Reading through the group’s Facebook page and what has been published in the press, it appears that the main point of contention is Lubina’s non-hockey past, where he was responsible for the death of the father Vratislav Lokvenc in a car crash in Hradec Kralove. Lubina fled the scene but was eventually caught, and sentenced to two years’ probation.

Lubina appears to have the support of the Slavia board, and the team’s pre-season form has been incredibly impressive, as they have racked up five wins in a row, defeating the likes of Admiral Vladivostok and thrashing Medveščak Zagreb 5-0. Against Zagreb, Slavia lined up with a first line of Marek Tomica, Jaroslav Bednář and Tomáš Vlasák, the same top line they had in the 2005/06 season. Vlasák has been Slavia’s big name free agent signing this summer, after spending seven successful seasons with Plzeň.

A Ton of bricks

A sight Sparta fans thought they'd never see -
Petr Ton in a Kometa jersey
Photo: Michal Eger,
In arguably the biggest transfer saga of the season, Petr Ton, the face of Sparta Praha for the last decade has
left the club after a 67 point season which ended in acrimonious circumstances. Sparta, who finished the 2013/14 miles ahead of the pack in the regular season, lost once more to Kometa Brno in the playoffs. A lack of agreement over finances has been cited by the club as the reason as to Ton’s release, however, the fact that the 40-year old was benched during the third period of game 7 against Kometa by Sparta head coach Josef Jandač surely must have played a factor in Ton leaving Sparta after his best season yet. A video of Ton’s sitting is available here

In a rather cruel twist of fate, despite rumours linking Ton to his hometown Kladno club, the veteran sharpshooter signed with Kometa Brno, who have been a perennial thorn in Sparta’s side in recent seasons. You can be sure that Ton will get a warm reception on his return to the Tipsport Arena, but if Ton leads another Kometa victory over Sparta in the playoffs, perhaps the goodwill will fade.

The KHL merry go round

As with every summer, there has been no shortage in the transfer activity between the Czech Extraliga and the KHL. I remember interviewing then Zlín (now Pardubice) head coach Zdeněk Venera in 2007 and him remarking that it was a massive struggle for Czech clubs to hold onto their talent because they get offers of between 7 and 10 times more from the KHL. As a consequence, a vast majority of the younger Czech talent that perhaps won’t make it in the NHL, makes the move to Russia.

The biggest ‘Czech’ transfer splash in the KHL perhaps does not involve the Extraliga though, as Slavia product Vladimir Sobotka surprisingly left the St. Louis Blues and signed a bumper contract with Avangard Omsk, a Russian powerhouse who have fallen by the wayside in recent years through poor performances. Other KHL-KHL transfers have seen defenceman Josef Hrabal (former Třinec) move from Sibir Novosibirsk to Dinamo Riga. Vladimir Růžička jr. left Slavia for a tryout with Dinamo Riga, but his future is uncertain as the Latvian club declined to offer him a contract. Defenceman Jan Kolář (former Pardubice) makes the move from Donbass Donetsk to Admiral Vladivostok following Donbass’ decision to cease operations for the coming season. Petr Koukal leaves Neftekhimik Nizhekamsk for KHL newboys Jokerit, while fellow forward Jakub Petružálek will hope to recapture his fine form on Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg’s roster, after leaving Ak Bars Kazan.

In terms of transfers from the Extraliga to the KHL, Sparta lost two players as Tomáš Pöpperle returns to the KHL, this time with HK Sochi, while Tomáš Rachunek has penned a deal with Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Additionally, Martin Zatovic and Karol Sloboda have signed with Lada Togliatti, from Karlovy Vary and Vitkovice respectively. Moving back to the Extraliga from the KHL, Třinec have made the biggest splash, signing Zbyněk Irgl to replace Martin Růžička, who gets a second crack at the KHL, this time with Traktor Chelyabinsk. Additionally a number of the younger players at the now defunct Lev Praha have signed Extraliga deals, Lukáš Cingel and Jakub Matai being two.

Can Irgl lead Třinec back to the Extraliga championship?
Photo: Martin Ježowicz,
All in all, it looks to be yet another promising Extraliga season, with the pressure being on Zlín to see whether
or not they can retain their Extraliga crown. They have made very few changes to their roster, along the loss of Petr Zámorský and Antonín Honejsek, two of the team’s best young players may hit the reigning champions hard. However, the signing of Roman Vlach from Karlovy Vary was a welcome boost, and the Moravians have faith they can get their second title in a row. I will hopefully have a team by team preview up within the next week or so, including my predictions of the Extraliga table and the players to watch this season.

Until then, enjoy pre-season, and if you have always wanted to go and watch some Czech hockey but have never got round to it, this is the year to do so. Pound Sterling is currently around 25 per cent up on the Czech Koruna since the start of the year, and the Czechs are planning on keeping their currency at the same level. This means that a centre ice ticket at the o2 Arena for a Slavia game costs £5.50 (standing for £2), while a ticket at the Tipsport Arena for their deadly rivals Sparta will cost you £3.30 at the cheapest (rising to £5.75). Your pound will go even further in the Czech Republic than it has before, and with beers from as little as £0.80, you cannot go wrong!

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