Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rink Review: Tipsport Arena in Prague

A guest commentary by Andrew Thompson

Prague's Tipsport Arena, also frequently referred to by its original name Sportovní hala, is a classic hockey barn! As modern, multi-purpose arenas continue to open up around Central Europe, going toe-to-toe with the NHL's contemporary generation of facilities, Tipsport Arena's venerable retro-charm makes it all the more appealing! The building benefits a lot from its functionalist design and generally is rather representative of modernist 1950s European architecture. Even though the stadium didn´t open until 1962, work on it already started in 1952. Only a four year construction hiatus from 1954 to 1958 - typical for such projects during the communist era - ended up pushing the inauguration into the next decade. Despite of that, many of the building´s structural features, both exterior and interior, actually are quite aesthetically pleasing, especially for any architecturally-minded eye! The west and south portal lend the arena a sense of place, while the large vaulted roof seems reminiscent of an airfield hangar.


As far as the simple practicality of watching a contemporary hockey game goes, Tipsport Arena delivers! While it doesn't feature all the bells and whistles that a modern entertainment venue would (such as Slavia Praha's o2 Arena across town in Praha-Libeň), Tipsport still sports a recently installed video cube hanging from the rafters and a more than suitable, loud sound system to lend atmosphere to any contest. Season ticket holders and VIP fat cats are accommodated in a spruced-up section featuring new club seating, a handful of luxury boxes and a separate restaurant, where beer is served in a glass, rather than a plastic cup! Nevertheless, at Tipsport Arena, the game and not the gizmos take center stage! While the stadium is not old enough to join the ranks of the NHL's iconic shacks like the old Boston Garden (pronounce it the "Gahdin", like a true Bostonian), the Montreal Forum or that well known building on 60 Carlton Street in Toronto, it still has plenty of history and lore for Czech standards. The 1972, 1978, 1985 and 1992 ice hockey world championships all took place at this rink, including Czechoslovak gold medal victories in '72 and '85! A dynamic statue in front of the west portal still marks these events.

The arena's concourses are compact and cavernous, yet even when the house is full, crowd circulation is fluid. Catering and concessions are dominated by a selection of different Czech sausages, all of them served with bread, spicy mustard, and plenty of grease! (The tasty Budvar tap beer, however, makes it easy to wash all of that down and feel fully refreshed!) 

The superb quality of the beer has actually always been one of the key selling points to watching a sporting event at a Czech venue, especially when compared to the lackluster kind of watered-down, over-prized drizzle that is often served at other sports arenas around the world. For those craving a taste of North American grub while watching a Sparta Praha game, KFC recently moved in and openend shop in the south stands!

As with most 1950s/1960s hockey stadiums, Tipsport Arena also has some of the common layout drawbacks that are representative for the mid-century era and therefore features the obligatory set of obstructed view seats! Most of this seating is diagonally aligned behind the goals. Yet because the house rarely reaches its capacity of around 14 000 spectators (a Sparta - Slavia derby normally drawing something over 10 000), fans do not really need to deal with being stuck in those sections. Once in the building, it's easy to freely move around the different stands.

In recent years, the home team HC Sparta Praha has gone all-out in adapting the Greek theme for its team identity, hence the paraphernalia is quite similar to that of Michigan State University, where the simple font "S", a stuffed mascot in warrior gear and the Spartan helmet also serve as the key icons for competitive spirit.

A North American sports journalist once wrote, on a tour of different European hockey arenas, that the home ice of perennial Swiss champions HC Davos (incidentally also the host venue of the annual Spengler Cup tournament every December) was IKEA's version of a hockey stadium! If one takes such a benchmark, then one would need to proclaim, that Tipsport Arena/Sportovní hala is the Bauhaus equivalent of a hockey rink!

It can only be recommended to any hockey fan to do a Prague "double-dip" and see games at both Tipsport Arena and o2 Arena on any possible rink-hopping tour of Central Europe! 

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