I love European hockey, it’s clearly no secret. Although it will never top the home sweet home of Canada and our passionate game, Europe and their leagues are following close behind. Here’s the thing, I know barely anything about the leagues aside from the EIHL and KHL and a bit of SM-Liiga. So when Jon Rowson approached me about his passion for the Czech Extraliga, I jumped at the chance to expand my hockey knowledge. Rowson is also the current English website manager for HC Slovan Bratislava of the KHL.
He took the time to talk to me about both leagues and the effect of last season’s NHL lockout.
March Hockey: Where are you located and how did you get into hockey?
Jon Rowson: Well I was born and raised in a town just outside of Birmingham, England, although this summer I’m calling Prague, Czech Republic home. It was actually my father who got me into hockey. He tells me that he took me to a game at the old Solihull Blaze rink back in the late 90s when I was very young, but apparently I hated it and so we left mid-way through the game! However, the Blaze then relocated to Coventry, and I was taken to a few games and I grew to love the game. I can still remember being there when the Blaze defeated the Dundee Stars in the 2003 British National League playoff final. Very hazy memories of course, but still, I remember all the streamers and confetti falling from the top of the stand!
MH: Why are you so passionate about the Czech Extraliga and in your opinion, what makes the league a superior one?
JR: When I was younger, my father did a lot of work in the Czech Republic, and he would often schedule his trips in time with my school holidays, meaning that from an early age I would end up in either the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Of course, we would also try and fit it in with the hockey schedule, and back in 2006 I went to my first Czech Extraliga game. None other than the Prague derby between Slavia and Sparta at the then Sazka Arena (now o2 Arena). Cue my surprise as a fourteen year old kid who had only been to EIHL games before that, seeing a massive crowd of over 10,000, riot police bringing in the Sparta fans, and also the whole atmosphere was just crazy. I had never experienced two sets of fans singing for the whole sixty minutes. From that day I began to love everything about Extraliga hockey.
While the fan culture is a massive part, and I’ve met some fantastic people through it, I also find that it is incredibly fun to watch. At present I work for a KHL club on their website, which has meant that I have watched a lot of KHL hockey over the past two years, and if I’m honest, I find it incredibly defensive minded and rather dull, even when I’m watching a team I support. The Extraliga is an incredibly offensive minded league, and I don’t think any of the fourteen teams understands what a neutral zone trap is. The players shoot at will, and I just find it by far the most entertaining league in the world to watch. I’ve also noticed that players seem to play the game with a real love for the sport. I love to see players really celebrate after scoring a goal like it means something to them. I hate it when guys score a goal don’t smile or show some sort of happiness at scoring. You don’t get that in the Extraliga.
MH: What team do you support the most? Who’s your favourite player? Why?
JR: Could I write a whole essay on this question alone? The three major leagues I watch intently are the Czech Extraliga, Slovak Extraliga and the KHL (and a couple of seasons in the RSL). In the Czech Extraliga, I would say that my allegiances are split somewhat between HC Slavia Praha and PSG Zlin. Recently I would say that I have leaned more to the former, as I have been able to attend games more readily in Prague than in Zlin. I picked Slavia as the team for my first Prague derby in 2006, and stuck with them. Through being a Slavia fan, I’ve been able to watch the rise of Roman Cervenka from a third liner to playing in the NHL last season, while I’ve also seen young NHL prospects like Dmitrij Jaskin (St. Louis) and Tomas Hertl (San Jose). However, my favourite players from the Slavia days are either the long-time captain and now junior coach Josef ‘Pepa’ Beranek or hard working defenceman Jiri Vasicek.
In regards to the other two leagues, it’s a little different now as I was always a massive Slovan Bratislava fan, especially when they were in the Slovak Extraliga. They had two fantastic teams in 2007 and 2008 when they won two straight championships. If I had to pick my one favourite hockey player, it would have to be Marek Uram, who played on both of those teams. I’ve always been a fan who loves those players who are different. Back in the day Uram had long flowing black hair, a big beard and could then bang in thirty goals a season. I remember when he played for Slovakia at the 2007 World Championships in Moscow and scored a great goal on Dwayne Roloson. There was also Sasu Hovi, the Finnish goalie on both of those Slovan championship teams. He was simply fantastic but also a great character. After one semi-final victory, the team brought him back out onto the ice in a shopping trolley and started wheeling him around the ice.
Now with Slovan in the KHL, I’ve fallen off the radar somewhat with my Slovak Extraliga following, and my previous Russian allegiance with Avangard Omsk, which was simply because I liked the jersey, has faded somewhat.
MH: How did last year’s NHL lockout affect the league, if at all?
JR: The lockout was huge for the Czech Extraliga. For a start, Jaromir Jágr returned to Kladno, and this time actually stayed. You simply cannot underestimate just how big Jagr is in the Czech Republic. I’m living in Prague now, yet I still see his face everywhere. He is also the owner of the Kladno team. In 2004/05, he came back to Kladno briefly, but in the end the money from Avangard Omsk was too much to turn down. However, this time round he stayed in Kladno, and his return was so big that the team, which is based around 50km outside of Prague, actually moved some of their home games to the o2 Arena in Prague, and were getting crowds of between 15,000 and 17,000. They in fact broke the Czech Extraliga record, which HC Slavia couldn’t break when they were playing in two finals series in 2008 and 2009. Kladno also managed to sign Tomas Plekanec, Jiri Tlusty, Tomas Kaberle and Marek Zidlicky. For example, Jagr had 57 points in 34 games. This gave them an inflated league position, so their campaign tailed off in the spring. Other teams signed one or maybe two players as a result of the lockout. For example, Slavia got Vladimir Sobotka and Roman Cervenka, who were both juniors with the club, although the latter ended up moving to HC Lev Praha in the KHL.
However, probably the biggest lockout news came from Petr Nedved’s Bili Tygri Liberec. The club signed Wayne Simmonds to play during the lockout, and sadly he became the target of racist abuse at a game in Chomutov. It was a massive deal in the league and highlighted larger social issues.
MH: Why did you start supporting these other leagues rather than the EIHL?
JR: It’s hard to say really. I grew tired of the slow, clutch and grab hockey of the EIHL. Back in 2005/06 Coventry signed a pair of Slovak players and I really liked the way they played the game, and I guess that opened my eyes to continental European hockey, and through an availability of online streams, I started watching a lot of games. Couple that with moving away from Coventry and what I would call becoming disillusioned with my club, I ended up forgoing many games and simply getting my hockey fix by watching games online, or as if often the case in the end, actually getting up and going abroad to watch games. I would say that I get to on average ten European games a year in person, while I would estimate that I have only been to four or five EIHL games in the same span. For the level it is, EIHL hockey is incredibly expensive. For a ticket it is around £15-£17. To put that into perspective, I can get into a Slavia game at the o2 Arena, which has the highest ticket prices in the country for £2.50.
If you’re a passionate hockey fan and want your team or league featured, I want to hear from you! Find me on twitter @MarchHockey or drop me a line on facebook, http://www.facebook.com/MarchHockey