Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Znojmo joins Austrian League

In the not-too-distant past, they were contenders for the Czech national championship, but have been relegated to the First League since 2009. Now, starting in 2011-12, HC Orli Znojmo will play in the Austrian-based Erste Bank Hockey League.
"Today we reached a final agreement and signed the contract," club manager Stanislav Hahn stated Tuesday on the team's website. "All details will be announced at Thursday's press conference."

The announcement marks a return to top-level European hockey for the Eagles.  After winning back-to-back First League titles in 1998 and 1999, Znojmo was promoted to the Extraliga, where they competed for 10 years. Their most successful season was 2005-06, when they advanced to the semi-finals. In 2009, facing mounting costs, club ownership sold its Extraliga license to another South Moravian club, Kometa Brno.

After two seasons in the lower circuit, Orli players seem to be looking forward to the prospect of better competition. "The Austrian League is better than the Czech First League," said team captain Radek Haman.

This isn't the first time that a Czech-based team has attempted to play in a foreign league. Karlovy Vary and Hradec Králové have each attempted to join the KHL, but failed. Karlovy Vary experienced setbacks related to the global financial crisis and the Hradec group, which had already named its team HC Lev Hradec Králové, was not given approval by the Czech Ice Hockey Association. The team moved to Poprad, Slovakia, and will play in the KHL next season in that city. Although the ČSLH didn't approve the Hradec plan, they have given the go-ahead to the Znojmo proposal.

"We carefully examined and refined all the conditions to make them viable for both parties," said Hahn. He also said that the club's youth teams will continue to play domestically. This would include the Znojmo U20 team, which is the reigning Czech junior champion.

Although the EBEL is based in Austria, it now has teams in five countries: six in Austria, two in Slovenia, and one each in Croatia and Hungary. Orli Znojmo becomes the league's 11th team, and there's a possibility of a 12th being added for next season, either in Hungary or Slovakia. Its reigning champion is Red Bull Salzburg.

More details about the Znojmo transfer will be announced Thursday.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Jeřábek and Přibyl taken in KHL draft

The KHL held its third annual junior draft on Saturday. Two Czechs were among the 135 players selected: Jakub Jeřábek of Plzeň 1929 and Daniel Přibyl of Sparta Praha.

Jakub Jeřábek could play for the KHL's Lev
Poprad next season. Photo: Photo: Rick
Stewart, Getty Images North America.
Jeřábek was taken 109th overal by Lev Poprad, the expansion club that will begin play in Northern Slovakia this season. He was Lev's fourth selection. Jeřábek, who just turned 20 in May, was a mainstay on the Plzeň pro club's defence this past season, and played well enough to earn a spot in the LG Games in Sweden, playing for the Czech national team. He proved his value in the World Junior Championships in Buffalo, where he was the Czech team's captain and best player.

Přibyl was taken 17 spots later, at 126, by Severstal Cherepovets. The 18-year-old played 3 games in the Tipsport Extraliga this past season, but spent the majority of the year in the Junior Extraliga, where he recorded 58 points in 41 games, leading Sparta to first place in the standings. The junior Sparta team was knocked out in the semifinal by Karlovy Vary, but that wasn't due to a lack of production from Přibyl, who recorded 5 points in 4 games. He scored the tying goal late and assisted on the overtime winner in the quarterfinal clincher against Litvínov.  He is projected to be a middle-round pick at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and considered a top candidate to be on next year's Czech World Junior team.

Considering his age, the higher level of competition he played this past season, and due to the fact he was chosen by the Poprad club, which is by far the closest team to home, distance-wise, Jeřábek seems like a much safer bet to make the jump straight to the KHL this upcoming season.

That sentiment was shared by the team's head coach, Czech Radim Rulík, who stated, "(Slovak Marek) Tvrdoň and Jeřábek very much want to play in the KHL, therefore there is a chance that they could appear on our team as early as next year. I think that Jeřábek could turn out to be the discovery of the year."

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Nedvěd: "I will return to Liberec"

When his season ended back on March 16, there was speculation that 39-year-old Petr Nedvěd would retire.

"I've got a lot of time to think, give it some time. I'll see how I feel," he said at the time.

He is now confirming his intention to return for another season. "I will return to Liberec," he told Czech newspaper Sport.

Nedvěd defected from communist Czechoslovakia as a 16 year old while playing at an international Midget tournament in Calgary in January 1989.  He played a year for the WHL's Seattle Thunderbirds before being drafted second overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 1990. He gained Canadian citizenship in 1993 and represented his adopted homeland at the 1994 Winter Olympics, while in a contract dispute with Vancouver, and earned a silver medal.

He first played in the Czech Extraliga, briefly, in 1997 while in another contract dispute, this time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He played 5 games with Sparta Praha that year and then played a full season with Sparta during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. He returned to Sparta yet again, in 2007-08, but after an unsuccessful attempt to return to the NHL with the New York Rangers in the fall of 2008, he signed with his hometown team, Bílí Tygři Liberec, where he has played ever since.

In 2010-11, as the team's captain, he led Liberec with 55 points in 45 games, a total that was third in the league. He added 10 points in a seven-game playoff series, in which Liberec was defeated by Slavia Praha.

"For us it's a good thing, because Petr had a great season for himself and for us," said Liberec general manager Ctibor Jech. "We're counting on him in all capacities: as a team captain and leader on and off the ice. We are pleased that he'll be staying with us."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hašek will take a year off, but not necessarily retire

He has retired three times before. First in 2002, again in 2004, and a third time in 2008. Perhaps that's why this time, Dominik Hašek isn't ready to say he's quite done.  He has, however, told website denik.cz that he doesn't plan to play next season.

Dominik Hašek shaking Wayne
's hand after the 1998 Olympic
semifinal. Photo: http://exhokej.blog.cz.
"It's nothing. I haven't received any offers that interest me, so I've decided that I won't play hockey this year," said the hero of the 1998 Winter Olympics. "But I'm by no means finished. If I see that my hands and legs are still capable, I think, why run away from it? I'll leave that open."

