Panenka scarves IV: Czechs on Ice

Panenka scarves is one Canadian’s attempt to document his appreciation of the obvious and not-so-obvious experiences of a life in the Czech Republic. For previous Panenkas, click here.

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I love hockey.

I grew up with it, I played it, I watch it as much as possible – both live and on TV – and I adore it.

With this in mind, you can imagine how excited I am to see hockey abroad and take in the differences, if any, when compared to Canada.

I was certainly able to spot a few unique things about the game when I attended my first European league game in Helsinki.

Before this season, Prague had two professional hockey teams in town, Slavia Praha and Sparta Praha, both of which play in the Czech Extraliga. Last season I attended a couple of matches and realized quite quickly that it wasn’t exactly the same caliber as NHL-level hockey, or even SM-liiga hockey. However, the one thing it does have going for it is the fact that it’s often the first professional league that many future Czech NHL stars get their start.

Still, the level of hockey is a bit raw to watch at times.

This summer, amidst talk of an impending NHL lockout back home, I was surprised to learn that Prague would be getting a KHL team to start the 2012-13 season. In lieu of the NHL, the Russian KHL is a full of enormous talent. While the on ice product is slightly significantly less physical than North American hockey, it’s still a pleasure to watch. I found this out first-hand, when I attended my first KHL match in Saint Petersburg early last year.

NHL talent – especially Russian born players – are actively being circled like vultures by KHL clubs and many have expressed their intention to play in the KHL in the event of a lockout on September 15. The longer the lockout, the greater the odds that some of my favourite Canadian superstars will make the jump overseas.

These players want to play somewhere this year and the KHL can offer them both a competitive league and a generous salary.

During the 2004 lockout, the KHL had yet to exist. The best option for hockey players in Russia was the Russian Superleague – a league that was less organized and less appealing to North American-born players.

Nor was it nearly as international. Presently, the league has teams in Russia, Latvia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. There’s practically something for everyone.

This week was the opening salvo of KHL matches in Prague so you better believe I had my tickets. My lovely girlfriend accompanied me to a Saturday afternoon game to see the Prague Lions face Spartak Moscow, and I got to do one of my favourite things on this planet: watch hockey and drink beer while taking in the small differences that a hockey game abroad offers the Canadian hockey fan.

Beer:

One of the more important ones. Beer is a staple of Czech life and a hockey game is no exception to this rule. It sometimes seems that easy access to affordable pivo must be written somewhere in an official Czech Charter of Human Rights, because even at a hockey game you can get a cold half-litre of quality beer for less than 2 bucks.

That’s right – The beer is cheap and the quality isn’t comparable to the watered down urine of an broken rhino. Quite a change from what I’m used to in Canada.

Food:

This is another world full of small – and not so small – differences between home and abroad. Traditionally, I’ve only eaten a handful of snacks at hockey games in Canada and the US – popcorn, chips, hotdogs, candy, maybe some peanuts. Prague has a few different options.

The most popular food at a Czech hockey game, by far, is klobasa. Just a big ‘ol sausage on a paper plate, with a squirt or two of mustard and a piece of dry bread. No forks, no knives, no frills – You eat this bad boy with your hands or you can go the fuck home.

The second, I’m still not sure if it’s a KHL thing or a Czech thing (since I’ve seen it in Saint Petersburg as well and it confused me then) but, for some reason, corn on the cob is a popular hockey treat. Just a steamed half cob on a stick. I’d be grateful for anyone to shed some light on that one.

Anthem

They sing both the Czech and Russian anthems to start games in Prague. The Russian fans will usually sing along, but Czech’s are very quiet.

In Canada, you don’t even need to be at a hockey game for someone to start singing O Canada and have the rest of the room join in before it’s over. I saw it happen once in the waiting room at a dentist’s office…

Arena

Both Sparta Prague and the Prague Lev play in Tipsport Arena. Tipsport is located in an area of Prague that makes downtown Los Angeles seem like Champs-Élysées.

It was built in 1962 and the interior facilities don’t hide this well. Still, since the KHL has come to town there has obviously been a bit of Russian oil money pumped into giving it a facelift. The rink is noticeably cleaner, brighter, and more professional than last spring when I attended a few Sparta games.

In fact, I was eager to enjoy that dirty arena experience again, but it seems that the Russians have classed up the joint.

The last time we came to Tipsort it was a party. The beer was served well into the third period, the fans were loud and crazy, and every now and then you’d smell – and see – some old Czech professionals smoking and drinking homemade schnapps in their seats. It was amazing to behold.

I suppose if I want to see this again, I can always attend more Sparta Prague games. But they can be quite hard to watch at times. The quality of hockey isn’t as sharp as the KHL.

Sparta Prague: sloppier on the ice and in the stands.

Gameplay

Hey, of course the on-ice product will be a bit different than the NHL. While there is little checking, the passing is quite crisp and there are few brain farts on the ice. These guys are all professionals and you can tell.

While a KHL game is miles better than the Czech or Finnish leagues, it’s still not quite as fast as the NHL (fast as hell though). I can’t help chalking this up to a wider ice surface – it can give the appearance of slower skating.

In short, the games are extraordinarily watchable compared to much of what you’d find in Europe. There’s only one superior on-ice product in the world, and it isn’t dropping the puck anytime soon…

So…

For those interested in the game, I highly recommend a visit to Prague to watch some world-class hockey. The quality’s great and, in my opinion, it’ll be a more unique experience than Finland or Sweden. For those of you worried about your wallet or an inability to handle massive culture shock, take solace in the fact that it’s not as expensive or mind-numbingly different as Russia.

When it comes to hockey in Prague, everything’s a little unusual but the spirit’s the same.

It’s definitely something to think about if you get antsy waiting around for the NHL to start. The longer the lockout lasts, the better things are going to get in this part of the world.

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