POPRAD, Slovakia – Until now Poprad has been known as a picturesque town and holiday resort at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. And there has been hockey, too, with HK Poprad, a Slovak Extraliga team with an annual budget of €1 million.
However, the familiar hockey character could change soon as Czech investors and the Russian KHL want to create the country’s strongest hockey team with the creation of HC Lev, or in English: “Lion”.
The club was supposed play in Hradec Kralove, a Czech city that is only represented in the second-tier league. The management group behind HC Lev cooperated with the local club, but the Czech Ice Hockey Association didn’t grant permission despite reportedly being offered 100 million crowns (€4m).
After two years of planning in the Czech Republic, the group recently looked towards Poprad in Slovakia and was welcomed with open arms by the city and the club. The KHL visited Poprad on Thursday and gave the green light on Friday.
This creates the odd situation that a Czech club not registered as a sport club in any country is supposed to play in the Russian league at their Slovak exile venue.
In the media, the team is already called the “Czechoslovak club” – a term that is normally avoided in view of the hard times in the socialist era. And there might be some issues to solve as the unilateral approach is not necessarily welcomed.
“The KHL agreed with Poprad, but there’s also the Slovak Ice Hockey Association,” Jan Filc, the vice-president of the Slovak Ice Hockey Association, told daily newspaper SMI. “We are waiting that the Russian Hockey Federation as our partner in international relations will address this topic to us. We feel left out of the decision-making process. We don’t care if they organize a pigeon exhibition, but we are talking about ice hockey competition in the territory governed by the Slovak Ice Hockey Association. There are basic rules that need to be followed and some issues need to be clarified.”
While there are some questions, the KHL and the club management are planning the season with HC Lev as the 24th club of the league.
The team will play in the Bobrov Division of the Eastern Conference with Moscow clubs CSKA, Dynamo and Spartak, SKA St. Petersburg and Dinamo Riga.
“This is a very prestigious project for the whole region and it can increase the reputation of Slovak sports,” HC Lev’s sporting director Otakar Janecek told the Slovak news agency SITA. “The club will do everything possible that fans can see great hockey games and fine players, including Czechs and Slovaks. We have been in contact with more than 30 players. We will set up a competitive team, otherwise we wouldn’t try to play in the KHL.”
Janecek’s phone might be very busy. While other KHL teams start on-ice practices this month, HC Lev is not only confronted with its legal status, but also needs players and coaches.
Miloslav Horava and Radim Rulik could become the coaching tandem according to the Slovak media. The former NHL player Horova was coaching several teams in the Czech Republic as well as the U20 national team. Most recently he was head coach of MODO Örnsköldsvik in Sweden.
Several players are rumoured to be in contact with the club like Czechs Jaroslav Bednar, Pavel Brendl (both Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, KHL), Zbynek Irgl (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl), Marek Kvapil (Dynamo Minsk, KHL), Jan Platil (Trinec, CZE), Petr Vampola (Plzen, CZE), Finnish goalkeeper Sasu Hovi (Kometa Brno, CZE) and Slovak goalkeeper Karol Krizan (Martin, SVK).
23 Slovak players are currently under contract with other KHL teams which makes the league no virgin soil, at least for Slovak players.
The KHL would span over ten time zones and 7,500 kilometres with the inclusion of Poprad. In comparison, the NHL is played in four time zones. The 4,300 kilometres between Boston and San Jose is the biggest distance.
HC Lev will be the first KHL club outside the borders of the former Soviet Union and the second club in the European Union after Latvia’s Dinamo Riga. But while the Latvian club is backed by the subsidy of a Russian gas company, the financial background of the Czech-Slovak club remains unclear and according to quotes by KHL officials the licence was given without financial guarantees for the full season.
However, some other basic requirements are fulfilled. The club reached an agreement with the local ice rink that needs little improvement to fulfil KHL standards.
The Czech management also found an ally with HK Poprad, the local hockey club that will continue to play in the Slovak Extraliga. Its director Tibor Turan promised that the necessary work at the arena will be done within three weeks.
“We are pleased to help the new club join such a prestigious league like the KHL,” Turan said on his club’s official website, although both clubs will operate independently.
If everything works out well, HC Lev will become a small-town team for the ambitious league, with only 55,000 inhabitants. “The town is really small, but nice and cozy,” the KHL’s sporting director Dmitri Kurbatov told Sovietsky Sport after the site visit. “There are mountains nearby and the local airport can handle all types of airplanes.”
About the unclear financial background he said: “In today’s globalized world you never know where the money comes from. In this project there are no direct investments from Russian companies. KHL president Alexander Medvedev even stated that HC Lev must build a position as a Czechoslovak club and its business be financed by local advertisement.”
According to the Slovak media, it is also backed by the city of Poprad. The budget of HC Lev will be €7-10 million according to the documents sent to the KHL – almost ten times more than HK Poprad’s.
However, the income potential looks limited. The arena built in 1973 doesn’t belong to the top-10 arenas of the country in size with a capacity of just 4,500. An average of 2,142 fans attended games at Zimny Stadion last year.
The ticket prices for domestic league games have been low with €2.40, but a price ten times higher would hardly be accepted by the fans. The average income in Slovakia is about a third of what people earn in Finland, Germany or Sweden. That’s why ticket prices in Slovakia and the KHL are by far lower than in other top professional leagues in Europe.
How the HC Lev project will work out both financially and on the ice, remains to be seen. Likely, the club will rise or fall depending on the involvement of strongmen with a solid financial background and some generosity for hockey. That’s how it works in the KHL and how the club hopes it will work in Poprad where East meets West.