Being a sports fan is not only about marvelling at watching the best do their thing. It’s not only about dreaming of reaching their level, trying to imitate them on the court, the rink, the field or a road that seems to never end. It’s also about experiencing the energy of the living organism that is a crowd during an on-going event: gasping, howling, heckling, suffering in anticipation of the worst and, yes, exploding in ecstasy at the sight of the incredible.
Taking all of this in can become an addiction and quickly spun into the search for new sensations, different environments, fresh faces and impulses. Thus, in sport, just like in life, one way you can feed the addiction is to pack your things and travel, explore and discover other spaces and perspectives.
Just to be clear, because the semantics on that paragraph seem to point to some life-altering trip, this is not what we’ll chronicle on this post. Just a slightly exaggerated preamble to indicate that the magic of traveling and the passion for sports go hand-in-hand perfectly, since there’s no better way of expanding your fandom than expressing it wherever your feet land.
Anyway, recently I had the chance to spend eight days on the Czech Republic and manage to stay level-headed enough to be able to recount some things. The timing of the visit coupled with the scheduling of sporting events (blame football’s winter break) dictated that options were limited, so I only ended up attending a couple of ice hockey games. I visited Prague and the quaint university town of Olomouc, and in this article will expose my thoughts on what I saw, felt and perceived on their respective arenas.
Additionally, even if this isn’t a travel blog, I’ll take the chance to collect some personal remarks about extra-sports aspects of the places I got to know. These two sections will be clearly delimited, should one of them be outside of your interest.
My first stop was the capital of Central Europe’s hockey hotbed (sorry, Slovakia), so I’ll start there.
HC Sparta Praha – PSG Zlín, Wednesday, 3rd February 2016
The Tipsport Czech Extraliga is the main ice hockey division in the Czech Republic and ranks fifth in average attendance amongst its European counterparts, after the Swiss, German, Russian (KHL) and Swedish leagues, with a bit over 5000 spectators per match. I took advantage of my stay in Prague to enjoy the battle between Sparta Praha, the home side that was close to clinching a playoff spot and cruising in second place on the league standings, and a Zlín squad desperate for points to approach the sixth and final postseason berth.
Starting this season, the O2 Arena hosts the matches of Sparta’s ice hockey section, since their banner Tipsport Arena, located on the Holesovice district, is in need of significant renovations. Opened in 1962, the former home of Sparta, which hosted the Ice Hockey World Championships on four occasions and could accommodate 13,150 spectators, will be part of a complete makeover underway at Výstaviště, an extensive area with facilities used for concerts, exhibitions and other cultural and leisure activities. Some club services, like the main fan shop and youth team’s activities remain there, but all of the matches take place on Prague’s main venue, the O2 Arena, where more than 17,000 can appreciate the wonders of live hockey.
Opened in 2004, this multi-purpose building is a modern infrastructure that can be reached easily from the Cêskomorávská metro station – on the yellow metro line(line B) – a half dozen stops from the city centre, and without surprise caters to the needs of its visitors, whatever type of spectacle they’re in for. The entrance occurs swiftly despite the presence of metal detectors, the concourses are spacious to accommodate thousands during intermissions, and there’s no shortage of bathrooms, which almost completely eliminates the nuisance of queues. Meanwhile, ample seating capacity at the concessions area was also not forgotten, a must due to the impressive multitude and diversity of food stalls, which supply almost every type of food you could be expected to find on an entertainment venue, including burgers, pizzas, hot dogs and Klobásas (a thick, spicy sausage served accompanied with slices of brown bread), tacos, baguettes, sandwiches, potato pancakes (a Czech favourite), chips…
Nevertheless, if the arena had all the comforts necessary, I was there to watch a hockey game and was presented with an entertaining affair between a home side dressed in the classic maroon and white colours and the visitors wearing a yellow and blue outfit. Sparta managed to take the lead on three separate occasions but every time Zlín came back to tie the match, wasting a golden chance to secure the two points late in regulation after a penalty was whistled to their opponents. Then, already in the overtime period (unfortunately, not 3 on 3), the tables turned and Zlín went down two men with a pair of penalties in quick succession, but Sparta couldn’t capitalize on the 5 on 3 despite a crowd standing in anticipation of the game winning goal. The match thus drifted into a deciding shootout, where Sparta scored twice to no response from the 2013-14 Czech Champions, setting the 4-3 final score line.