Hašek joined the top Czechoslovak league at age 16 and played nine years for his hometown Pardubice team and one year for Dukla Jihlava before heading to North America in 1990. At the time of his departure, he had been named the top goaltender in the league five straight years. After splitting two years between the Chicago Blackawks and their IHL affiliate in Indianapolis, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres, where he emerged as the team's top goaltender in 1994. In Buffalo, he won the Vezina Trophy six times as the NHL's top goaltender and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1997 and 1998. He also led the Sabres to an appearance in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Dallas Stars in six games. He signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings in 2001.

Hašek first retired after winning the Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2002 at age 37. After a year off, he returned to Detroit for the 2003-04, but injuries and a crowded Detroit crease that also included Curtis Joseph and Manny Legace limited Hašek to only 14 games that season. After not playing during the NHL lockout, many were surprised when he came back to play for the Ottawa Senators at age 40 in 2005. He again ended up back in Detroit, but when he was relegated to the backup position behind Chris Osgood for Detroit's 2008 Stanley Cup championship, his career definitely seemed finished. Not quite.

He returned home to play for Eaton Pardubice in 2009-10, backstopping them to the Czech championship, and then for Spartak Moscow last season, where he led the KHL with seven shutouts, proving that he is still capable of playing pro hockey.

However, after a year off, he will be 47 years old at the start of the 2012-13 season, which might cause some to question whether or not he could still play at a high level. Hašek doesn't share those doubts.

"Although I am four years older than when I finished in Detroit (editor's note: actually three), I didn't notice any difference in my body. Already in my head I'm deliberating plans for next year. How I should train. What to look for, what to add, where to cut back. I want to try again for at least a year."

Monday, May 23, 2011

KHL's St. Petersburg pursues Jágr

Czech website denik.cz is reporting that KHL club SKA St. Petersburg has officially thrown its hat into the ring in the Jaromír Jágr sweepstakes.

"Jágr is one of the candidates to strengthen the team, said SKA general manager Alexei Kasatonov. "And the chances are always there, especially at this point, considering he hasn't signed a contract."

 The new GM has the task of improving a team that was knocked out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals this past season. His first task was to sign last year's coach of the year, Miloš Říha, as head coach. Říha is optimistic about obtaining Jágr. "I think it will happen."

Comments made by Omsk management at season's end indicated there was a better than average chance that he would not be back there next year. Jágr himself has commented that he could possibly play in the KHL, NHL, or Czech Extraliga next season. 

"I don't know if I'll play in Russia, the NHL or (in the Czech Republic)," he said last week. He did say that he wants to eventually end up in Kladno, but "it could be this year, it might be next year, it could be in two years." 

In February, Jágr's father made public comments expressing his wish for the younger Jágr to return to Kladno this year and take over his job of club president.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

3 Czechs honoured at KHL awards

The Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League held its annual awards show on Friday night, and three Czechs took home hardware at the end of the evening.

Karel Rachůnek (#4) and Roman Červenka
(#10) were honoured at the KHL awards.
Photo: Associated Press, xlenka.blog.cz.
Two players were rewarded for their offensive output. Roman Červenka of Avangard Omsk won the league's award for being the top goal-scorer by lighting the lamp 31 times in 51 games this year, while Karel Rachůnek of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl led all defencemen in scoring with 46 points, which consisted of 11 goals and 35 assists. Both players were members of the Czech Republic's bronze-winning team at the recent World Championships.

In addition to the two players, Miloš Říha, who led Atlant Moscow Oblast to a berth in the Gagarin Cup Final, was named the league's top coach. "This season has been successful for me, the club and the entire Moscow region," Říha said in his acceptance speech. "I am glad to have achieved success with the club where I started my work in Russia," he continued, alluding to the fact that he has already left Atlant and will SKA St. Petersburg next season.

Říha played in the Czechoslovakian First League for HC Vítkovice and was drafted in 1983 by the Minnesota North Stars, but never played in the NHL. He began his coaching career in 1996-97 with Pardubice and has coached in Russia since 2005-06.

In addition to leading the league in goals, Červenka was also third overall in points with 61, while Avangard linemate Jaromír Jágr was eighth with 51. Rachůnek's Yaroslavl teammate, Josef Vašiček, was seventh with 55, and then led all playoff scorers with 22 points in 18 games. This came despite the fact that Yaroslavl was eliminated in the semifinals. There was one Czech, defenceman Martin Blaťák, on Gargarin Cup-champion Salavat Yulaev Ufa.

Among goaltenders, the legendary Dominik Hašek of Spartak Moscow led the league in shutouts at age 46 with 7. Jakub Štěpánek was third in goals-against average and fifth in save percentage with 2.05 and .923 postings. His stellar play in the St. Petersburg net was likely a contributing factor that led to the club parting company with Yevgeni Nabokov mid-season.

The KHL has become a popular destination for Czech players in recent years, with 31 dressing for various clubs this past season.

Twenty of the league's 24 clubs are located in Russia, with single franchises also located in Kazakhstan, Latvia, Belarus, and beginning next season, Poprad, Slovakia. Attempts have been made in the past to place franchises in Karlovy Vary and Hradec Králové, but a KHL club in the Czech Republic has yet to happen.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Jágr's still got it

Risto Pakarinen

When Jaromír Jágr made his Czechoslovak League debut, one of his teammates was Milan Nový, then 36-year-old forward, a key player on the Czechoslovak team that won back-to-back World Championships in 1976 and 1977. Nový had returned to Kladno a few years earlier after a stint in Switzerland and Austria, and had helped bring the famous club back to the top division, before retiring after that year with Jágr in 1989.

If it feels like Jaromír Jágr has always been around, it’s simply because he started young. He played his first World Championship in Switzerland in 1990 as an 18-year-old, and in September 1991, he was on Czechoslovakia’s Canada Cup team – as a Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

At the 2011 World Championship, he proved that he’s still got it, averaging a point a game and winning his fourth World Championship medal in his eighth tournament. He’s played six of his World Championship tournaments since 2002. Last year, he was considered the grand old man of the team that was lacking the biggest Czech stars, as he collected seven points en route to his second World Championship gold. The first one came in 2005.

