Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rangers arrive in Prague

Though meaningless in the standings of their respective leagues, Thursday's game between Sparta Praha and the visiting New York Rangers is drawing considerable attention in the Czech capital. On Wednesday afternoon, thousands of hockey fans entered Tesla Arena for a rare opportunity to watch an NHL team practice.

The Rangers were full of smiles on the ice at Tesla Arena
on Wednesday. Photo: hcsparta.cz.
September 28 is a state holiday in the Czech Republic, in celebration of patron saint Václav, and it gave many the opportunity to make the midday trek to the old arena in Holešovice.

In the not-too-distant past, the New York Rangers were easily the most popular NHL team in the Czech Republic. They had seven Czechs who played regularly for them in the 2006-07 season, including stars Jaromír Jágr and Martin Straka. They were so popular that, when Prague earned the right to host two NHL regular season games in October 2008, Czech officials campaigned hard to make sure the Rangers were one of those teams. Their efforts paid off, and Czech fans filled O2 Arena twice to watch them take on the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Three years later, there are no Czechs on the roster, and only one Slovak: Marián Gáborík. The Trenčín native got most of the attention from the fans. "It's almost like home," he said. "The countries are like brothers, in a sense, and we speak similar languages, so this doesn't surprise me." On Sunday, his Rangers play a little bit closer to home when they take on Slovan Bratislava in the Slovak capital. "It's interesting that I won't be playing for the home team, but I'll have a lot of fans there: my brother and some friends."

Gáborík had an amusing story about some of his teammates who had never stayed at a European hotel before. "Some of the guys were surprised there were no sheets on the bed, only a comforter," he laughed. "I said to them, 'Hey, we're in Europe now. That's the way it is.' Just like I was surprised when I came to the U.S. and there were sheets on top of the bed."

Website hcsparta.cz reported more culture shock when the visitors went out for lunch at Old Town Square, with Brendan Prust putting ketchup on his vepřový řízek and Steve Eminger attempting to eat knedlíky with his hands.

The Rangers announced that star Swedish netminder Henrik Lundqvist will rest on Thursday, with the start instead going to Martin Biron. When asked what he thought of the atmosphere at practice, he said, "It's a great arena, and you know the fans will be jumping, so it will be fun." About the prospect of playing against a team he's never faced, he answered, "It's going to be great. A couple of times I came out to Europe to play in the World Junior Championships and the World Championships, so I like to play overseas and see different teams."

At the other end of the ice, Tomáš Pöpperle will likely be Sparta's starting goaltender.

Thursday's game begins at 19:00 Central European Time, 1pm Eastern Time. There will be no television coverage.

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