KOSICE, Slovakia – For decades, Kosice, located in eastern Slovakia, was considered an industrial area. Most attention was given to the nationa's capital, Bratislava, but the country’s steady economic growth also paid a visit to the steel city.
The city centre has been completely refurbished and Kosice will become European Capital of Culture in 2013. HC Kosice, the local hockey team, will not stay behind. In early 2006, they moved into a new 8,343-seat arena. The building was named after the main sponsor U.S. Steel Kosice. The multi-purpose arena is also used for concerts, car fairs and wrestling matches.
This weekend HC Kosice hopes to qualify for the lucrative and prestigious Champions Hockey League. Put into a group with the Sinupret Ice Tigers Nuremberg (Germany) and SC Bern (Switzerland), the Slovaks are considered a longshot for winning the group. Compared its opponents, Kosice’s roster does not contain as many household names, but the Slovakian squad should not be underestimated.
The two-time Czechoslovakian (1986, 1988) and three-time Slovakian champion (1995, 1996, 1999) bolsters a squad fully made up of Slovakians with four Czechs forming the foreign legion.
Between the pipes, 31-year-old Miroslav Lipovsky is a workhorse. Known for losing his temper at times, the goalie is considered a top netminder in the Slovakian Extraliga.
Defensively the team lacks a true power-play quarterback. Despite losing experienced Ivan Droppa, Miroslav Javin and Rudolf Jendek this summer, HC Kosice can still count on a big, experienced back line. One of the replacements arriving in Kosice during the off-season is Jan Tabacek. The former Anaheim Ducks draft pick returns to Slovakia after playing for Sparta Prague for three seasons during which time he played in the European Champions Cup twice.
Czech Radek Philipp also joined the steel-city club. The versatile defender is coming off of a successful stint with Salavat Yulayev Ufa in Russia which won the Russian title last season. His acquisition was one of the most talked about this summer in Slovakia and neither SC Bern nor Nuremberg’s Ice Tigers can say they brought in a player from the Russian champion.
Daniel Babka (HKm Zvolen) and Jan Homer (Dukla Trencin) were also acquired. 35-year-old Babka saw his point total drop from 46 to 22 in the last three seasons and hopes to re-ignite his career in Kosice. Homer, 27, could not break into the Czech Extraliga but made a name for himself in Slovakia posting a whopping 222 penalty minutes last season.
Kosice’s defence could be the most physical of all three teams, but could also be short on speed and lacking of offensive power.
On offence, the Slovaks use a typical Eastern European style. It will be interesting to see it matched against the Canadian-type offence of both opponents in Nuremberg.
Veteran Peter Bartos captains the team and provides leadership both on and off the ice. Bartos, who turned 35 last week, improves with time. Last season he had a career season with 18 goals and 34 assists in 54 games. Bartos, who played 13 games for the NHL’s Minnesota Wild (six points), returned to Slovakia in 2004 after playing seven seasons abroad. “I left Ceske Budejovice because I wanted to play for the prizes,” Bartos told IIHF.com. “Also I’ve got my family around me now. That makes me feel so much stronger.”
After a mediocre season with HKm Zvolen, Bartos joined his current team. “This organisation has a great hockey tradition, always competes for the medals. Add the new building and the excellent fans and it explains why I chose to play for HC Kosice.”
From the team that finished second behind Slovan Bratislava, forwards Gabriel Spilar (left for Kazakhstan’s KHL team Barys Astana) and Erik Weissmann have been the most notable departures. The holes have been filled with the arrivals of Igor Rataj (from Slavia Prague) and Czech Jan Kopecky. The former Czech junior comes off a 49-point season with HKm Zvolen and there is no reason he won't repeat such numbers .
The announcement of the Igor Rataj signing brought a storm of delight among HC Kosice fans. The 34 year-old power forward returns after a five-year stint in the Czech Republic and will be one of the league’s top players this season. Expect Rataj to lead the team both on the scoreboard and physically.
Another player to keep an eye on is Jaroslav Kmit, a product of the Kosice junior system, who scored 17 goals and 32 points along with 132 penalty minutes last season. He thrived in the playoffs averaging a point per game.
Skilled left winger Rudolf Huna brings experience after playing in Russia, Sweden, the Czech Republic and Germany. Last season he reached the 20-goal plateau for the first time.
Taking advantage of Bartos’ presence is 32-year-old Juraj Faith. When the small forward (174 cm) opens his trick box, he’s capable of ripping open defences. His 29 goals last season proves he’s got a nose for scoring. Playing with a smart passing player like Bartos makes them a dangerous duo to play against for any team.
HC Kosice was founded in 1962 and underwent a few name changes (the last one in 1998). On the ice, their history has been a rollercoaster ride, perhaps best illustrated between 1999 and 2001. After winning the championship in 2000, Kosice struggled the following season. Troubled by internal conflicts it barely avoided relegation finishing a disappointing seventh out of eight teams.
Their millennium title was also their last. HC Kosice is very eager to put and end to an almost a decade drought. The past seven seasons the team was ousted in the semi-finals of the playoffs. Last year they came close, very close, to dethroning Slovan Bratislava. Kosice fought back from a 3-0 deficit and forced a seventh game in the final series. That final game was a replica of the series as Slovan almost squandered a 3-0 lead but hung on to a 3-2 victory in the end to retain their title and claim a spot in the CHL this season.
Revenge came soon into the new season. In the second game, HC Kosice was victorious against the capital city rivals, 5-2.
HC Kosice heads to Nuremburg in good form. After a solid pre-season campaign, it won its first two games in the Extraliga only to lose to Dukla Trencin, 3-1, last Tuesday. If they can peak at the right time and qualify for the CHL, HC Kosice fans will be thrilled to welcome Europe’s elite teams. The loyal fan base is a huge factor for Kosice’s strong home record the past seasons.
Bartos: “We want to play attractive hockey this season to please our fans. Qualifying for the Champions Hockey League would be favourable for our excellent fans.” Nevertheless the forward is hesitant when it comes to predicting the outcome of the tournament. “Both Nuremberg and Bern are top teams with high-quality players.”
Enjoying his second youth, Bartos is far from finished himself.
“I will continue playing as long as I’m healthy and enjoy the game. Hopefully I can continue playing for another 10 years,” he says.Notebook:
- The 2008-09 season marks another Extraliga season with a new league setup. The regular season will consist of two parts. After 48 rounds, the top-six teams will form a new round robin in which each team meets each other twice. The bottom seven teams, including the Slovakian U20 national team, will play for the two remaining playoff spots.
- A relegation group will be formed by the bottom four teams after the completion of the season’s second stage. The team that finishes last in this group will face the 1. Liga champion while the team that finishes 11th will play the 1. Liga runner-up. The Slovakian U20 national team is refrained from relegation.
- Teams that lose in overtime or penalty shots will be rewarded with a single point. With the new league setup in mind, the ‘bonus points’ could become very valuable.
- This summer saw a number of Slovaks returning home. As mentioned, Igor Rataj joined HC Kosice. Reigning champions Slovan Bratislava brought back forward Roman Kukumberg form Russia and former NHLer Lubomir Vaic from Sparta Prague.
- Newly promoted HC Banska Bystrica started its Extraliga season with two close losses (5-4 vs. Kezmarok and 3-2 vs. Nitra). Despite being the lone team without a point, early indications show that it can compete in the Extraliga.
- Zigmund Palffy continued where he stopped last season. He scored a pair of goals in Skalica’s first game after winning the Slovakian scoring title last season and carrying his team to the semi-finals of the playoffs.