"Last year, we showed that we can win even if we don't have our best players. This year, the NHL players came, too, and the team attitude was still there. This was a great group of guys. Too bad we played against a Swedish team who just didn't make any mistakes," Jágr said after the bronze medal game.

The Czechs were 7-0 before the semi-final, and suffered their only loss of the tournament at a critical moment.

“Sweden played their best game of the tournament and that day we just didn’t have a chance. Our line didn’t score goals, it wasn’t our night, and it was perfect for them,” he said.

The Czechs looked strong all the way to their loss. They had great goaltending in Ondřej Pavelec, they had a great, playmaking defence, and up front they had three excellent offensive lines, each one stepping up at different occasions. Jágr’s line – with Tomáš Plekanec and Roman Červenka – scored all four goals in the team’s quarterfinal game against the U.S., and four in the crazy 7-4 bronze medal game against Russia.

“It was an open game and we knew you can’t play like that against Russia. You don’t want to play up-and-down hockey, you have to play down low, in their zone and make those forwards play defense,” Jágr said about the bronze medal game.

But, such is hockey. Even a great team can come up short because, as the saying goes, anything can happen in one hockey game.

“I think we played our best hockey in a long time. We played so well for 6-7 games, and then, all of a sudden it was 1-1 [in the semi-final] and we started to panic, like, changing lines. (Coach Adam Hadamczik) tried to do something, and it didn’t work out,” Jágr said.

“It depends on how you look at it. Some people say that they want to take the gold and they don’t see the good hockey, others say they want to enjoy good hockey, regardless of the score. We won the gold last year, in this tournament, we played good hockey,” said Jágr, philosophically.

Nine points in nine games, and a hat trick against the U.S. made Jágr, 39, a tournament All-Star forward for the third time (2004, 2005), as well as tournament’s Best Forward. In the Turin Olympics, when Sweden and Finland also played in the final, and the Czechs beat Russia in the bronze medal game, Jágr announced his retirement from national team duty. This time he didn’t.

“I’m not going to say I’m not going to play (in the national team) anymore. If I feel good and feel that I can help the team, of course I’m going to play. I have no problem to play these games. If I want to play hockey a little longer, I have to do something. If I’m going to rest three months at my age, it’s not going to help me,” he said.

He finished his third straight season with Omsk Avangard in the KHL – 51 points in 49 games – but will now take his time before making up his mind about next season.

There have been rumors about Jágr returning to the NHL, and the charisma of the Czech star is such that even a tiny hint is enough to start a speculation. This time around the teams mentioned have been the Penguins, the New York Rangers, his last NHL team, and the Montreal Canadiens – especially after Jágr seemed to hit it off with Tomáš Plekanec.

“Maybe it would be fun to play in the NHL. Maybe Pittsburgh. Maybe Montreal. Maybe New York. I played in Pittsburgh a long time and Mario is the owner, and it’s always better to play with great centers like (Sidney) Crosby and (Yevgeni) Malkin, the game’s a little bit easier then. I would like to score some goals, empty-netters, with guys like that it’s always easier,” he said laughing.

Then again, he played down a recent attempt to patch the relationship with the Penguins.

“I got a letter from the GM, invitation to a golf tournament, but, first, I don’t play golf. And second, if I decide to play in Russia, our training camp starts in July,” he said, and grinned.

“New York? I’ll never forget that they gave me a second chance. Montreal? They’re crazy about hockey and I’ve never played in Canada,” he said.

Jágr still protects the puck better than anybody, and he’s faster than he looks. In the game against the U.S., he managed to score on a breakaway in which he basically outskated an American defenceman.

“The big ice, and the way you have to play here, makes that my skating is a lot better than when I left the NHL. I remember when I played a season in Europe (in Omsk in 2004-05) and then came back to New York, I had my best season in a long time. It’s always helped me,” he said.

Whether he’ll get back to the NHL or not, Jágr, the last of the Czechoslovak era players, proved that he’s still a top player. At 39, he also works hard to keep it that way. His game-day early skates – often in shorts – are legendary, and it’s not a rare sight to see Jágr work out with special equipment long after the game has ended. Last year, he even hired a personal skate sharpener, Joe Frei, to come to Omsk with him.

“When Jágr went out to a practice, and skated, he came back to tell me how 'unbelievable' it was, and that he had never in his life felt like that on his skates,” Frei, who did equipment repairs and skate sharpening for all the teams at the Olympics, told Windsor Star last year.

Not even Jágr can keep everything under control, but he’s fine with that. He starts his games by making a cross across his chest, ends them the same way. He also has a tiny cross drawn on his sticks.

“I’ve always believed in God and I know that he helps me. Whatever happens, (it) is the best thing for me. I trust Him. More than my agent,” Jágr said, laughing.

Whether his agent gets him an NHL deal or not, whether he stays in the KHL or not, Jágr does know where his career will come to its end. At home. Last February, he agreed to take over the Kladno club presidency from his 70-year-old father, Jaromír Jágr, Sr. And he's currently in talks to become a majority shareholder in the financially troubled club.

“For sure, I’m going to finish my career at home (in Kladno), but I just don’t know when,” Jágr said.

The torch is on its way, but for now, the next Kladno star will just have to wait.

7 Czech teams will compete for European Trophy

The European hockey season just ended on Sunday, but on Friday it was announced that the 2011-12 season would officially begin on August 11 with the European Trophy.

Sparta in action against Djurgårdens IF in 2010 European Trophy
competition. They will renew acquaintances in Stockholm on
August 13, 2011. Photo: bart70.rajce.idnes.cz.
What began as the Nordic Trophy in 2006 as a pre-season tournament between Swedish and Finnish clubs, the event was expanded in 2010 to include teams in other European leagues. Last season, Sparta Praha was the lone Czech team to compete in the 18-team tournament which was won by Eisbären Berlin. This year, the tournament has been expanded to 24 teams, including seven Czech clubs. In addition to Finland and Sweden, there will also be clubs competing from Austria, Germany, and Slovakia. Last year, there were also clubs from Norway and Switzerland involved.

