Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Keeping heads afloat: Slovak hockey's long summer

As the long summer days slowly start to wind down, and players and coaches alike return to the rinks, it's time to start looking back on the summer that was, which in turn was one of conflict and strife in many corners of Slovakia's domestic hockey market. A number of teams have changed divisions, while money problems created by the Eurozone crisis really bit hard on a number of the smaller market teams. However, even some of the big names in the Extraliga were touched by financial woes, with the Poprad side still not out of the water as of yet.

So let us start with the Extraliga, which saw arguably it's biggest club depart the league in search of bigger and better things. HC Slovan Bratislava, after winning their first championship for four years decided that the Extraliga was no longer for them, and managed to make the jump to the KHL. There had been rumblings for a while that the club from the capital was looking to expand outwards from the Extraliga, and with the success that they had not only on the ice, but off the ice after the reconstruction of the Ondrej Nepala stadium turned out to be a smart move. With increased capacity of over 10,000, and spirits high after the Slovak Extraliga championship, as well as the silver medal achieved by the national team, Slovan are in a good place at the moment in Slovakian terms, although their tight budget constrictions could hinder their KHL form.

Who knows what the future holds for Košice
HC Košice, who have been the most successful club in Slovakia over the past five years will be smarting after their run of three straight championships game to an end in 2012. Košice, who have apparently been looking into "two central European alternatives" this off-season look like they are set to try and reclaim their Slovak Extraliga crown, but the future after that is far less clear. At the start of the summer, before Slovan made the jump to the KHL, a proposal was made to allow Slovan and Košice into the Czech Extraliga, creating a "Czechoslovak Extraliga". However, this proposal was rejected by 13 of the 14 teams, citing extra travel costs as a key concern (link). A couple of years ago, the prospect of a Slovak team joining the EBEL would have been laughable, but with a weaker Extraliga after the departure of Slovan, it may just be that Košice could end up in the Central European EBEL after all. Featuring teams from Austria, Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia, the EBEL has spawned into a mid-tier league which is starting to grow in terms of the calibre of players joining the league, which may just make it more appealing for the side from Eastern Slovakia. It certainly seems that the KHL is out of reach. At least for now.

For Dukla Trenčín, most of their concerns have been around having a rink to play in. A huge ammonia leak in the main arena has rendered the rink unsafe for now, but there were major issues over whether or not the local government will have the funds available to embark on the repair work, which was estimated to be at €55,000. However, the city of Trenčín have seemed to have taken control of the Pavol Demitra Arena as of late, after the team had been forced to practice on the rink owned by Marian Gaborik, as well as the local rink in nearby Dubnica. Mayor Richard Rybníček has offered to lease the arena to the Dukla club for just one euro for training sessions and matches, as well as putting up the money for the repair costs, in order to secure Extraliga hockey in Trenčín for the coming season. The city claims that the arena will be repaired by late August (link).

Poprad went from KHL & Slovak hockey to
almost no hockey this offseason
However, other clubs have not been so lucky. Poprad, who have been reeling following the move of the HC Lev franchise to Prague after just one year in the Slovak mountain city have had huge financial problems in the run up to the coming season. After their Extraliga season, all contracts with players to the club expired, leaving the club without any players, as executive director Tibor Turan claimed, "I will not sign any players, if I do not have the money" (link). A lack of sponsorship, especially within Poprad has left the team strapped for cash, as Turan claimed that last season, 65% of the teams sponsorship money came from outside Poprad, and this summer seems to have changed little. However, the latest news coming out of Poprad is that they will be able to field a team for next season, as they have already scheduled pre-season games, as well as being included on the fixture lists for the coming season.

Another with money problems going into the season was MHC Martín. One of the smallest clubs in the Extraliga, Martín, who have missed the playoffs for the last two seasons have struggled to keep a hold of a number of their players, but finally this week started to begin pre-season preparations with a new head coach Róbert Pukalovič, featuring a team mainly made up of junior and local players. Despite this, it does seem that  Martín have managed to gather enough money together for the coming season, although their prospects are quite bleak. It is also worth mentioning HK Skalica, who have entered an agreement with Slovan which will allow a number of players to be loaned down to the Extraliga club who don't make Slovan's KHL roster. At present, Andrej Kudrna, Adam Trenčan and Peter Trška have been sent down to Skalica.

New beginnings for Piešťany in the Extraliga
Photo: Laco Duračka/
However, there are more teams than Slovan embarking on new adventures next season. After initially toying with the prospect of playing in the EBEL, former 1.liga side ŠHK 37 Piešťany have moved up to the Extraliga, replacing the Bratislava side's spot in the Slovakian top tier. Piešťany, who won the 1.liga in 2009 and 2010 will face a tough task in next years Extraliga, but they have picked up a couple of good players with Extraliga experience. Another team moving onto pastures new are HK Nove Zamky, who have entered the MOL Liga, which features Hungarian and Romanian clubs. Interesting, one of the main reasons that Marián Lukáčik claims moved Nove Zamky to the MOL Liga was due to the new junior rules in the Extraliga, which forbids overagers from playing in the junior leagues. He hopes that by having Nove Zamky in the MOL Liga, it will allow these 21 and 22 year olds will develop better than being dropped in at the deep end in the Slovakian professional leagues, while also the cost of playing in the league is much lower (link). Another looking to enter the MOL Liga were Slovak talent factory HK 38 Dubnica. The club from Pavol Demitra's home town have consistently struggled with securing top level senior hockey in the town, whilst losing many of their best players to the nearby Dukla Trenčín side. However, the SZLH refused to grant permission for Dubnica to join the MOL Liga, while allowing Nove Zamky to enter the international competition. The reasons why Dubnica were not allowed to join the league are rumoured to be due to being unable to secure the merger between the 'new' HK 38 side and the old MHK Dubnica. The outfit look set to take part in the 2.liga next season.

So, another summer of turmoil in Slovakian hockey, which sadly seems to be nothing new. Who knows what the next year will have in store, and although I always try to put a positive spin on things, I am struggling to find anything 'good' about the situation that Slovak hockey finds itself in at this current stage. Maybe things will change, but sadly it seems that the success of the national team at the World Championships may be a failed success if nothing is done by the government or the SZLH.

1 comment:

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