I’ve watched a lot of hockey in the Czech Republic this year. Part that of that due to the lockout, which sent a healthy share of NHLers to the KHL and Czech league teams in town, and part of it was the fact that it’s just in my nature to seek out hockey wherever I am. Lockout or not, I would’ve gone to watch a couple of games, because that’s sort of my default setting.
Last week I went to what will likely be my final match of the season and perhaps even my last match ever in the Czech Republic (I’m due to move in the summer). The first round of the playoffs have begun in the Czech league and Sparta Prague, the most popular team in town, was hosting HC Oceláři Třinec in the fourth game of their best of seven series. A friend of mine from Třinec invited me to go and I figured it a good opportunity to get one final taste of that uniquely Czech brand of hockey.
After spending countless hours in the arenas out here, I want to touch upon a couple of final thoughts from watching hockey in the Czech Republic and focus on a few of the differences, both wonderful and head scratching, that the experience provides.
Some things are good
1) First of all, the amount of drinking that occurs in the parking lots and concession stands before the game is downright heroic. Much like the ACC in Toronto, a lot of seats are empty when the puck drops, but it’s not due to a passiveness towards the game. Instead, many spectators are off getting a buzz on and will saunter in midway through the period. This isn’t the NHL. This isn’t even the KHL. There will be no sushi delivered to your seats, there will be no razzle-dazzle whatsoever. This is the Czech Extraliga: sloppy on the ice, sloppy in the stands.
2) A good 10,000 strong make the trip to the arena on a Wednesday night, a pretty impressive showing by any standards, and certainly illustrates how popular the game is. Fans from Třinec filled up the fan sections behind their net, and the Sparta faithful matched the intensity from the other end of the rink.
3) Tiny cute Zambonis!
4) Far and away my favourite thing about a Czech hockey game occurs during the goal announcements for the home team. The goal will first be announced over PA, following the standard template (Prague goal scored by number 87). Moments later the team’s hype man – yes, there is a lively hype man that shows up before the game and during intermissions – will rile the fans up by re-announcing the goal, but only give the player’s first name. Fans are expected to shout out the rest. This happens three times.
We don’t have this tradition in Canada, but if we did, it would sound like this:
Announcer: Pittsburgh goal scored by number 87, Sidney –
From what I’ve gathered, this is something that has carried over from football and it certainly has a welcome home with hockey fans, myself included. There is nothing more fun than shouting out the name of the heroic goalscorer a couple of times with the rest of the building, especially in the third period when you’ve all had a couple of pops.
4) Another great thing about watching the Czech leagues is the odd occurrence of seeing old obscure NHLers, whose names you remember, though you could never quite place where they’d played. Well, you’ll be happy to know that the Radek Bonks and Vaclav Varadas of the world are alive and well … and playing for Třinec apparently.
5) And finally, I learned something fantastic from the penalty announcements: the Czech word for crosscheck is krosček. See, we’re not so different after all.
6) The game-long cheerleader riser certainly doesn’t hurt either:
Some things are bad
It’s not all drunken Czechs, old nostalgia and dancing girls. There are a couple of factors that simply don’t sit right at times.
1) First of all, while these playoff games are a lot faster than their regular season counterparts, it is the Czech leagues. Neutral zone turnovers, sloppy passes, and bad penalties are all commonplace. There are very few hits thrown after the first shift and an uncomfortable amount of spearing that takes place from the second period onward. In a league continent where fighting is not accepted, players are free to mindlessly hack at one another and dive as if shot without any repercussions. It’s depressing at times.
2) However, I take solace in the fact that I can simply look to the Sparta Prague bench to cheer myself up. This is because head coach Josef Jandač, who used to look like this when he coached the KHL’s Prague Lions …
… now dresses like this:
For a guy that used to clean up nicely, he certainly seems like he doesn’t give a damn anymore. It looks like he’s just gone through a horrible breakup that’s left him heartbroken. Then again, he was fired from the KHL last October …
C’mon Josef – you’re a head coach of a professional hockey team, so dress like one! Maybe a suit, tie … shower, even. Instead of this two-bit loan shark look you’ve got going on these days.
3) If you’ve ever been to a sporting event where the home team is winning as the clock is winding down, you’re sure to have heard the song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”. Used to taunt the visiting team when victory is at hand, the song is sometimes pumped in through the speaker systems, sometimes spontaneously sung by the crowd a cappela, but it’s always designed to rub salt int0 the wounds of a defeated team. Prague has a tendency to do something a little different.
I should preface this by saying that I’ve seen it happen previously, both on TV and in person, so the experience is not isolated to this game alone. However, with two minutes left on the clock and the home team trailing by a goal, the in-house sound system started playing the tune. Crazier still, the crowd starting singing along (albeit replacing the good-bye! with Spar-ta!).
Of course, the Czech league is free to use the song however they wish. But it’s hard to separate that late-60s classic from it’s contemporary application, especially in sporting circles. It is quite literally the most infamous ‘We’re ending your season and now we’re going to rub it in’ track ever recorded. You’d half expect them to start up We Are the Champions after a loss.
4) While the miscue on the song thing is more a silly piece of trivia than an ingrained part of the sport out here, there is one thing I still haven’t come around on yet and that’s whistling instead of booing. Now I know this is the European way to express anger or disagreement with a player or a call, but it’s just so damned silly.
For illustration, here’s the crowd jeering Mikhail Grabovski during a penalty shot against the Prague Lions last October:
I fully understand that this is a cultural thing – again, inherited from football – but it’s something that struck me as funny from the start and still does. Which is rare too, because the longer I’m here the more open-minded I get in my hockey traditions. Scarves? No problem now. Some schmuck behind the net banging on a snare drum all night? Okay, sets the mood a bit and conjures up the image of going into battle. But the whistling to show that you’re upset is just weak. It completely lacks the guttural power of a strong and unified BOO!
Cultural bias at it’s best. It gets worse.
Some things are just sacrilege
After a long back-and-forth battle, Sparta Prague still found themselves down a goal. But, with thirty-three seconds left on the clock and the Sparta net empty, Jaroslav Svoboda connected with Petr Ton to tie the game at 4 apiece. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in, any game that concludes in such an exciting manner is a beauty.
Not sure what to expect, but (incorrectly) assuming that since this was the playoffs there would surely be an endless overtime, I was surprised to see the teams play for only ten more minutes before going to a shootout.
Hrm … A shootout. To decide a …a playoff game. A Shootout!? I … I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I still can’t … shootout …
Now the shootout is all well and cute during the regular season when everything is made up and the points don’t matter, but when it comes time to a game with real implications, you can’t decide the thing on a skills competition! This is the playoffs. No shootouts!
Then again, I can only assume that since the Nagano Olympics all hockey-related decisions in the Czech Republic are legally mandated to go to a shootout, if only to remind me of 1998 and drive all Canadians absolutely bonkers. This is the Czech Republic – the shootout isn’t a dirty word out here, but rather a sacred cow.
Positives and negatives aside, I really do love watching and talking hockey in the Czech Republic. Sometimes there are no differences at all, sometimes there are too many differences, and that’s the best part of the whole experience. Hockey fans in this part of the world have a deep-rooted and knowledgeable passion for the game and that’s all it really takes to earn my respect.