The 24 teams have been divided into four divisions of six, with Czech teams in three of the four groups. Sparta and Slavia Praha will play in the North Division, Bílí Tygři Liberec, Eaton Pardubice, and Kometa Brno in the South, and Mountfield České Budějovice and Plzeň 1929 will compete in the East.

Having Sparta and Slavia in the same group is convenient for teams travelling from other countries, who can play both teams on back-to-back nights. It also means that Prague fans will be treated to an August edition of their derby. The two teams will square off at Zimní stadion Eden in Prague's Vršovice district on August 20. Eden is where Slavia played its home games before O2 Arena opened in 2004. The club's training facilities and youth teams are still based there.

"When we've played summer pre-season games in the past, such as the Tipsport Cup, they attracted about 800 spectators. I think that a foreign team will attract even more," said Slavia general manager and coach, Vladimír Růžička, about what kind of crowds might be expected at Eden, which can accommodate around 3,000 spectators. "I'm hopeful that the games will be of good quality, even when they're played before the season."

Teams generally look at the tournament as a good way to get players into competitive games before the start of their domestic leagues. "In past summers, we had the Tipsport Cup, which won't take place this year," Kometa Brno coach Zdeněk Venera told hokej.cz's Jan Vacek. "We welcome the chance to play in this tournament to get a good look at our team in pre-season games against strong teams." 

Each team will play the other five teams in its group, plus one additional game against a team from each of the other three groups for a total of eight. The top two finishers in each group will advance to the playoff round, which will be a three-round, single-knockout event played in Salzburg and Vienna, Austria, December 16 to 18.

Below is the schedule of games involving Czech teams. Home teams are listed first. For a complete tournament schedule, visit:


Thursday, August 11
HC Sparta Praha - HV71 Jönköping (Sweden)
Adler Mannheim (Germany) - HC Bílí Tygři Liberec
HC Eaton Pardubice - Linköpings HC (Sweden)
Djurgårdens IF Stockholm (Sweden) - HC Slavia Praha

Saturday, August 13
HC Kometa Brno - Linköpings HC (Sweden)
HC Eaton Pardubice - HV71 Jönköping
Luleå HF (Sweden) - HC Slavia Praha
HC Mountfield Č. Budějovice - HC Plzeň 1929
Djurgårdens IF Stockholm - HC Sparta Praha

Sunday, August 14
HC Kometa Brno - HV71 Jönköping
Luleå HF - HC Sparta Praha
TPS Turku (Finland) - HC Slavia Praha

Thursday, August 18
Adler Mannheim - HC Kometa Brno
HC Bílí Tygři Liberec - HC Eaton Pardubice
Oulun Kärpät (Finland) - HC Plzeň 1929
KalPa Kuopio (Finland) - HC Mountfield

Saturday, August 20
HC Bílí Tygři Liberec - HC Kometa Brno
Adler Mannheim - HC Eaton Pardubice
HC Slavia Praha - HC Sparta Praha
Oulun Kärpät - HC Mountfield
KalPa Kuopio - HC Plzeň 1929

Sunday, August 21
EC Red Bull Salzburg - HC Kometa Brno
Tappara Tampere (Finland) - HC Eaton Pardubice

Thursday, August 25
HV71 Jönköping - HC Bílí Tygři Liberec
HC Slavia Praha - Jokerit Helsinki (Finland)
HC Sparta Praha - Helsinki IFK (Finland)
HC Plzeň 1929 - Vienna Capitals (Austria)
HC Mountfield Č. Budějovice - HC Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia)

Saturday, August 27
Linköpings HC - HC Bílí Tygři Liberec
HC Eaton Pardubice - HC Kometa Brno
HC Sparta Praha - Jokerit Helsinki
HC Slavia Praha - Helsinki IFK
HC Mountfield Č. Budějovice - Vienna Capitals
HC Plzeň 1929 - HC Slovan Bratislava

Sunday, August 28
HC Plzeň 1929 - Tappara Tampere
HC Kometa Brno - Jokerit Helsinki
HC Eaton Pardubice - Helsinki IFK
Oulun Kärpät - HC Bílí Tygři Liberec

Thursday, September 1
EC Red Bull Salzburg (Austria) - HC Mountfield Č. Budějovice
Saturday, September 3
HC Sparta Praha - Eisbären Berlin (Germany)
HC Bílí Tygři Liberec - Luleå HF
HC Kometa Brno - HC Mountfield Č. Budějovice
HC Slavia Praha - HC Plzeň 1929

Sunday, September 4
HC Bílí Tygři Liberec - Eisbären Berlin
Adler Mannheim - HC Slavia Praha
HC Plzeň 1929 - HC Eaton Pardubice
HC Mountfield Č. Budějovice - HC Sparta Praha

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Would bronze be a success?

There are many differences between European and North American sports, and the difference that becomes most evident this Sunday is the pride taken in playing for the bronze medal.

Of course, the biggest game of the day is the gold-medal final of the 2011 World Championship, to be played between Finland and Sweden. But for hockey fans in the Czech Republic and in Russia, the game that precedes it, the bronze-medal game, is very big as well.

For Czech quarterfinal and semifinal games against the USA and Sweden, large numbers of fans gathered at Staroměstské náměstí and other outdoor locations to watch on large screens. It will be no different for the bronze-medal game, and the atmosphere will likely be just as enthusiastic. Such was the case at the 2006 Winter Olympics, when the same two teams, Czech Republic and Russia, met for the bronze medal. The victory by the Czechs touched off celebrations that were not equal to the 1998 gold-medal victory, to be sure, but significant nonetheless.

Alois Hadamczik (above) and Vince Lombardi (below)
have different philosophies on third-place games. Photos:
hokej.idnes.cz and matttroupe.blogspot.com.
"We want a medal," said Czech coach Alois Hadamczik on Friday, trying to shake off the disappointing loss on Friday and looking ahead to Sunday. "In every big tournament that's a success."

