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.
If you were to ask me my first ever memory of the Czech Republic, I would tell you that it stemmed from a multi-hour wait I had in the Prague airport in 2008. I was days away from beginning a student exchange year in Ljubljana, Slovenia and had an umpteen hour layover in the Ruzyne Airport during the wee hours of the morning. There wasn’t much to do but wander aimlessly through the terminal, pay too much for coffee, and wait for the KFC to open so I could get some breakfast.
For some reason, the strongest memory I have from those lonely hours was a poster I sat across as the sun was rising. I immediately recognized the man in the picture as Jaromir Jagr and, for some reason, he was flicking a sugar cube at me with a spoon and laughing.
Though I had limited knowledge of foreign languages, I was still able to discern that it was an advertisement of the Czech Republic’s upcoming appointment as the head of the European Union.
This was to be one of the country’s shining moments and they decided that it was best to have a hockey player lead the charge. This was something I understood without question in Canada, but had no idea other countries felt as strongly about the game.
That’s when I realized how important Jaromir Jagr was to this country.
You can imagine my excitement then, when it was announced that Jarda would be returning to his hometown club (a club he currently owns) during the NHL lockout. Better still, two of the first three games would be played in Prague.
I was not alone in this excitement. The first game drew more than 15 500 fans, the second more than 12 500. These numbers are nearly unheard of for Czech-league hockey, which usually draws around 5000 fans a game. Jarda in Prague is a big fucking deal.
Anyone who was at either of the two games can attest – when Jagr is in town the mood is electric, inside the stadium and out. Keep in mind, this is the man they literally chose to be the poster boy for their nation. And rightfully so – he’s one of the most talented and decorated European-born players to ever lace up a pair of skates. If citizens had to choose a “King of the Czech Republic”, Jagr would find himself a serious contender. That’s how deep the love goes, and it spans several generations.
A story I like to tell comes from last November, when I was giving my sixth grade class a “Canada Quiz” that worked on both interrogative pronouns and useless knowledge of a country most of them would never visit – especially because they’d now require visas…
Anyhow, about halfway through, I made an offhand comment implying that Wayne Gretzky was the greatest hockey player ever. Immediately, one of my students launched to his feet, slammed his fists on the desk and, genuinely offended, passionately proclaimed that Jagr was the best ever! Most of the class, boys and girls, followed suit and chided me for saying something so blasphemous.
There is a lot of love for Jaromir Jagr in this part of the world. The opportunity to see him play for his boyhood club is akin to a fantasy. Naturally, I had to get tickets to at least one of the games.
I’ve actually seen Number 68 in action before, in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics. However, watching him play in a rink full of half-enthused Canadian fans doesn’t hold a candle to a beer-soaked full house at Tipsport Arena.
Last Sunday I saw Jaromir Jagr lace ‘em up and take to the ice in Prague. It’s perhaps the most Czech thing I’ve done since moving here.
Better still, in a game that was mind-numbingly mediocre for 40 minutes, and noticeably slower than the KHL action that’s been taking to that same ice all month, Jarda’s Kladno Knights came out in the third period and simply took over the game.
Down 2-1 to start the final frame, 68’s squad scored three unanswered in the third period to capture the win.
Kladno boasts an all-NHL top line consisting of Jagr, Tomas Plekanec, and Jiri Tlusty, which dominated the pace of the game from the drop of the puck, but failed to take advantage of their situation until the third period when they appeared to be scoring at will.
This was my first, and hopefully not last, taste of NHL quality hockey in Europe as a result of the 2012 lockout. But, for forty plus minutes I was worried that it was going be nothing more than an anti-climactic bust. It appeared that I wouldn’t get to see any magic from the aging King of Czech hockey.
Then, finally, I was witness to a beautiful game-winner that saw Jagr school the D-man at the blueline, go behind the back to Plekanec, who tossed it off to a streaking Tlusty and it was in the net. In the end, the hockey gods delivered – as they often do.
You can see the beauty goal here. Je krásná.
The NHL lockout has been providing hockey fans abroad with great hockey and a chance to see some of the most talented players on the planet. While it took me a while to witness my first NHL-caliber moment, the important thing was that it came.
Jagr’s time in Prague was something special that I was fortunate to be here to see, but October’s when the real fire-power hits the ice. On the calender next month, I’ve got Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin, and Pavel Datsyk coming to town. I’m a lucky fan.