After finishing sixth in the regular season, Kometa Brno went 12-2 in the playoffs, including a four-game sweep of defending champion Bili Tygri Liberec in the finals, to win its first title in more than half a century.
“For me, this is the best,” victorious head coach, general manager and owner Libor Zabransky said to the gathered media after the fourth and final game, a 5-2 win. “The boys earned it. They wanted to win and they won. For Brno, for Kometa and perhaps for me too. There’s a real sense of pride.”
The series started with a pair of close games in Liberec. In Game 1 Kometa erased an early 2-0 deficit – a recurring theme for the team in the playoffs – and won 3-2. Then in Game 2 they won 4-3 on an overtime goal by Marek Kvapil.
When the scene shifted to Brno’s DRFG Arena, with their passionate, almost maniacal fans behind them, Kometa was firmly in the driver’s seat. Goaltender Marek Ciliak was the hero in Game 3 with a 27-save shutout, as the team won 3-0 while getting almost eardrum-piercing cheers on each goal and as the time wound down. Then it got four assists from Jan Hruska in the series clincher - a 5-2 win - with the decibel level in the arena not letting up all game, or throughout the Czech Republic’s second city all night.
“I’d really believed in them since last May, when I signed a bunch of players who had great skills, character and morale. We went through a tough time when the injuries hit – Ciliak was out of the line-up on two separate occasions – but we did it as a team.”
Zabransky’s off-season reinforcements included some of the team’s biggest performers in the playoffs – veteran defencemen Ondrej Nemec and Michal Gulasi, and forwards Hruska, Kvapil, and Martin Erat.
Erat, of course, was the big name, a veteran of 13 NHL seasons. He was one of the league’s top scorers early in the season before missing 13 games due to injury. Still, his 36 points in 39 regular season games ranked second on the team behind linemate Kvapil. After only recording three points in the first two rounds of the playoffs, he had two assists in Game 2 of the finals and one goal and two assists in Game 4.
“From the beginning, we were trying to build a team that would be competitive in the playoffs,” Erat told hokej.cz. “I think that everyone, from the Zamboni driver to Libor Zabransky, did everything they could to help us be successful. And we were.”
Led by Erat, Kvapil, and 17-year-old rookie Martin Necas on the top line, Kometa blazed at the start of the 2016/17 season, winning 14 of its first 19 games. But then injuries to Erat, Ciliak and others derailed the season somewhat.
Kometa never really got on track the rest of the regular season and finished sixth. Few gave the Brno squad much of a chance in the quarter-finals against Sparta Prague – a team that had been the best in the league in the last half of the season and had also reached the Champions Hockey League final.
In addition to the off-season additions, another key piece of Kometa’s playoff run was defenceman Jakub Krejcik, who was picked up from the fire sale of the KHL’s Medvescak Zagreb late in the season. After getting into only one regular season game, Krejcik was the quarterback of Kometa’s defence in the playoffs, leading the whole team with 13 points in 14 games.
In each of the first two games at Prague’s O2 Arena, Kometa came from behind to win. Three straight third-period goals in Game 1 turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory, and Jozef Kovacik was the overtime hero in Game 2. In Game 3, back in front of another packed house at DRFG Arena, Sparta scored twice in the first three minutes but Kometa came back to win again in overtime – this time Marcel Hascak’s second of the game gave them a 4-3 win. With Sparta’s will seemingly broken, Kometa completed the sweep with a 4-1 win.
In the semi-finals the opponent was Hradec Kralove, with Kometa winning in six games – Hynek Zohorna was the double-overtime hero.
“It's amazing to play in Brno, for this I am grateful,” said Erat. “When I see the scene tonight, it gives me chills. It’s really amazing, this city really deserves it.”
Last year at this time, it was Liberec celebrating the title. This season after finishing first in the regular season, Bili Tygri was favoured to repeat, but they just never got on track in the finals. Nonetheless, head coach Filip Pesan is happy overall.
“For us, despite the defeat, it is definitely a success,” the Liberec coach said of the season. “Winning both the regular season and playoffs in back-to-back years is a monumental task, and we fell just a bit short of it. Overall, it was a great season, and I have to thank the players for that.”
On getting swept, he said: “I don’t see any difference between losing a series 4-0 or 4-3. Either you do it or you don’t. Last year we won 4-0 twice [en route to the finals], this year it was 4-2 twice, and I was no more or less happy. That's how I feel about it. Maybe if we’d lost in the seventh game, it would hurt even more. This series was decisive.”
There was a time when no one could touch Brno. From 1955 to 1966, the club that was then called Ruda Hvezda Brno, then TJ ZKL Brno, won 11 of 12 Czechoslovak titles. It was also dominant on the European level, winning the first three IIHF European Cup titles in 1966, 1967 and 1968.
Since then, however, it’s been a long climb back to the top. After years of mediocrity, the team was relegated from the Czech Extraliga in 1996, and then fell to the third tier of Czech hockey in 2000. The team returned one level up in 2003 and was finally back in the top league in 2009, after a 13-year absence.
Since its return to the Extraliga, Kometa has got its fans’ hopes up a few times. In 2012, it went to the final from the no. 8 seed in the regular season, falling in six games to Pardubice in the finals. In 2014 it was back in the finals, this time falling to PSG Zlin in five.
But the third time was the charm in 2017.
“When I bought my first 20 per cent of the club's shares in October 2004 and saw how indebted it was, I could only dream of this,” Zaborsky summed up. “And after 12 years, it's come true.”