For the Czechs and Russians, who each have good track records in bronze medal games, a win Sunday would indeed make the tournament a success. But across the pond, that's not always the case.

Since 1992, when the IIHF adopted a knock-out playoff structure for Olympic and World Championship tournaments, European and North American teams have faced off for the bronze medal ten times. The European team has won seven times, while the North American (either Canada or the USA) has won three times.

Most hockey fans in the Czech Republic and in Canada remember very well the 1998 Olympic semifinal in Nagano, won by the Czechs in a shootout. Largely forgotten in Canada is the team's performance the next day in the bronze medal game, which they lost 3-2 to Finland. Even if they had won, nobody in Canada would have been happy with a bronze medal in the face of such a disappointing semifinal loss. In Finland, however, the win was a big deal. "In North America, they celebrate only one winner, but in Europe, there are three," was how Esa Tikkanen described it.

If anyone suggested that, for example, the losers of the National Football League's two conference championships play off for third place, it would be laughed at. Most people would probably be surprised to learn that such a game actually did exist at one time. After losing the 1963 Playoff Bowl, as it was called, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi reportedly called it "the Shit Bowl. A losers' bowl for losers." Publicly, he described it as "a hinky-dink game played in a hinky-dink stadium, by two hinky-dink teams. That's all second place is--hinky dink." The game was discontinued after 1969, and nobody seems to miss it.

Sunday's bronze-medal games pits two old hockey rivals who have bad blood between them stemming from their meeting in the group stage. For teams that might view it as a "hinky-dink game", the recipe could be right for a brawl. It seems, however, that both Hadamczik and Viacheslav Bykov are more focused on getting their teams ready for winning the bronze than worrying about

Good thing Vince Lombardi's not coaching this game.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Jágr hat trick and Pavelec shutout lead Czechs into semis

It now seems eons ago, but there was a time at the start of the tournament when Czech fans were concerned about the lack of production from Jaromír Jágr and, even more so, about if they could go far riding the goaltending of Ondřej Pavelec. In Wednesday's quarterfinal against the United States, they both brought their "A" games.

Jaromír Jágr and Ondřej Pavelec were the heroes of
Wednesday's victory. Photo: sport1.de.
He's a well-known figure in the world of hockey, but in the Czech Republic Jágr is much more than that. He's a living legend. A legend that many people think is nearing the end of his career, leaving them to wonder how much magic he has left in him. On Wednesday, he didn't seem to show any signs of slowing down, scoring three goals in the Czechs' 4-0 quarterfinal victory.

Amazingly, considering his career filled with accolades, this was his first hat trick with the Czech national team. "I hope that it won't be the last," he said afterward.

In the first knock-out game of the 2011 World Championship, Czechs around the country gathered around outdoor screens in public squares and beer gardens on a beautiful spring evening. Perhaps the largest such gathering was at Prague's historic Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square). In many locations, people arrived at their viewing locations hours beforehand to secure a spot with a decent view of the game. But for most of the time, they were all standing anyway, singing away as if they were live in the arena. On this day, their favourite chant was for the day's hero: "Jáárda Jágr! Jáárda Jágr!"

"What can you say about Jágr?" said Milan Michálek. "He's unbelievable. He's 39 but playing like a 20-year-old, flying on the ice. He's so strong."

However, in the post-game scrum, Jágr did his best to deflect the adoration onto the person whom he thought deserved it: his goaltender. "We didn't play well. This time we were much luckier than in other games. Thank God that Ondra Pavelec played so well. Especially in the first period he made some fantastic, great saves."

Indeed, the Americans did have the run of the play for much of the opening period, although the shots were even at 12 apiece. Pavelec had to come up big on a few occasions, particularly on a US power-play midway through the period when he made a spectacular glove save off of Craig Smith. "He took a high shot and I was on the goal line," Pavelec explained to eurohockey.com. "Luckily, he hit my glove. That put me in the game. It was basically my first save. After that I felt okay."

While the veteran Jágr is used to forming the nucleus of Czech teams, the 23-year-old Pavelec is making his debut as the national team's starting netminder and he has big skates to fill, as he's patrolling the crease that greats such as Dominik Hašek and Tomáš Vokoun have led Czechs to championships in recent memory. The pressure doesn't seem to be getting to him.

Pavelec's play kept the game scoreless so Jágr could open the scoring late in the opening period on a two-on-one, when his shot snuck through the pads of Ty Conklin and dribbled over the line.

On a second-period five-on-three, Jágr made it 2-0 when he one-timed a pass from Tomáš Plekanec just inside the post. By the midway point of the third, Plekanec scored a goal himself to put the game away for the Czechs. There were only two more questions.

Jágr answered one of those questions with 3:35 left on the clock when he again converted a pass from Plekanec on the power-play to complete his hat trick. The other question was answered by Pavelec, who lost a shutout in the final minute earlier in the tournament against Finland. This time he held on, making 29 saves for his second shutout of the tournament.

And the sun- and beer-soaked Czech fans watching outside gave their due to the goalkeeper when he was announced as player of the game: "Óóndra Pavelec! Óóndra Pavelec!"

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Havlát out, Vampola in quarterfinal vs USA

The Czech Republic has filled the final vacancy on its World Championship roster.

Petr Vampola has been inserted, and will play in the quarterfinal against the United States on Wednesday. His presence will be necessary due to the absence of Martin Havlát, who injured his shoulder when he crashed heavily into the boards in the third period of the Czechs' victory over Germany on Monday.

Vampola gives the Czechs a full roster for the game, as the two players who missed Monday's game, Milan Michálek and Karel Rachůnek, will return. Also playing is forward Petr Průcha, who left during Monday's game as well.

Wednesday's game begins at 16:15 Central European Time (10:15 ET, 7:15am PT). I can be seen in the Czech Republic on ČT4 and in the United States on Versus. The winner will meet the winner of the Sweden-Germany quarterfinal on Friday.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Czechs win group, but still fuming

The Czech Republic kept its perfect record at the 2011 World Championship in tact on Sunday, defeating Russia 3-2. The win also clinched them first place in Group E. Based based on their post-game reaction, though, you wouldn't know it.

