This is the first recap from the officially declared best European hockey league which is the Czech Extraleague. One of the teams that has a pretty good chance of winning the title is Sparta Praha. Club with an excellent backround and enough money to buy good players with very perspective future. Sparta’s roster is loaded with stars this season, their names won’t say much to North American hockey fans but in the Czech Republic they are well known.
Let me just briefly tell you about the changes that took place during the summer in Sparta’s roster and not only in it. Sparta didn’t win the Extraleague last season and ended up second. But considering the poor performance in the course of the year it can still be seen as success. Sparta played different hockey in the play-offs then in the regular season but assumingly they didn’t play by their heart as much as the team around Jiri Dopita did (meaning Vsetin). Still being second is not enough for Sparta. They are trying to build an extremely strong team with consistent good results and that means steadily wining the Extraleague. The first one to be fired was Frantisek Vyborny the head coach of Sparta. He was already exchanged by Riha in the middle of the season but then replaced again few games before the beginning of the play-offs. During the play-offs it was announced in media that Vyborny will not be asked to be the head coach for the next season. This didn’t really give much confidence to Vyborny but still he did a good job. For this season Vaclav Sykora is the head coach last year head coach of Litvinov.
Sparta needed mainly to reestablish her back rows. Strong players who would not shy away from physical style of play were welcomed in Sparta. Radek Hamr and Jan Srdinko were the first ones to get the opportunity. Radek Hamr came to Sparta from Farjestad (Sewden) where as Jan Srdinko came together with forward Jan Tomajko from Vsetin, 6 times champion of Czech Extralegue. The crises in Vsetin about the owner of this club as well as the unpaid wages forced many players to leave Vsetin. Tomajko joined Sparta 3 years after his great friends from youth Kratena and Bros left Vsetin to play for Sparta. Famous line from the youth national selection as well as Olomouc Kratena-Bros-Tomajko were once again together which means nothing else than fear to their opponents. Another player that used to play for Vsetin 2 years ago was R. Belohlav who has spend least season in Ceske Budejovice. He was encourages by an attractive offer from Sparta and joined the team.
The biggest offensive threat that strengthened Sparta was R. Tomik. This Slovak player has been a member of Karlovy Vary roaster last season but this worst team in the Extraleague was nothing beneficial for this offensively gifted forward. He was the best in club’s statistics but he needed better players around him to be in more challenging environment. During summer he became Sparta’s player and he became a 1st liner here. At the beginning of the Extraleague the lines were set up as follows: Zemlicka-Hlinka-Tomik, Srdinko-Zabransky, Kratena-Bros-Tomajko, Srek-Ptacek, Belohlav-Novak-Chabada, Nedved-Hamr, and the forth line was Havleka-Kasparik-Netik, Jirus-Hanzlik.
A new team was formed and Sparta was looking forward to a new season. During the pre-season games Sparta suggested what is going to be her strongest weapons. Great goalie, solid defence and precise forwards with scoring potential. New faces weren’t the only innovation for Sparta’s fans they were surprised by new colors of Sparta’s jerseys which have nothing to do with Sparta’s traditional original colors. Yellow, red and blue was replaced by white, gray and black. Sparta’s majestic “S” was pressurized to little “s”. But fans quickly forgave that to the beloved Sparta and her new general partner Siemens. It was all forgiven right in the first game when Sparta beat Ceske Budejovice 5:3 which were weakened by summer trades when they lost 3 central players (Ales Kotalik, Vaclav Neodrost, Filip Turek). This game ended up by disappointment for O. Kratena. After being pushed on the boards Kratena ended up having 2 broken fingers and doctor’s resolution was undebatable at least 4 weeks break.
Kasparik then moved to 2nd line and 4th line was incomplete. In the 2nd game Sparta played away and won over Znojmo infornt of TV cameras 3:0 (in Czech Republic is only 1 TV hockey game per week). But once again not all the players finished the game without harm. Hamr the defender who was supposed to bring stability to Sparta’s back lines had injured ligaments in his knee after one collision with opposing player. Jirus last year’s best defenceman of the 2nd highest league in Czech Republic, took Hamr’s spot. After 2 games Sparta had 2 victories and 2 injuries. The 3rd game was away against Havirov (last year Sparta’s coach Vyborny is coaching Havirov this season) and Sparta won in the extra time 3:2 and no one got injured!
The next 2 games brought full 6 points to Sparta and this was a very promising start to the new season but this was followed by unstable performance. There were series of home/away games and in all 3 games at home Sparta played in extra time and won only once. All these home games had similar course of action. Sparta started by offensive force but scoring opportunities didn’t end by goal. Sparta then relaxed her pressure and her opponent took advantage of that and tied the game. Opponents usually scored the first goal. Sparta was then encouraged to work harder and shot from every position. But by that time opponents were tightly defending their zone and the goal area. Sparta after huge pressure managed to score the goal but it cost her a lot of strength. So in the extra time she lacked the power. She was still trying hard and the atmosphere between the teams was sharpening and usually few fights took place and the loss of concentration in Sparta’s lines was taken by advantage by her opponent. That was what more or less happened. Sparta’s result away were much more positive she gained all 9 possible points.
