The rise and fall of a giant

After reigning the Czech Extraliga during the mid 90s, HC Vsetin is no longer part of the Czech elite.

28.01.2008
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Former Vsetin netminder Roman Cechmanek and Martin Prochazka. Photo: IIHF Archives

VSETIN, Czech Republic - Avid European hockey fans have already noted their absence. As of the start of the 2007-08 Czech Extraliga season, former giants HC Vsetin are no longer present. Even more surprising: They do not play at the second or third level either.

It’s a big contrast with the spell they enjoyed during the mid-nineties. Back then they captured Czech hockey and also marched through Europe. Yet, Vsetin’s history is not only glory. A look at the past shows a Bell-curve that would make your math teacher proud.

Vsetin’s history dates back to the start of the 20th century when an “ice club” was erected in 1904. As many new teams the first years were full of crises and change of ownership. Vsetin hockey had limited success in the regional league but mostly played in the lower level leagues.

In 1979, the team’s management decided it was necessary to build a roofed arena. Heavily supported by the local community, the roof was attached in 1982. According to reports, no less than 95,200 man hours were sacrificed by volunteers. Still one of the largest ever projects in the nation’s sports history, the hockey in Vsetin started to prosper.

They achieved promotion to the third level in 1987 after a win over Trebic, which drew over 5,000 fans to the arena. With the economic and political climate changing in the country, Vsetin slowly turned professional both on and off the ice. Helped by the money of main sponsor Roman Zubik (a petro-chemical tycoon), Vsetin promoted to the Extraliga in 1994.

The team had a rough start at the top level but suddenly found a winning formula and went on to win the league in their first season.

Michal Berg of Esports.cz witnessed the uprise of Vsetin. “It wasn't a huge surprise as anyone would expect. People in early 90s were already used to situations in Czech football where rich businessmen invested huge sums of money into sports clubs and even teams from small villages were able to compete in top football league. It all comes down to the new opportunities of turbulent years after the communist downfall and virtually everything was possible at that time.”

The team was build up from players from other Extraliga teams and benefited from being the underdogs all season long.

Their instant success wasn’t a fluke. The following years, Vsetin reigned the Czech league as hardly seen since. “Unlike other teams, Vsetin’s budget allowed them to build and maintain the squad,” Berg says. “New players fit into the team instantly and players felt at home in the small town. As a result, Vsetin was probably the only Czech team that was able to keep its talent.”

The talent was obviously there. The key members of the golden years of Czech hockey (between 1996 ad 2001) played in Vsetin during the prime of their careers: Jiri Dopita, Roman Cechmanek, Martin Prochazka and Pavel Patera for example.

Between 1994 and 2001, Vsetin captured no less than six gold medals and one silver. Furthermore, they were a frequent member of the IIHF European Hockey League where they won a bronze medal in 1998. But just when they won their sixth, and to-date last, title the first cracks in the glass appeared. Cracks that eventually led to the team’s downfall.

“A few days before the 2001 finals against Sparta Prague, owner Roman Zubik was arrested for fraud and the star players started to leave the team the following season,” Berg remembers.

Suddenly, struggling financially, Vsetin slid down the standings year after year. A couple of years ago the Vsetin municipal authorities adopted the team and covered the debts. Last season, Vsetin seemed to have retained its top flight status winning the promotion-relegation series. Yet, Czech hockey fans were treated to a genuine summer soap as the governing body of the Czech Extraliga (APK) expelled Vsetin from the Extraliga due to their inappropriate financial situation. The APK deemed the bank guarantees not sufficient enough to participate in the Extraliga. Vsetin management went for arbitration but were unsuccessful in their plea. Though, this wasn’t the end of the soap.

With no means of appeal left, Vsetin had accepted its fate and wanted to play in the second-tier 1.Liga, just like any other “relegated team”. But they were denied again.
Berg: “Because the Czech Extraliga is an independent entity, the 1. Liga teams refused to accept another team at the very last moment. With no hockey laws in place to cover this situation, Vsetin filed another lawsuit.”

This lawsuit is currently still in progress and a last ditch effort to force the league to reserve a spot in the 1. Liga was rejected.

All players had to find new homes but more importantly were all dejected by the treatment of “their team.” This was best illustrated by veteran goalie Radovan Biegl: “I believed it is impossible to destroy a team like that. Now I see in Czech hockey everything is possible."

While the seniors struggled, the junior team was more successful. Last season they became the nation’s U20-champions in front of 5,000 fans.

Vsetin’s junior department began to blossom during the glory years. With the senior team possessing national hockey idols, the organisation was a magnet to young hockey prospects. “Currently more than 30 players raised in Vsetin play in top leagues around the world, including names like Jiri Hudler (Detroit), Josef Hrabal (Cherepovets) or David Kveton (Trinec). This is impressive considering the size of Vsetin compared to other Czech traditional hockey clubs,” Berg knows.

But with the lack of outlook to play Extraliga hockey, the best junior players have already left the organisation. Another factor that only darkens the clouds above the team’s future which face the risk only to be remembered from pictures in Czech hockey history books.

That scenario would mean the team will have to build form scratch again. Just like a century ago, completing the Bell-curve.

Notebook:
  • Slavia Prague has been struggling in 2008 having only won 3 out of its 11 games.
  • In contrary, Litvinov is climbing up the standings after going red hot winning their last 7 consecutive games. They are currently ranked sixth.
  • Despite his team’s average performance this season, Sparta Prague’s Petr Ton still leads the league in goals (24) and points (38) after 46 games.
  • Former top team HC Zlin continues to slump despite a coaching change. They lost their last five games and are ranked second from bottom, only in front of newly promoted Slovan Usti nad Labem.
  • HC Ceske Budejovice’s Roman Turek and Slavia’s Adam Svoboda lead the league in shutouts (5). Turek also leads the league in goals against average (2.16).
  • Three teams recently hope to have made a change for the better appointing a new head coach. Ernest Bokros switched from Zlin to Vitkovice. On their end, Zlin appointed Rostislav Vlach. Bottom league club Slovan Usti nad Labem opted for the services of Jan Votruba.
  • Goaltender Martin Altrichter was once again on the move. He recently moved to HC Plzen, his fourth team of the season after defending the colours of HC Ceske Budejovice, Sparta Prague and Beroun earlier this season.

JOERI LOONEN


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