"I don't take any joy from this victory," said Jaromír Jágr after it was over.

What he and other Czech players are fuming about was the play of the Russians, in particular forward Yevgeni Artyukhin, who knocked Milan Michálek and Karel Rachůnek from the game with big hits.

The hit on Michálek came midway through the second period, following an exchange of hits between the two players, when Michálek didn't have the puck. Not expecting to be hit, Michálek did not brace himself, and was shaken up on the play. Artyukhin was assessed a minor penalty for interference.

The hit on Rachůnek came in the last minute of the middle frame, just as he was shooting the puck on goal. Artyukhin's check knocked Rachůnek's helmet off, and the later hit his head on the ice, which drew blood. Despite protests from the Czech bench, no penalty was assessed on the play, with the explanation that it was a shoulder check.

Coach Alois Hadamczik was perhaps the angriest of all, taking his anger out on the game's referees. "This would never happen in the (Czech) Extaliga. We were warned before the season that referees will have no tolerance for similar headshots and the fact is that Artyukhin threw three headshots." However, the IIHF disciplinary committee apparently disagrees with Hadamczik's assessment. It ruled on Monday that Artyukhin would receive no further disciplinary action.

The Czechs have already lost defenceman Radek Martínek for the duration of the tournament, but both Michálek and Rachůnek are expected to return to the Czech lineup.

"Michálek suffered a neck injury and he is under a physiotherapists’ care now. He looks quite good but we didn’t let him play out of precaution," Czech team doctor Radomír Holiba told eurohockey.com. "Rachůnek has three new stitches on his head but he also should be okay to play. We will discuss with the coach if they can play tomorrow against Germany, but for the quarterfinals they should be ready."

"It's hard to say. Some players do this, others do not," Jágr speculated, when asked if he thought it was the result of frustration on the part of the Russians. "Canadians would have done the same."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Top 10 Czech-Russia hockey games of all time

On the heels of their victory over their friendly rivals from Slovakia on Friday night, the Czechs renew a rivalry on Sunday that has, historically, been anything but. There will surely be a lot of emotion on the ice when the Czech and Russian teams take the ice in Bratislava, but in the context of the tournament and history, this game is not really that important. The Czechs are already assured a spot in the quarterfinals and, while the Russians have struggled so far, they will probably be there in the end as well.

Teams that played under the banners of Bohemia and then Czechoslovakia became one of the best teams in Europe in the early twentieth century and by the late 1940s, were challenging Canada for international hockey supremacy. Around this time, the Soviet Union was starting to build a hockey program and called upon their Czechoslovak friends to teach them the game.

The Soviet Union made its debut at the World Championships in 1954 and promptly won the gold medal. From then on, games between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were often big games in the standings, but things were elevated to a whole new level in 1968, with the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia which effectively ended liberal reforms that had been initiated in that country. For the next 20 years, match-ups between the two teams were nearly wars on ice, coming to a head with an enormous on-ice brawl at the 1972 Izvestia Cup in Moscow.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Communist Bloc in Europe, and the subsequent break-up of Czechoslovakia, the dynamics of the rivalry have changed, but to be sure it's still there. In that context, I have attempted to compile the ten greatest games in Czech-Russian hockey history. As the IIHF considers these countries to be the successors to Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, I will treat them as the same entities.

Feel free to disagree with any of my choices.

10. Tampere 1965

The 1965 World Championship was the first time that the Soviets and Czechoslovaks won gold and silver at a tournament. It was the highest finish for the latter since 1949, after which their team was decimated by the arrest and incarceration of several of their best players. By the mid-sixties they were ready to challenge for gold again and met the Soviets in the second-to-last game, each having perfect 5-0 records. The Soviets won 3-1 and ultimately held on for the gold, while Czechoslovakia won its last game over Sweden and the silver.

9. Ljubljana 1966

The two teams took it a step closer the following year, meeting on the final day of the tournament with the gold medal at stake. Since the Czechoslovaks were a perfect 6-0 while the Soviets had tied a game, a tie would have given the gold to Czechoslovakia. However, the Soviets dominated, winning 7-1.

8. Montreal 1976

After trading Olympic gold and the World Championships in 1976, the bitter rivals took their show to North America in September, facing off at the historic Montreal Forum on September 3 as each team played its first game in the Canada Cup, the first tournament to allow the best players from the NHL and Europe to represent their respective national teams. Led by 2 goals and an assist from Milan Nový, the ČSSR won 5-3 in a tournament they ultimately lost in the finals.

7. Stockholm 1969

If it weren't for the political climate, these games wouldn't make the list. The Czechoslovaks defeated the Soviets by scores of 2-0 and 4-3. Though this was a tremendous accomplishment, as the Soviets were the six-time defending World Champions, the Czechoslovaks had beaten them before. However, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, these victories meant everything to the folk at home, and the team returned home to a hero's welcome, despite the fact that they were ultimately unable to dethrone the Soviets.

They were oh-so-close to doing so, however.

The 4-3 victory on March 28 gave meant that the ČSSR was in first place with 16 points, followed by the USSR and Sweden with 14 each. A tie in the final game against the host Swedes would have given them the gold medal, but they fell 1-0. The Soviets then beat Canada 4-2 to create a three-way tie. Based on goal difference, the Czechoslovaks ended up with the bronze medal. Had they won gold, Stockholm '69 might move up to first.

6. Cologne 2010

Still fresh in everybody's mind is the 2010 World Chamionship gold medal game in Cologne, Germany. The Czechs looked shaky in the early part of the tournament, but got to the final via shootout wins over Finland and Sweden. The heavily-favoured Russians were led by star Alexander Ovechkin and both teams were anxious to atone for disappointing showings in the Winter Olympics a few months earlier. 

The Czechs got goals from Jakub Klepiš and Tomáš Rolinek and then rode the goaltending of Tomáš Vokoun, which was the reason they were in the final game. He turned away 35 of 36 shots, not getting beaten until the game's final minute by Pavel Datsyuk.

