KRAKOW, Poland – “Hej, Heja, Heja, Cracovia Mistrzem Hokeja.” The chants from the ice and the visiting fans quickly filled the arena of GKS Jastrzebie. A dramatic Polish hockey season came to an end with a 6-2 victory for Cracovia Krakow in game 7 to earn the team its tenth ever league title.
This was probably the most exciting Polish final in the playoff era. Cracovia won the first three games and were looking for a 4-0 sweep of the finals, but GKS Jastrzebie fought back to win three straight and forced a highly unlikely game 7 on home ice.
But there, Cracovia’s top players – who also are mainstays on the Polish national team – stepped up.
Known to be notorious for giving reporters a lot of problems pronouncing and spelling their name correctly, the veteran pair of goaltender Rafal Radziszewski and forward Leszek Laszkiewicz also were too difficult to cope for GKS Jastrzebie in the all decisive final game.
The 35-year-old Laszkiewicz showed why he is so highly regarded by scoring a hattrick including an empty netter and by doing so, he finished the season as the league’s top scorer. Radziszewski played a vital role in maintaining the lead for Cracovia in the final period with GKS Jastrzebie pushing hard for an equaliser.
For Laszkiewicz the victory was his eighth title, of which five were won with his current team.
“Eleven years ago when playing for Unia Oswiecim, we also won the title after seven games. The following day my daughter Laura was born which made it very emotional for me at the time,” explained Laszkiewicz who was close to tears again when he received his gold medal.
“History is repeating itself it seems. We’re expecting another daughter to be born soon so I told Laura I had to win another game seven to even things out.”
The fact that the playoff final went down to the wire was a pleasant surprise for Polish hockey fans who witnessed what probably was Poland’s best playoff series of the last decade. The start of the series between second seeded Jastrzebie and fourth seeded Cracovia didn’t give any hints in that direction.
After three straight losses, Jastrzebie’s resistance seemed broken, especially when down 3-1 after 20 minutes in game 4. With nothing left to lose, the home team broke the game open and scored four unanswered goals to eventually win the game 5-4 and extend the series.
But this game didn’t just prolong the playoff final but also saw the momentum shift. Cracovia were sent home with a 0-5 loss in game 5 and they were not able finish off the series in front of their home fans losing that game 3-2. This sent the series and the advantage back to Jastrzebie.
In game seven it was the seasoned veterans who stepped up. Laszkiewicz broke a 1-1 score with two goals late in the second period. Richard Kral brought back hope in the hearts of the home fans 18 seconds into the final period to bring his team within a goal, but despite continuous pressure on the net, Radziszewski did not surrender and kept his net clean.
A Cracovia goal by Michal Piotrowski two minutes before the final buzzer proved the dagger in the heart of Jastrzebie. The two empty-net goals that followed were merely of statistical value.
“We proved that we are a good team that is able to put up a good fight,” said Jastrzebie coach Jiri Reznar whose contract, despite the accomplishment, was not extended by the club. “In the final game we lacked experience and a bit of luck. If we hadn’t struck the goal frame three times in the first period it could’ve been a completely different game.”
The victory ensures that the title is heading back to Krakow after the city saw KH Sanok taking away the honours from them last season.
“This 2013 championship should also be credited to our amazing fans,” Cracovia coach Rudolf Rohacek commented. “They were there for us when we needed them most and they were like having one or two extra men on the ice. There are no words to describe my appreciation for them.”
The fans exchanged pleasantries by chanting the name of the success coach who now has won five league championships in the last eight seasons with Cracovia Krakow and has guided the tradition-heavy club to the top of Polish hockey this century. Cracovia started to play hockey in 1923 and they claimed their first national championship in 1937.
Of note: Cracovia defenceman Jaroslaw Klys, 35, won his 11th Polish national championship. The first seven titles with Unia Oswiecim, the last four with Cracovia.