Saturday, 6 September 2014

Stained Steel: HC Košice's next step

Seven straight finals appearances. Four championships between 2009 and 2014. Like it or not, HC Košice Steel are the definition of a dynasty. A barren decade between their title win in 1999, Košice looked to rebuild, and with the help of major sponsor U.S. Steel, who run the gigantic steel plant in the city, a new arena and new success followed. Košice won three straight titles between 2009 and 2011, humiliating their cross-country rivals from the capital, Slovan Bratislava.

All would seem to be going well in Košice, as the reigning Slovak champions head into the 2014/15 campaign looking to repeat their success from last season, where they defeated HK Nitra in the finals, romping to a 6-0 victory in game seven at the Steel Arena. However, one look at their preseason and Champions Hockey League campaigns, and it is clear that something is not quite right in the Steel City.
All smiles five months ago. But pre-season has not been kind to the Slovak Champions
Photo: František Iván,

Košice currently sit bottom of Group A in the Champions Hockey League, having lost all three games so far. If there is any consolation to be had, all of the losses have been by a one goal margin, but seeing the Slovak champions losing to German outfit Kölner Haie, and Czech also-rans Bilí Tygři Liberec is somewhat surprising. Another mitigating circumstance may be that they simply did not travel well, as both of those losses came away from the Steel Arena, but is it a true representation of the current level of Slovak domestic hockey?

In 2011, the news broke that both Slovan Bratislava and HC Košice were looking to become part of the Czech Extraliga. However, their neighbours to the east vetoed the move, with 13 out of 14 Extraliga clubs citing the additional travel costs as the major factor in denying the formation of a ¨new¨ Extraliga featuring clubs from both the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Following this and Slovan’s departure to the KHL in the summer of 2012, the Slovak Extraliga has struggled desperately financially, leading to a major drain of talent. Teams such as Poprad, Martín and most recently HK36 Skalica have made public their financial problems and look set to no longer be Slovan’s farm team. (link)

Three years ago, personally, I believe that both Slovan and Košice could have been welcome additions to the Czech Extraliga, and the quality that both teams possessed would have seen them easily be competitive. This summer, however, Košice have consistently struggled against teams from Czech Republic. In the Steel Cup, played in the middle of August, Košice took on HC Oceláři Třinec and HC Vitkovice Steel from across the border, and both games saw the Czech teams run out winners, 4-0 and 4-2 respectively. In fact the only success that Košice have had in pre-season so far has been in their most recent game, where they got revenge on MHC Martín, who won at the Steel Arena in early August, as Adam Lapšanský scored in overtime to end Košice’s non-competitive pre-season program with a win.

It’s only pre-season, I hear you say, and that may be true. However, comparing this season’s Košice roster to last season’s title winning side makes for grim reading. Rastislav Staňa joins Sparta Praha after leading Košice’s playoff charge with a 94.4% save percentage in the postseason.  Defensive anchor Radek Deyl and solid two way centre Tomáš Marcinko also head to the Czech Republic, joining Karlovy Vary and Pardubice respectively. Last season’s top scorer, Peter Bartoš is now 41 years of age, and not to be ageist, but time is not on his side.

Coming into the side is Radek Philipp, from Sparta Praha, but the 37 year old defenceman’s career is now on the downturn. Marek Zagrapan was signed from Třinec, but was released along with Tomáš Klouček in the last few days (link).

If one compares Košice’s present roster with their team of 2010/11, which won the last of their trio of consecutive titles, it is clear how Slovakia’s domestic downturn has taken hold. Július Hudáček cut his teeth with Košice, and he has yet to be truly replaced at Košice. Alexander Hýlak will tend goal for Košice for the coming season, but the Czech netminder never made it as a Czech Extraliga starting goalie before signing with Košice in 2011. Ján Tabaček and Michel Miklik both left to join Slovan and have not looked back since leaving Košice. Additionally, Vladmir Dravecký, Marcel Haščak and Jaroslav Kristek both tried the KHL and have moved onto bigger and better things. Crucially, what this highlights is that in the time between 2011 and the present day, Košice has not been able to replace the quality they had three years ago. Bartoš and Richard Jenčik remain, but the supporting cast is significantly weaker.

Erik Černák, Pride of Košice's junior system
If there is one crumb of comfort for Eastern Slovakia’s finest, it is that quality as a whole in the Slovak Extraliga has dropped along with Košice’s loss of talent. The best of Slovakia’s domestic talent is flocking not only to the KHL, but more so to the Czech Extraliga than ever before. Consequently, teams are turning to younger, Slovak talent, which may in fact be a positive step for Slovak hockey. Adam Janošik has been getting big minutes in pre-season since signing from Liberec in the Czech Extraliga, whilst Slovakia U20 graduate Milan Kolena has been centreing the top line. Additionally, Slovakia’s best prospect for a number of years, defenceman Erik Černák will look to bounce back from a rocky year and will likely play a greater part in Košice’s Extraliga team than last year. The Košice native played at the World Junior Championships at 16 years of age, and reflects the good work that Košice has been doing in producing quality talent. Černák will more than likely join Martin Marinčin and Tomáš Jurčo as top-60 NHL draft picks when he is eligible in 2016.

All in all, what started out as a rather scathing critique of Košice and the Slovak Extraliga as a whole seems to end on somewhat of a positive note, especially when at the time of writing, Košice are currently Liberec in their CHL game played at the Steel Arena. Two years ago I reflected on what I called Slovakia’s ‘long summer’, following Slovan’s departure, and once again I am left with mixed feelings. All of the negatives I have listed could also be interpreted as positives in one way or another. What I think is objective, however, is that Slovak hockey’s domestic strength is not what it was, and for better or worse, this is something that will have the head honchos at the SZLH questioning which step to take next. The HK Orange 20 project, which has seen the best of the domestic talent younger than 20 join as a team and play as part of the Extraliga until the World Junior Championships is entering its eighth season, and the results are less than tangible, yet the SZLH continues with the project. Even going back an age group, Slovakia once again finished the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament winless on home ice.

Košice will go into the current season favourites, and rightly so, but while they still remain a powerhouse in Slovak hockey, what is clear is that they are anything but a European powerhouse. What Pavol Zůbek, Anton Tomko and the rest of the backroom staff have to do to turn this around remains to be seen.

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