As for individual standouts, you couldn’t help but notice the reaction of the audience to the heroics of 25-year-old Miroslav Forman. Sparta’s home-grown C/RW scored the opening goal and also delivered on the shootout’s first attempt with a nice deke, deserving a farewell applause to the tune of a “Miro Formaaan“ call that, more than once, caught me humming for a similarly-named star player from my own football team. No idea if Forman also disappears in big games, though.
Meanwhile, Forman’s goaltender, Tomáš Pöpperle, was also on the spot regularly and not for the best reasons, slowly getting back into position to confront the puck on the first two goals allowed, and always looking shaky managing rebounds. He also fumbled the puck behind the net on an opportunity that didn’t end up costing dearly by miracle. Pöpperle was a 5th round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005 and played two NHL games back in 2006-07, but it’s fair to say that he was feeling the pressure provided by the recent acquisition of Danny Taylor, a 28-year-old Canadian goalie that was part of the LA Kings and Calgary Flames organizations and became one of only two non-Europeans on Sparta’s roster.
Actually, the great majority of the league’s lineups include only Czech and Slovak players, with “imports” being scarce, a different approach than seen in rival countries like Germany and Switzerland.
Still, Sparta’s roster included a few players with NHL experience, brief in the cases of defenseman Michal Barinka, a former Blackhawks prospect, and Jaroslav Hlinka, who represented the Colorado Avalanche in 2007-08, and more pronounced for 39-year-old Jan Hlavac, who amassed 436 games for 6 NHL teams from 1999 to 2004 and during a second stint in 2007-08.
As one of the most heralded Czech teams, Sparta Praha has won six national Championships since 1987, when the nation’s league was instituted, and is looking to end a drought of eight seasons in 2015-16, thus their roster includes some interesting players that I wouldn’t be surprised to see moving overseas in the near future. I liked Juraj Mikos, a 27-year-old well-rounded Slovak blueliner that Toronto selected in the 5th round in 2007 and later played three years for the Toronto Marlies, but he’s unlikely to go back. So, I would put my chips on 23-year-old skilled centre Daniel Pribyl, a Montreal Canadiens 6th rounder in 2011 who is clocking at a point-per-game pace (38 in 38 games) in the Czech League, or 25-year-old Jan Buchtele, an undrafted left winger that looked strong on the boards and unafraid to drive to the net, having obtained over 15 goals in three consecutive seasons.
Before moving on, allow me a few words on the overall atmosphere around the ice. About 7500 spectators showed up to fill the lower bowl of the arena and the atmosphere was animated, with a markedly youthful crowd (Sparta has some type of campaign to deliver a bunch of free tickets for groups of students that apply their schools) providing a colourful vibe. This also extended to the enthusiastic group of organized home supporters, which were standing in close proximity to where I was seated and were relentless in their attempts to drown out the chants and reactions of around two hundred fans that made the trip from the Eastern Moravian town. No ill-advised incitements or provocations were thrown cross-rink and both groups confined themselves to backing up their teams, which made for an enjoyable experience throughout the game.
Although the O2 Arena dominates the attentions, for hockey fans the attractions on the area don’t stop there, as the Harfa Shopping Center, located just to the right of the arena, hosts the Czech Hockey Hall of Fame. The space (entrance fee Adult: 140 CZK, ≈5.5€) presents an overview of the origins of the sport in the country, the national team’s main feats and trophies conquered – with evident focus on the Olympic Gold Medal earned in Nagano 1998 – plus the triumphs and contributions of the most successful clubs. It is also replete with memorabilia and multimedia records from the inducted members of the Hall of Fame, including esteemed NHL legends like Jaromír Jágr, Dominik Hašek, Peter Šťastný or Ivan Hlinka. If you have time, you may spend a couple of hours on the exhibition but I would say that most visitors are lured to the fun zone, where you can showcase your skills in shooting*, passing and stickhandling simulators or indulge on a game of air hockey.
Leaving the exhibition, you can also check their small shop, with a decent chunk of NHL merchandise, namely club-themed hats, beanies, water bottles, pucks and a few jerseys, but the choice is a bit limited. So, if you’re after that, head to the centre of Prague and the JB Sport – Hokej Centrum shop (address: Dlážděná 1491/3, 110 00 Praha 1-Nové Město, http://www.jbsport.cz/ ) situated not far from Prague’s main train station. It is a 300m2 paradise for hockey fans in general, and NHL fans looking for jerseys, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, among others. And no, they did not sponsor this paragraph.
