Jaroslav Bednar of Slavia Prague skates during the IIHF Champions Hockey League match between Slavia Prague and ZSC Lions Zurich on Dec. 3, 2008 in Prague. (Photo by Jiri Kolis/ Bongarts/Getty Images)
The century-old HC Slavia Praha is turning into a great Bohemian dynasty. By clinching the regular season title, the reigning Czech Extraliga champion became the first European team to secure its spot in the 2009-10 Champions League guaranteeing them a bye to the second qualification round.
Founded in 1900, Slavia is a European hockey staple. The first Czech national team, in 1909, consisted almost entirely of Slavia players.
This season’s heroes are Jaroslav Bednar, the league’s leading scorer with 27 goals and 68 points in 45 games, his sidekick Roman Cervenka, who is second in league scoring, goaltender Adam Svoboda and team captain, veteran forward Josef Beranek, who at 39 was fourth in team scoring in the regular season.
“Qualifying for the Champions Hockey League was one of club management’s top objectives this season,” Bednar said.
Bednar’s (and Cervenka’s) strong play in the Extraliga caught the attention of national team coach Vladimir Ruzicka, who saw Bednar break his old record in the Czech league when Bednar scored a point in 21 consecutive games. Ruzicka, obviously, was pleased both as the national team coach and as the head coach of Slavia Prague.
Two weeks ago, Bednar was in Stockholm with the national team. The Czechs lost all three games in the Euro Hockey Tour tournament and Bednar left the Swedish capital without scoring a goal.
“At this level, hockey is so much faster than in our league,” a disappointed Bednar said. “The hockey is way different at home, it’s slower and much easier. There’s no time here.
“In the Czech style, players can fly more freely everywhere, and that’s easier for a player. I’m 32, the end of the career is coming, so I just try to enjoy the game and have fun.”
That can be tough when you’re one of the leaders on a team that doesn’t win.
“We’ll see what happens (with the World Championship),” said Bednar, who did collect three assists in the three games. “The entire country expected me to be the leader of the team and when I didn’t score, I felt bad.”
The Czech Extraliga playoffs begin March 4, where the entire country will certainly not be cheering for Bednar. Not even everybody in Prague will be rooting for him because the city’s other team, legendary Sparta, is out to dethrone Slavia.
But Bednar, the first player to score a goal for both Prague teams in a Prague derby – in separate games, obviously - will be ready.
A few weeks ago, the Malmö Redhawks announced they would default player contracts and let them leave the club as free agents before the trade deadline on Jan. 31. What was initially seen as a complete and unconditional surrender has turned out to be a blessing.
After losing six players (a goalie and five skaters) the “Babyhawks” went on a four-game winning streak and climbed in the standings to eighth. The team is now within striking distance of seventh place, which would take Malmö to the qualification series and, potentially, into the qualification to the Elitserien.
The fans have also regained their optimism after the wins and Malmö’s attendance figures are back on the upswing. To start the year, the first game in the new arena attracted more than 13,000 spectators, but with only one win during a December six-game road trip, the fans deserted the team.
This week, more than 12,000 were in the stands to witness Malmö’s impressive 6-2 win over AIK Stockholm, which is second in the standings. Malmö’s average attendance of 5,339 is the highest in Hockeyallsvenskan. Huddinge, a Stockholm suburb, has an average attendance that’s just one-tenth of that, with 545.
On Sunday, Malmö meets Troja, the seventh-placed team, in an ultimate showdown for the final spot in the playoffs at the new Malmö arena.
NORWAY? YES, WAY!
Some things just make so much sense on paper. Like NHL teams in Barcelona, Milan and London. Or Phoenix and Nashville. Sometimes the plans pan out in reality, sometimes they don’t.
And if there’s great hockey in Sweden and Finland, why not in Norway? It just doesn’t make any sense.
Soon, hopefully, this won’t be so true anymore. The Norwegian national team recently qualified for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 where it will play in the same group with Canada, Switzerland, and the U.S.
Last May, Norway beat Germany in the World Championship and pushed Finland and Canada up against the wall.
There are currently seven Norwegian players in the Swedish Elitserien. Modo Hockey’s Per-Åge Skröder, 30, is the league’s leading scorer with 27 goals and 54 points in 50 games. His linemate, fellow Norwegian, 21-year-old Mats Zuccarello Aasen has 34 points in 30 games and his absence has been a huge blow to Modo.
Next season, the number of Norwegians in the league could jump to nine, as the Frölunda Indians have signed Mathis Olimb and Martin Röymark to contracts.
Rickard Wallin, a former NHLer with the Minnesota Wild, signed a new, four-year contract with Färjestads BK. Wallin has played his entire Elitserien career with Färjestad and is now the cornerstone of the team until 2013.
The 28-year-old team captain has a clause in his contract that would let him sign with an NHL team should the opportunity arise.
“Currently, I’m not looking to leave Färjestad, but the NHL has always been my dream, so I wanted to have that option in my contract,” Wallin said.
“I’m really proud that the club believes that I can be an important part of the team for the next four years.”
Added Färjestad’s director of hockey operations Thomas Rundqvist: “Rickard still has his best years ahead of him and we’re happy that he wants to use his talent for our club.”
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
Kenny Jonsson’s Rögle BK got a pleasant surprise Wednesday when about 100 fans showed up at the rink to cheer for the team at practice. The fans chanted and cheered for more than an hour and put in a practice session for themselves as well, rehearsing some new cheers.
“That shows their dedication and the entire team truly wants to thank them for that,” said Jonsson.
Eye on Europe will be featured on THN.com every Friday. Risto Pakarinen is a Finnish freelance writer, based in Stockholm, Sweden who also writes for NHL.com and IIHF.com. When not writing about European hockey on THN, he's probably writing about hockey at ristopakarinen.com/hockey as Puckarinen.
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