5. Prague 1978

In the history of the Czechoslovak-Soviet rivalry, it wasn't often the case that the Soviets were considered the underdog. But at the 1978 World Championship, that was the case. Czechoslovakia was now the two-time defending champion, and were playing on their home ice at Prague's Sportovní hala. They beat the Soviets in the round-robin stage by a 6-4 score and finished with a perfect 7-0 record, outscoring their opponents 44-15. The loss to the Czechoslovaks was the only blemish on the Soviets record, heading into the medal round.

The two teams met again on the last day of the tournament, May 14, with the gold medal on the line. The Czechs needed only a point to secure a third straight gold. It was the Soviets, however, who silenced the crowd with a hard-fought 3-1 victory to re-claim the gold medal. They wouldn't relinquish it again until the Czechs took it back, on home ice again, in 1985.

4. Sarajevo 1984

 The Soviet team was a juggernaut in 1984, and hungry to recapture the Olympic gold that they surrendered to the USA in 1980. They met Czechoslovakia in the gold medal game.

The Soviets won the game 2-0, in what was legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak's final game. The Czechoslovaks played valiantly and had the support of most of the Yugoslav crowd, but couldn't score on a Soviet team playing at the top of its game. 

3. Prague 1972

The Soviets entered the game with an unprecedented nine straight World Championships and were seemingly unbeatable. They'd also won the Winter Olympics a couple of months before the 1972 World Championships in Prague. For Czechoslovak fans, this was their first chance to see the rivalry up close, and they were treated to quite a historic victory.

The two teams met in the second-to-last game, tied at the top of the standings with 15 points each. The winner would clinch the gold, as the best the loser would be able to do is even the points again on the last day but lose the tie-breaker. A tie would mean both teams' fortunes would rest on the final day, but Czechoslovakia scored a dramatic 3-2 win to beat the hated Russians and win the gold in front of an ecstatic home crowd.

After the game, the crowd took to the streets and celebrated well into the night, and the players earned a place in history with the streak-breaking win.

2. Innsbruck 1976

1976 might have been the defining year in the history of Czechoslovak-Soviet hockey, and it began with a face-off for the gold medal on the final day of the Winter Olympics in Innsbruck.

Both teams entered the final game having won all of their games, but the Czechoslovaks forfeited their 7-1 victory over Poland due to a positive drug test from centre František Pošpisil.

That being the case, the Soviets had 2 more points and would win the gold if the game finished tied. A victory for either team would claim the gold medal. The Soviets were looking for their fourth-straight Olympic gold, while the Czechoslovaks were after their first ever.

The ČSSR went up 2-0 on goals by Milan Nový and Ivan Hlinka and had a glorious opportunity to extend their lead midway through the second period with a 5-on-3 power play. However, the Soviets killed it off and, with momentum on their side, tied the score late in the second. When Eduard Novák gave the Czechs the lead back with 8:58 to play, it looked like they might finally get that elusive Olympic gold. However, Alexander Yakushev tied it for the Soviets on a power play and then Valeri Kharlamov scored the tournament winner only 24 seconds later.

More on the game can be found at World Hockey.

1. Nagano 1998

Politics was not an issue when the Czech Republic and Russia took to the ice for the gold-medal final of the 1998 Winter Olympics, but it had historical significance nonetheless.

The Czech Republic and Russia met for the gold medal in the first Winter Olympic tournament to have unlimited access to NHL players. With both countries' best players now playing in the NHL, this was the first time in years that they had put their best lineups on the ice against each other. Having been denied by the USSR in the final games in 1976 and 1984, the Czechs were still searching for their first Olympic gold. 

As usual, the Russians were favoured, with a high-powered offence led by Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov. The Czechs had Jaromír Jágr, but the key to their success in 1998 was defence, which began with goaltender Dominik Hašek. In the final game, Hašek stopped all 20 shots he faced, while the Czechs got their lone goal with less than 12 minutes to play on a slapper from the point from veteran defenceman Petr Svoboda.

The Czechs immediately flew back home to Prague to celebrate the victory at Staroměstské náměstí.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Gentle Rivalry

by Risto Pakarinen

BRATISLAVA – The Czechs and the Slovaks are truly like brothers: They’re same, but different. They share a long history, and they understand each other, even if they don’t speak the same language. After decades of living side by side, they’ve been on their own like this for almost 20 years. The differences may be subtle sometimes, but they’re there.

For example, the non-violent revolution that overthrew the communist government of Czechoslovakia, is called the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic. In Slovakia, the same event is called the Gentle Revolution. The name in Czech is sametová revoluce, while in Slovak it’s called nežná revolúcia.

For the players here, though, Czechoslovakia is almost ancient history, as 39-year-old Jaromír Jágr is the only player on the Czech team who represented Czechoslovakia, having played in one World U20 Championship, one World Championship, and the 1991 Canada Cup under the old flag (which is, for the Czechs, also the same as the new flag).

Slovakia’s Jozef Stümpel, too, played for Czechoslovakia in the 1991 World U20 Championship, but if there’s one player who might have special butterflies in his stomach tonight, it must be Pavol Demitra. Born in Dubnica nad Vahom, some 150 kilometres north of Bratislava, the now 36-year-old centre skates to the ice as Slovakia’s popular captain.

Demitra was also on the last team Czechoslovakia ever iced. As the two countries separated on January 1, 1993, Demitra and his Czechoslovak teammates were in the middle of a World U20 Championship in Gävle, Sweden.

"That was very tough (for us) because at that time, the group we had was very tight. I remember after the New Year, when we’d won a couple of games, and they didn’t play our national song anymore. That was very weird," Demitra tells IIHF.com.

"I remember that after we won the bronze medal, everybody sang the Czechoslovak national anthem all together (for the last time), and that was very special," he says.

In the final standings, the team was called "Czech/Slovak Republics". The Czechs went on to host the next year’s tournament, having inherited the Czech Republic’s spot in the top division, but Slovakia quickly returned to the top as well after the new country’s hockey body had joined the IIHF.