*Well, if they could provide a right-handed stick fitted for a normal sized person so you can manage to wire the puck decently on the shooting gallery, it would be nice
Time for some random considerations regarding the city of Prague, in bullet form:
– I won’t shock anyone by confirming that Prague is as picturesque, charming, full of history and (I suppose) romantic as advertised, but it’s still nice to understand that a stone-throw away from the hordes of visitors, you can find some peaceful alleyways and understated beauties. For instance, just drive off Karlova, the street that connects Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square) and Charles Bridge, to explore and get lost on the maize of lanes and crannies littered with restaurants, boutique shops and courtyards the bustle does not touch.
– As you quickly get used when you travel, the most famous tourist attractions can be extremely underwhelming. In Prague, there’s no doubt this flag is waved proudly by the spectacle put in motion every hour at the Astronomical Clock. Literally hundreds – even in the peak of the Winter season – flock to stand in front of the medieval mechanism in order to watch a handful of small figures shake, clink and barely move for what amounts to 90 lost seconds. I mean, the clock is definitely a work of art but the “show” is so trite you just leave befuddled.
– They’re pretty much conspicuous on Prague’s Old Tour but I still had to sneak in a mention of it. Do not miss the chance to taste the sweet Czech pastry by the name of Trdelník you’ll see getting roasted wrapped around sticks over a grill on street stands. This portion of rolled dough topped with cinnamon sugar is absolutely delicious, and so crispy its beehive shape fades perfectly as you eat. You can also have the inside coated with Nutella, jam or caramel to provide the perfect excuse to try it again and again.
– The Old Town Hall Tower and the Žižkov Television Tower can be climbed to experience dramatic overviews of the city, but Prague isn’t short on much more budget-conscious options to observe great panoramas of different districts. The city is defined by several hills and reaching the top won’t cost a penny, with the rewards coming in troves. One example is Petřín Hill, a major recreational area which is adorned by several interesting buildings, including a lookout tower that resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Meanwhile the Letná Park is an extensive green area ideal for a stroll, with his elevation providing great views of the historical area, just across the Vltava River. As for Vítkov Hill, home of the equestrian statue of legendary general Jan Žižka and the imposing National Monument, it is less visited but the view is equally impressive, especially towards the northern neighbourhoods of the city.
– The Žižkov district (Prague 3) is a great option if you’re looking for affordable accommodation, with a wealth of mid-level hotels stationed on the quarter delimited in the north by Husitská/Koněvova street (on the foothill of Vitkov Hill) and in the south by Seifertova. The first road is served by several buses that put you on Florenc’s Metro Station (or even the city center (bus #207)) in five minutes, while Seifertova is connected by a plethora of trams that stop at the main train station and reach Wenceslas Square in less than a dozen of minutes. Additionally, Žižkov hosts a lively nightlife, with Bořivojova street, just off the Lipanská tram station, famous for the multitude of bars and restaurants. However, the atmosphere in the neighbourhood permanently feels calm and safe, even after dark.
Sandwiched between two shifts in Prague, I headed to the town of Olomouc, in the Moravia region. As before, first the match “report”:
HC Olomouc – BK Mlada Boleslav, Sunday, 31st of January 2016
My first hockey game on Czech soil occurred on a rainy afternoon, confronting two teams in direct competition for the fifth position on the standings and trying, at the same time, to create some more breathing room above their desperate pursuers for the last playoff spot. The match was disputed at the Zimní (the Czech word for Winter) Stadion Olomouc, located just north of the city centre, on a zone where we can find a cluster with all the major sporting facilities in town, including a tennis centre, an aquatic centre, several football fields prepared for athletics and, more significantly, Sigma Olomouc’s football stadium, still proudly boasting the decorations left from the 2015 Under-21 UEFA European Championships.
For this hockey match, 4830 spectators congregated in the creaky arena, built in 1948, a number right in line with last year’s average of 4745, which not only means the stadium is constantly close to the full capacity of 5,500, but also that the extensive lines formed at the only two entrances should be an integral part of the game day experience. The number of seats is around 3800, and few spots were unoccupied, with the same ringing true on the standing section that saw the home club’s “ultras” sing along, jump in unison and proudly stretch their scarfs.
Nevertheless, at every intermission, the fans descended into the cramped hallway to mingle and pick up food or beer, which didn’t completely congest the area under the stands because a few opt to just head outside (and I’m pretty sure their re-entrance is in no way controlled). As for the menu available, you’ve surely intuited that it is way more restricted (beer, coffee, klobasa, mulled wine) than at the O2 Arena but, at least, I can attest that my portion of fries (or hranolky, as I hastily discovered after spending a good 45 seconds furiously pointing in an effort to make my order understandable to five pairs of bemused eyes) did the job.
