Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Třinec wins first ever championship

Established in 1929, the Třinec hockey club had to wait over eight decades before winning its first national championship. And New York Rangers fans thought they had a long wait.

Třinec captain Radek Bonk hoists the championship trophy.
All photos: Marian Ježowicz, hcocelari.cz.
Located in Silesia, in an economically-depressed "rustbelt" region in the northeast corner of the Czech Republic, Třinec with its population of 38,000 is a small market even by Czech Extraliga standards. The club is nicknamed Oceláři (Steelworkers in English) as an homage to the region's industrial past, much the same way that Pittsburgh's NFL team is. This team means everything to its blue-collar fanbase, and they've waited a long time for their team to have a season like this.

It wouldn't be fair to say that Třinec has never had a good team before, but the team toiled in lower leagues for most of its history before ascending to the Extraliga in 1995. From there, they quickly climbed to become one of the best teams in the country. They reached the final in 1998, only to be swept by the Vsetín dynasty. Jan Peterek was part of that 1998 team and, after playing in Russia for a few years, he was on the team this season as well.

What a season it was.

They finished with the best record in the league, outscoring all other teams in the process. For most of the year, they battled their nearest rivals, Vítkovice Steel, for first. In the end, they edged out Liberec for top spot. Martin Růžička, Radek Bonk, Václav Varaďa, Ladislav Kohn and David Květon led the scoring. A solid defence was anchored by veterans Lukáš Krajiček and Lukáš Zíb. In goal, Peter Hamerlík led the league with 6 shutouts.

In the playoffs, they faced some challenges from Litvínov and Slavia Praha. Particularly Slavia, who led the semifinal series 3-1 and had many Třinec fans thinking that their dream season was just that: too good to be true. But they rebounded to win three in a row and then three more to start the finals against hated Vítkovice. They weren't able to close out the series on the road on Saturday, surrendering a late tying goal and losing in a shootout. That just gave them a chance to come home and win it all in front of their fans. They were 9-1 on home ice during the 2011 playoffs, capping it off with a dominating 5-1 victory.

The game itself was close for one period, Třinec escaping with a 2-1 lead. But in the second they put their stamp on the game. Josef Hrabal through a screen and then Erik Hrňa, with his first of the playoffs, on a beautiful one-time shot on a two-on-one made it 4-1, and left the fans to celebrate the final period away.

"The worst moment in the playoffs was the fourth game of the Slavia series," Bonk said afterward. "Few people believed in us then, but there was a huge commitment in our dressing room and we believed that we could turn it around. I'm really happy to be the first Třinec captain to lift the Cup over his head as champions."

And what about the playoff performance of Martin Růžička?

Růžička opened the scoring in the second minute of game 5. It was his 17th goal and 33rd point in his 18th game. Of all of those points, none were bigger than the 7 he recorded in the fifth and sixth games against Slavia in the semifinals to bring his team from a 1-3 deficit to even and into a seventh game at home, where they weren't going to be beaten. Not by this hungry team in front of these hungry fans.

To call this the greatest thing that's ever happened in Třinec may be an overstatement, but at this time you might have a hard time convincing the 5,200 in attendance at Werk Arena, the thousands more watching in the pubs throughout the region, or even the many more Oceláři fans who have moved elsewhere in the country in search of employment that it's not the truth.

The players appreciated the support, too. Varaďa summed it up: "The fans helped us so much and deserve a large share of the reward. What more can you ask?" 

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