The 2011 teams are practically the first generation to have played their entire careers under Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The rivalry is definitely there, it’s on, but it seems to lack the animosity that some other sports rivalries have.

"It’s a hockey game just like any other. The Czechs get along with Slovaks very well, so there’s no problem from our side to play them, and not feel any different," says the Czech Republic’s coach Alois Hadamczik, who’s been behind the bench in games against Slovakia before, most notably in the 2006 Olympics quarter-final, which the Czechs won 3-1.

The only person who’s ever represented Czechoslovakia, besides Jágr, may be the team doctor, jokes Hadamczik.

"There will probably be bigger tensions in the stands than on the ice," he says.

In the Czechs previous games in the tournament, the crowd has been fully behind them, cheering them on, and creating an unforgettable atmosphere for the game.

"The atmosphere is fantastic. It's nice to have that advantage. For me, playing here is like being at home. Well, my home is just an hour from here. You can say that we get the advantages of being at home, but not the pressure of playing at home," says Czech forward Martin Havlát.

Tonight, the crowd will most certainly be behind the Slovaks, who are truly at home. The Czechs are only almost at home.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Jágr and Pavelec lead Czechs to victory over Finland

The Czechs passed their first big test at the 2011 World Championship in Bratislava, beating Finland 2-1. The win put them on top of their group and sets them up in good standing for the Qualification Round. More than that, however, were some encouraging signs in the win, with some of the team's concerns being addressed.

Jaromír Jágr scored the game-winning goal against Finland. Photo:
Matthew Manor, HHOF-IIHF Images.
To begin with, they finally got a goal from Jaromír Jágr. After putting up 6 points in 3 games in the Czech Hockey Games the weekend before the World Championships, Jágr had been shut out in the first 2 games in Bratislava.

Before the game, Jágr told eurohockey.com's David Schlegel, "So far there has not been any need to earn points. I will start when it is needed." He backed up that statement against Finland, scoring what proved to be the game-winning goal early in the third period when he scooped in a rebound over a fallen Petri Vehanen to put the Czechs up 2-0.

They also got a stellar goaltending performance from Ondřej Pavelec. "Our goalie Pavelec had a fantastic game and we probably wouldn't have won without him," understated Czech defenceman Lukáš Krajiček after the game.

Some Czech fans were nervous about the team's goaltending situation after Tomáš Vokoun announced he wouldn't be playing. However, Pavelec has aquitted himself well so far in his first major tournament as the team's starting keeper. He picked up his third-straight win on Wednesday, following up his shutout over Denmark with a remarkable 32-save performance.

His best save of the night may have been off Tuomo Ruutu in the second period, when the Finns were threatening on the power-play and Pavelec appeared to be down and out after stopping the first shot and in no position to stop the rebound. He recovered, however, to make a pad save and preserve the 1-0 lead. Pavelec was just 19 seconds away from recording back-to-back shutouts when Anssi Salmela beat him with a shot from the point to get Finland on the board.

The top three teams in Groups A and D now combine together to form Group E, with the bottom team in each group, Slovenia and Latvia, heading to the Relegation Round. The Czechs carry their victories over Denmark and Finland to the next round and currently tied for first place in the Group with Germany; each team has 6 points. They are followed by Finland and Russia with 3 points each, while Slovakia and Denmark are both pointless. The top four advance to the quarterfinals.

The Czechs open the Qualifying Round, as it is called, on Friday at 20:15 CET against the tournament hosts from Slovakia. They then play Russia on Sunday at 16:15 and Germany on Monday at 20:15.

Each team is permitted to add two players to its roster for the Qualifying Round, and on Thursday the Czechs added defenceman Ondřej Němec. This means they can now dress the maximum of 20 skaters on Friday. They had been one below that for the past two games due to the injury to defenceman Radek Martínek, who is out of the tournament with a concussion and a neck injury. They could still add one more.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Czechs start 2-0, now real tournament begins

With their 6-0 victory over Denmark on Monday, the Czech Republic improved its record to 2-0 at the World Championships. With no disrespect to the Latvian or Danish teams, the real tournament starts now.

The early match-ups at the World Championships are always full of upsets, as the Russians and Swedes can attest to this year. By winning their first two games, the Czechs have done well to avoid that trap, although such early losses to lesser teams rarely have an impact on the tournament's final standings.

On Saturday, they were tied with Latvia 2-2 into the third period, when Martin Havlát scored by ripping a shot from the top of the slot inside the post early in the final frame. Roman Červenka took an advantage of a neutral-zone turnover in the late-going and scored on a breakaway to make it a 4-2 final.

Milan Michálek's 2 quick goals put Monday's game
against Denmark away. Photo: Francois Larrede,
On Monday, they held a slim 1-0 lead against Denmark until the midway point of the second, and then broke the game wide open with four goals in a span of 3:04. First Milan Michálek scored twice, once on a breakaway and then another on a tap-in on a power-play 1:43 later. Michael Frolík added his second of the game on a flutterball from the point that eluded Danish goalkeeper Patrick Galbraith. Tomáš Plekanec scored in his first game of the tournament to make it 4-0, and finally Petr Průcha added one more in a third period that completely lacked any drama or emotion, with the game clearly decided already.

Ondřej Pavelec, in his first major tournament as the Czech starting netminder, made 24 saves for the shutout. "I am very happy that our young goalie got the shutout," Czech coach Alois Hadamczik told eurohockey.com's Henrik Lundqvist after the game. "It is very important for our number-one goalie."

With both Latvia and Denmark now 0-2, they face each other on Wednesday, with the loser headed to the Relegation Round. Also on Wednesday, the Czechs face Finland in their first real test of the tournament. Underscoring the importance of the game, it will be aired on ČT1 in the Czech Republic instead of the usual ČT4 Sport, live at 20:15 CET. "Finland is a great team, and it's not going to be an easy game," said Havlát.

Wednesday is when the jockeying for position will begin. Looking ahead to the next round, they will likely face Russia, Slovakia, and the surprisingly 2-0 Germans. Together with the winner of the Latvia-Denmark game, only four of those six will advance to the quarterfinals.