The packed small venue, totally in favour of the hosts, looked engaged during the entire 60 minutes of a chippy, tight affair, and the mass did their part to encourage their players forward when the opportunity arose, functioning as an extra element and controlling the anxiety on the last minutes while the visitors pressed in search of the tying goal.
The game had started at lightning speed, with multiple chances for the hosts on the first two minutes, but never delivered on the promise of fireworks. Both teams worked hard to gain the opposing blue lines and keep the puck deep by getting an edge on board battles, but, to put it bluntly, skill didn’t abound. The ice was finally broken by Olomouc midway through the second period, with forward Dávid Buc taking advantage of a defensive lapse, which left him with too much space on the slot to bury a goal line pass past the Mlada Boleslav goaltender. The teams kept trading chances after the 1-0, with the posts entering the equation at times, but not even a frantic late charge from the visitors, which pumped 14 shots on the final period, resulted in more goals, as the home stopper, 26-year-old Tomáš Vošvrda, stood tall to lock two key points for HC Olomouc.
The 26-year-old Vošvrda was the most prominent man on the ice, pitching a 28-saves shutout and repeatedly denying the efforts of Mlada Boleslav’s first line, which is centred by 41-year-old David Výborný, a veteran who spent seven seasons (2000-08) on the NHL playing in a scoring role (317 points in 543 games) for the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets, and now devotes the heyday of his career to receiving orders from his father and team coach, 62-year-old Frantisek Výborný. Accompanying Výborný in every shift is another former NHLer, albeit one with a less decorated career, RW Jakub Klepis, who represented the Washington Capitals from 2005 to 2007.
The entire roster of Mlada Boleslav is comprised of Czech players, except for Slovenian Olympic defenseman Mitja Robar, and HC Olomouc’s is not much different, mixing in a few Slovaks on a group that features just one member that can claim to have savoured the best level of competition on the planet. Pavel Skrbek, a 37-year-old defender, was a 2nd round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998 before playing a grand total of 12 games with Pittsburgh and Nashville.
The sixth largest city in the Czech Republic is a bit more than two hours away from Prague by train, is served with direct connections pretty much every hour and can easily function as a jumping point to the region of Moravia, which occupies the South-Eastern part of the country. Brno and Ostrava, the nation’s second and third biggest cities, are 1.5h/1h away should you be craving a more metropolitan feel, but if you’re looking for a town with a large, well-preserved historical centre that has yet to be discovered by most tourists, Olomouc beats the likes of Český Krumlov or the spa town of Karlovy Vary.
As you leave Olomouc’s train station, several trams connect to the city centre, where you’ll find a wealth of attractions, in a handful of minutes. The main one is the massive Holy Trinity Column looming on the Upper Square (Horní náměstí), a baroque monument that reaches 35m in height and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but there’s also an Astronomical Clock adorning the Town Hall, which almost rivals the one in Prague in beauty and sees way smaller crowds at the hour mark (conversely, the spectacle doesn’t lag behind either).
Also popular among visitors is the tour of the plethora of fountains found around the city’s squares, depicting Roman Gods like Jupiter and Neptune, human motifs or mythical figures like Julius Caesar, the legendary founder of Olomouc. The town is distinctly ecclesiastic, with prominent religious buildings like Saint Wenceslas Cathedral or Saint Michael’s Church worth visiting if you’re into that kind of sightseeing.
However, there’s another facet of Olomouc that features strongly on its daily life. The Palacký University (Univerzita Palackého v Olomouci, in Czech), the second oldest in the country after being established in the XVI century, brings hordes of outsiders to join the roughly 100,000 inhabitants, whereby during the school semesters one in four residents are students.
This means that the ambiance is distinctly juvenile and there’s a notable rate of the usual services directly targeted to students, including specific bars, cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, my visit coincided with the examinations period and between-semesters down season, thus everything seemed to function at half-speed. Nevertheless, many of the different faculties, which are scattered around the urban area, occupy some of the most beautiful buildings on the historical centre, calling for a closer look inside, something facilitated when the fuss of a normal day is absent.
Olomouc has a pleasant, compact city centre that is easily walked or cycled, with large parks on short distance and nature encircling the town, giving way to a Moravian countryside replete with castles, caves, swimming holes and natural reserves. My two days on the city weren’t enough to explore these options, but I definitely noticed that you can walk fifteen minutes from the main square in every direction and probably find yourself away from civilization.