Monday, 15 September 2014

Deaths send shockwaves through Slovak hockey

The first weekend of a new season is where all the hope and optimism generated during four months without hockey comes together. Fans go into the year hoping for the best, and while for some it will be a season of success, for others, this may just be the only happy time during the whole season… Well until at least it ends.

However, Slovakia is waking up on Monday morning to the news that three people within the hockey world have passed away over the course of the weekend. The deaths of Miroslav Hlinka, Miroslav Kováčík and long-time Slovak national team doctor Vladimir Luptak, all before their time, has left a number of questions to be answered and has cast a sombre veil down on Slovak hockey. Hlinka and Kováčík took their own lives, whilst Luptak, who died following a long battle with illness. He was 50 years of age.

Miroslav Hlinka won gold with Slovakia in 2002
Photo: Imago/East News
Miroslav Hlinka was one of Slovakia’s premier European-based players during the first decade of the 21st century. The Trenčín native learned his trade with his home town Dukla, before movig first to the Czech Republic, and then on to the rest of Europe. He played for Sparta Praha for four seasons, before having a prolific career in Finland with Jokerit, Sweden with MODO and Russia with Dinamo Moscow. Wherever he went, Hlinka brought success, having won the Czech Extraliga in 2004, Finnish and Swedish silver medals in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Most notably, Hlinka was a member of the famous Slovak team which won IIHF World Championship Gold in Sweden in 2002. He scored two points in the tournament which is still down in the history books as Slovakia’s greatest hockey triumph.

Cousin of former NHLer and prolific forward Jaroslav Hlinka, Miroslav Hlinka was more than just an on-ice force. He was given the captaincy at Pardubice and Chomutov, and kept on playing into his 43rd year, as he spent last season in the Slovak 1.liga with HK Trnava, before hanging up the skates and taking an assistant coaching position with Slovak Extraliga team, Banska Bystrica.

In an interview with Czech press, Jaroslav Hlinka said that he found out about his cousin’s death immediately after Sparta Praha’s 3-1 loss to Hradec Kralove on Sunday. “When I heard the news, I began to remember our experiences. When I was younger, Miro was like a big brother. He played hockey and I looked up to him. We did not grow up together, but when I knew that he was a good hockey player…I guess, in public, Miro always appeared chilled, but probably was hiding something.”

Tributes came from other major figures within Slovak hockey. Hlinka’s teammate from his time with the Slovak national team, Ladislav Nagy, said, ‘I’m shocked. We were in contact when we [Slovan Bratislava] played in Banska Bystrica during preseason. He looked fine then. I don’t understand what happened.”

Additionally, HC Košice defenceman and also fellow national team teammate Martin Štrbák said, “When someone leaves the world who you know very well, it is very sad. I don’t know what was the cause, but he must have suffered greatly … Miro was my roommate at the World Championships when in 2002 we became the world champion and we got together three medals. It is difficult for me to talk about. I’m in shock. I do not have words.”

News of Miroslav Kováčík's death broke Monday
Most recently, news broke on Monday morning about another Slovak hockey player taking his own life, as forward Miroslav Kováčík passed away at the age of 35. Born in Nitra, Kováčík had a prosperous career which saw him play in Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He also featured for Slovakia at three World Championships. Last season, he was part of the HK Nitra team who were beaten finalists in the Slovak Extraliga, with Kováčík scoring 20 goals during the regular season. The news was broken by MHK Dubnica, for whom both Hlinka and Kováčík both worked for in off-ice capacities.

This recent blow to Slovak hockey has left many asking the same questions which emerged following the deaths of Wade Belak, Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien three years ago. It just may be that the timings of these deaths were coincidence, but the fact that hockey players continue to be plagued by ailments such as depression is something that still needs addressing.

More news will come in due course as investigations take place into all three deaths which have dealt a body blow to Slovak hockey this weekend. The words tragedy and saddening have been used in the Slovak press as adjectives to describe the deaths of Hlinka, Kováčík and Luptak, which perfectly captures the shock and grief that is now with Slovak hockey fans.

Quotes come from here and here

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