Maybe not enough fans in Prague Peagas Arena are responsible for dissatisfactory home results. Players of Sparta are not forced by massive crowds to give out their best when not even half full arena is mostly quiet and not supporting their team. Many times few fans from the other team are louder than the Sparta’s fans. But it can’t all be blamed on the fans. Sparta suffered loss of concentration and it is well possible that she overestimates her abilities and underestimate opponents. But when Sparta plays well it is a pleasure to watch her. The incredibly smart passes and great offensive force that is just amazing! Sparta improved her attitude towards the games and won over Zlin 6:3 and this hopefully meant the final break through the mental block which restricted Sparta in the at home games.
Sparta’s first line was the most effective and efficient one and it remained unchanged till the 18th round of the Czech Extralegue. Zemlicka-Hlinka-Tomik successfully fulfilled their role as the offensive force. All these players are well experienced and have great hockey sense so their style of play can be based on the improvised combination rather than on the learned signals. They also had good luck with scoring majority of Sparta’s goals. But for the 19th round Tomik was exchanged by J. Zelenka who came from Blues Espoo where he was playing this season and came there from Sparta. He returned because he was not given enough playing time and he was not treated as an equal with the other players. Line Zemlicka-Hlinka-Zelenka played together during last year’s Extaleague play-offs. They know each other well and Zelenka scored goal right in his first game after returning back. 2nd line suffered a great lost right in the first game. Kasparik was called up from the 4th line to join Bros and Tomajko. Kasparik was a new force there with huge figure and good hands but sometimes his undisciplined fouls “betrayed” his team mates.
Hard working line did not stay together for a long time in the 7th game Tomajko got injured and torn knee ligaments meant long pause. Novak moved to that formation and lack of players was a impulse for Sparta’s management to find solution to this problem. It was decided that Vaclav Kral from Plzen will strengthen Sparta’s offensive lines. He joined 3rd line to play with Chabada and Havelka. The 7th game was also critical for defender Zabransky which gave opportunity to 19 year old defenceman Jan Hanzlik. He took advantage of this opportunity only to prove that he is very stable at defensive play and tries to create offensive opportunities. Overall he performed well and showed his high standard, didn’t surprise by any extraordinary actions but by his stability.
Series of the next 10 games was again played in home/away style with the playing days on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday where on Saturday there is the TV game. In the mean time Sparta was also playing the semi-final of the Tipsport Hockey Cup. In the semi-finals Sparta faced who Litvinov gave opportunity to many junior players but Sparta won over them easily giving chance to all the 4 lines. The score was 7:3 for Sparta and in the final game she faced Vitkovice. This game ended 5:2 for Sparta and so she won the Tipsport Hockey Cup.
But back to the Extraleague Sparta won over Karlovy Vary without any major difficulties. Right in the next game with Ceske Budejovice Sparta had one of her bad days and lost 2:6 with them. Sparta was strengthen by another of her former players Frantisek Kucera who left Sparta at the beginning of the last season to play for Pittsburgh and then being traded to Washington where he was not given enough playing time. Sparta now had 9 really good D-men and this certainly creates very challenging environment. It is important to mention that in Sparta all the players have great relationship between each other in the first place and they are off-ice friends as well.
Those 10 games ended up by result of 4 won games 3 ties and 2 lost games with another one lost in the extra time. Injured players are slowly returning. In the game against Havirov Ondrej Kratena joined back the team and played in one line with Bros again. Sparta’s performance was once again very unstable. During these past 2 weeks there was a break due to national selection games and hopefully this pause will be beneficial for Sparta. Sparta is now 3rd in the overall statistics loosing 3 points on Zlin (but Zlin still has 2 extra games to play) and 2 points on Pardubice (Pardubice still have 1 game to play). Till the 10th round Sparta was still leading the statistics. Bad beginning of seasons is quite typical for Sparta but then Sparta is improving from game to game and it all has its peak in the play-off series. In the individual statistics Jaroslav Hlinka is 5th with 24 points after 22 games played.
From 5.11. till 12.11. there was a break for the national selection to come together and play in the Sweden Hockey Games. Sparta has sent there forward Jaroslav Hlinka a defenceman Frantisek Kucera. Radovan Tomik also went away with a national team but this time it was Slovak selection. They played on a German Cup. The latest news is that Frantisek Kucera was called back to Washington Capitals. But it is well possible that he will return to Sparta after some games. Also Vaclav Kral was in Sparta just for a month but he will not go back to Plzen but join Znojmo. In the next game Zabransky as well as Hamr will be playing after their injuries so this means that only Jan Tomajko will be missing due to his long-term injury.
Sparta has an extremely good team this season and it would be a real shame if these players would not reach the title for the Champion of the Czech Extraleague. Some of the players still have a chance of playing in the NHL just like many other players that are already playing NHL and used to play for Sparta such David Vyborny from Columbus or Jan Hlavac from Philadelphia. But now fans are more concerned to see a good Czech technical hockey with a lot of breakaway situation for which is Sparta well known among her opponents.