PLZEN, Czech Republic – The Czech premier league is experiencing a new trend. For better or worse, relatively cheap labour from the U.S. and Canada is being used by Extraliga teams.
For decades the Czech Republic has developed elite hockey talent that was successful on all levels. The country is one of the founding members of the IIHF and captured its 12th World Championship gold medal this past May.
While things look good on the surface, Czech hockey is facing considerable challenges.
Since European club hockey became an open market in the early ‘90s, Czech clubs have not been able to compete financially with the NHL or leagues in Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.
But the effects of the migration of talented players to these countries were limited because of excellent work at the youth hockey academies around the country. But the economic crisis forced Czech club managers to keep a close eye on their budgets and more have sold their best players to foreign leagues. On top of that, the Russian KHL has been a big magnet for Czech players.
While the pool of eligible players capable of playing in the Extraliga is decreasing, their market value goes up. Tight on budget but asked to deliver, Czech general managers are wheeling and dealing, trying to find creative ways to stay competitive.
Last season, the number of foreign players increased and for this season, the trend is continuing. A new popular source for recruitment are the minor leagues in North America.
For years the street between the Czech Republic and North America was one-way, but nowadays it is getting busy in the other direction too.
BK Mlada Boleslav signed defenceman Darrel Hay and forwards Jordan Krestanovich and Duncan Milroy. They also had Joe Jensen and Jean-Michel Rizk on a try-out contract.
Last year’s regular season champion HC Plzen was pleasantly surprised by the performance Mark Bomersback, Tyler Scofeld and Doug O’Brien – to that extent that they decided to continue to explore the North American market.
Sporting director Milan Tichy used his network he built up from being a scout for the Columbus Blue Jackets and landed five new players: Veteran defencemen John Slaney and Nick St. Pierre along with forwards Josh Langfeld, John Lammers and Nick Johnson.
Ocelari Trinec acquired forwards Bryan McGregor, who played in Finland last season, and Guillaume Lefebvre (Providence Bruins, AHL) while Sparta Prague signed Doug O’Brien from Plzen and also transferred defenceman Brian Salcido.
As part of its new international makeover the league now also employs the French Treille twins. Yorick Treille moved from Vitkovice Ostrava to Sparta Prague. His brother Sacha will fill the gap at Vitkovice.
The main reason for the arrival of the North American players is simple.
"The cost to get them here is equal to that of an average Czech Extraliga player,” said Milan Tichy. “Acquiring players from overseas has proved viable to us and the language barrier has not been much of a problem.”
While not all imports have been successful, there have been several players who have made an impact and even used the Czech “window” to sign lucrative contracts in Russia or Austria.
One of them is Mark Bomersback. The Alberta native was a journeyman player in the AHL but made an instant impact in Europe. In his first season, he collected 19 goals and 44 points for HC Plzen which raised interest from higher profile teams. This summer he moved to the KHL where he signed with Metallurg Novokuznetsk.
The number of foreign players, and especially North Americans, is still considered small compared to other European leagues. Yet the Czech Federation has recognized the trend and decided to act.
Not only do they face the ongoing challenge with many prospects leaving for Canadian junior leagues, but the new wave of North Americans makes it also more difficult for Czech juniors to crack domestic league rosters.
As of the upcoming season a new quota has been installed by the Association of Professional Clubs (APKHL). It limits teams to just six import licences per season. This quota includes short-term reinforcements, which now makes it difficult for teams to bring in a replacement for an injured player mid-season.
“Teams are free to use all their six licenses but each one counts, even if they just want to give a try-out to a Canadian player for just two games,” said league senior official Stanislav Sulc.
There is a provision; those who have been playing in the Czech Extraliga for three straight seasons do not count against the quota. This rule paves the path for many Slovaks who have been playing in the Czech Republic for a long time.
But there is no question that there is a market for foreign hockey labour in the Czech Republic.
Many players of the Golden Generation who returned to the Czech Republic have retired, i.e. Josef Beranek, Robert Reichel, Jiri Slegr, Roman Turek and Milan Hnilicka. The vast majority of the players who captured the gold medal in Cologne last May are playing outside the Extraliga. Czech hockey is searching for new heroes who can inspire Czech kids.
Upgrading the junior program and restoring pride in the Czech development system will be the most important task of former national team coach Slavomir Lener, who has returned to the Czech Republic after four years in Sweden to assume the position of director of all youth national teams, U16 to U20.
Stanislav Sulc hopes that Czech teams will not endlessly bring in foreign players, occupying spots for domestic players. “We want to have quality players in the Extraliga and we want to eliminate the opportunity for clubs to randomly bring in try-out players with basically no track record.”
The newly imposed rule should make Czech teams to think carefully about which foreign players to bring in and perhaps take a second look at the home grown talent.Notebook:
- After overcoming many hurdles, the bid of HC Lev to play in the KHL is no more. Denied permission to play in the Czech Republic they moved to Slovakia where they planned to stay in Poprad. But issues regarding the team’s registration remained. The Slovak Ice Hockey Association was to take a decision on August 18 but the KHL already excluded the team.
- The Czech Extraliga has found a new sponsor after O2 did not renew its contract. Czech betting agency Tipsport has agreed on a three year deal. The company has sponsored the league before and has also attached its name to a pre-season tournament.
- An exhibition game between Chomutov and Slavia Prague in August was abandoned after two periods. Trailing 3-0 after 40 minutes, the Chomutov players found their locker room was robbed.
- Reigning champion HC Pardubice replaced Dominik Hasek, who left for Spartak Moscow, with Adam Svoboda. The veteran goaltender played for the Nuremberg Ice Tigers in Germany last season. Other reinforcements include forward Martin Bartek (Kölner Haie, GER) and defencemen Frantisek Kaberle (HC Kladno) and Branislav Mezei (Espoo Blues, FIN).
- HC Litvinov plans to renovate its current arena. The reconstruction of the Ivan Hlinka arena will take the capacity from 2,000 to 3,500 seats and will cost approximately four million Euros. The reconstruction will be completed at the start of the 2013-14 season.