Friday, March 2, 2012

Extraliga crisis examined

As Czech hockey fans are getting excited about the recently-started Extraliga playoffs, there is a troubling off-ice situation brewing that is casting uncertainty over what the future of domestic hockey in the country will look like.

It began in December, when Extraliga managers stated their desire to "close" the league. This would mean eliminating the current system of promotion and relegation that exists between the Extraliga and all levels of hockey below. At the end of each season, the Extraliga's last-place team faces the champion of the I.liga, which is the country's second-tier league, in a best-of-seven series. The winner plays in the Extraliga the following season and the loser plays in the I.liga. Almost all of the Extraliga clubs were in favour of closure and almost everyone else was against.

The Extraliga clubs are in favour for obvious reasons. First of all, it prevents them from losing their position in the country's top league.

They also claim that it has financial benefits for the overall league and is better for player development, as teams near the bottom of the standings will focus more on developing players rather than desperately trying to avoid last place. Also, with no ambitions of advancing to the Extraliga, clubs in the lower leagues would affiliations with Extraliga clubs for developing players, much like the North American minor leagues do with the NHL. This would supposedly fill a void in player development that exists after a player has advanced past junior age, a situation that has come under scrutiny in recent years.

A closed Extraliga would diminish the importance of the I.liga
championship. Photo: Zdeněk Špinka,
Obviously, such a scenario sounds much less appealing to clubs in lower leagues. Being nothing more than tools for developing young prospects could cause fans of these teams to lose interest.

Most of the public is against the idea as well. Indeed, one of the most appealing aspects of the promotion-relegation system is it gives the chance for any affiliated club in the country to advance to the top league in the land if they play well enough. Some of the most decorated clubs in Czech hockey history, such as Dukla Jihlava and VHK Vsetín, currently toil in lower leagues. Closure of the Extraliga would virtually eliminate their chance of ever returning to the top. It would also diminish the importance of winning the I.liga championship, as there would be nowhere for the winner to go.

Also against this proposal is the Czech Ice Hockey Association (ČSLH), and this is where the situation starts to get really sticky. It is the ČSLH that gives the 14 Extraliga clubs the mandate to run their league via the Association of Professional Clubs (APK). The contract between these two bodies expires at the end of this season and the ČSLH is making it clear that they do not wish to give the clubs the mandate to close their league. In response, the APK is threatening to cut ties with the sport's national governing body entirely.

The situation has become so multi-layered between these two bodies, as well as member clubs, the league's marketing arm, legal ramifications and bilateral international agreements that untangling it all to make sense of it is a daunting task.'s Petr Polák is attempting to do just that. Back on January 10, Polák wrote about the Extraliga's plan to close the league and their insistence at pursuing it despite the wall of opposition. Beginning today (March 2), Eurohockey is publishing a series of articles by Polák in six installments, which explore the various parts of this conflict. Why six installments? Because, as Polák explains in "Part 1", "If were a print magazine, we could practically dedicate an entire issue to the situation in the Czech Extraliga. And because of the enormous scope of the issue, we have decided to publish it as a series."

Part I of "Is the Czech Extraliga going through a crisis?" has already been posted at This section outlines the background of the situation, including the nature of the relationship between the ČSLH and APK. Parts 2 through 6 will be published according to the following schedule:

2. APK vs. ČSLH (will be published on Mar 3)
3. APK vs. other clubs (will be published on Mar 4)
4. APK vs. BPA (will be published on Mar 5)
5. APK vs. the law (will be published on Mar 6)
6. APK vs. APK + Epilogue (will be published on Mar 7)


  1. Thanks for posting this -- I'll be following Petr's stories.

    Something I vaguely remember from a couple years back, when Brno bought its way into the top league -- didn't, at the time, Znojmo say that licenses had become too expensive for some clubs to compete in the Extraliga?

    If I am indeed remembering that correctly, and assuming the case hadn't changed, how many lower division teams could currently hope to compete fiscally at the top level? From my really uninformed perspective, I'd guess Dukla, Ústi, Chomutov... anyone else? Olomouc?

    I'm a fan of promotion/relegation, to the point where I kind of wish North American sports leagues had evolved along the same lines. I'll be watching for the rest of the series -- thanks for the heads up.

  2. Yes, Orli Znojmo, who now play in the EBEL, sold its Extraliga license to Kometa Brno in 2009. I guess that's just the large market/small market kind of thing at play, even in the Czech Republic. There's no doubt the Extraliga was thrilled at getting Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic, back into the fold. And you're right, realistically, at all levels of the pyramid, teams often earn promotions that they decline because of the added costs involved in competing at the higher level--often it means moving from a regional to a national league, which means increased travel.

    As for North American sports leagues, the problem there is the major sports leagues are divided and sub-divided into conferences and divisions due to the costs involved in operating a league over such a vast geographical area. It would make promotion and relegation a logistical nightmare, as essentially the league might need to be re-aligned every year. It is better suited to the smaller European nation states.

  3. Don't you see this intention of closing the leauge as a step ahead in the process of joining the czech and and the slovak extraliga?
    Can't they want to close the league to avoid any request from 1a Liga teams to join the eventual new czechoslovakian league?