Players come and go, but there is no place like home. Leagues in Europe might not be as prestigious as the NHL, but their youth development creates loyalty between players and clubs that can remain for a lifetime.
It’s not uncommon to see European players who are done with the NHL return to the club where they first laced up their skates; where they developed into the player that made it to the best league in the world.
The KHL has returned a lot of glory to Russia with substantial money being pumped into the league, but that doesn’t work in the Czech Republic and Slovakia where the main reason for the players to return is affection.
The situation is not just a feel-good move for the player himself, it also raises the leagues’ popularity domestically. When Jaromir Jagr returned to his hometown team HC Kladno during the NHL lockout, the games were sold out. In Slovakia the announcement that Zigmund Palffy was to return on the ice also saw attendance numbers grow.
Coaches are often more than happy to see these players come back to end their careers where they started. The returnees bring a wealth of experience on and off the ice, and it adds an extra stimulus for young players to practice with the person they idolized in their youth.
This season a number of players came back home for various reasons.
Slovak Olympian Miroslav Satan found himself without an NHL contract after a short stint with the Boston Bruins last season. In anticipation of a new contract he decided to keep himself in shape by playing in the Slovak Extraliga for Slovan Bratislava.
“For me it was also a test to rate my fitness after the summer break. After each NHL season I joined on-ice practices with Slovan,” Satan said. “Right now I’m trying to get better and more prepared, and each game I can play is another step towards that goal.”
Due to league regulations, Slovan Bratislava can only play Satan for two games while not under a valid contract. The stint was extended by a game as the forward signed a one-week contract. In the three games he played, Satan showed he is in a class of his own in Slovakia. He netted two hat tricks and eight points for Slovan Bratislava, which was unbeaten in the three games.
Elsewhere in Slovakia, Ladislav Nagy returned for his second time since his junior days. During the NHL lockout he played 18 games for HC Kosice. This year the player, who is five games short of 500 NHL games, donned the Poprad jersey.
“I’m glad I was given the opportunity to sign a contract that allows me to leave if I get an interesting offer, but I certainly won’t jump on the first plane to go somewhere. After all the team here is excellent,” commented Nagy shortly after his arrival. Nagy has played ten games with eight goals and 15 points.
West of Slovakia’s border the same reaction can be found.
Ocelari Trinec had one of the biggest transfers by European clubs this summer when it acquired the services of Stanley Cup finalist Lukas Krajicek. The former Florida Panthers first-round draft pick surprisingly signed a contract in his homeland, waving, at least for the moment, goodbye to the NHL.
“I did receive offers from NHL teams, but I was not happy with the financial terms,” said Krajicek. “As the summer progressed I felt an urgency to sign somewhere so I decided to accept Trinec’s proposal.”
The defenceman had never played in the Czech top league. So Krajicek made his league debut when he stepped on the ice in Brno as a 27-year-old. He had a successful premiere that ended with a 3-2 victory for his team.
With Krajicek in the line-up, Ocelari Trinec is competing for the top spot in the Extraliga. The team is currently ranked third with 27 points from 15 games, just a three points behind league leader Vitkovice Ostrava.
Back in 1991, hockey fans in Plzen witnessed the arrival of a very special young player. A smallish, agile winger named Petr Sykora broke the 100-point mark in 30 junior games and everybody knew he was going to be a special player.
He made his debut in the men’s league before he could get a driver’s licence and the rest is history. Sykora won Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins before leaving NHL after being plagued by concussions last season.
Like the others, Sykora returned home and became a key player in Pardubice’s Extraliga winning campaign, but he knew his career wouldn’t be complete without a return to Plzen.
He practised with Kometa Brno this summer, but it didn’t lead to a contract. When the call from HC Plzen manager Martin Straka came, the decision was easy.
“I knew I could help the team with my productivity and really wanted to play alongside Martin Straka, who I think is the best player in the league,” Sykora said. The veteran forward has racked up 20 points in 15 games since arriving, yet his team is still struggling with an 8th place in the standings.
True love, however, can make management blind sometimes. Plzen sport director Jaromir Zavoral fell victim to it. Without proper paperwork, HC Plzen dressed Petr Sykora for a game against HC Kladno. Sykora tallied two points in a 4-3 shootout loss, but the score was overturned to a 5-0 forfeit loss and a fine.
Zavoral was straight forward about the mistake. “I’m not looking for excuses. I am aware of my mistake and I take full responsibility. Hopefully we won’t miss this one point in the standings at the end of the season or I will have to get shot,” the HC Plzen executive was quoted in the media.
Regardless of the administrative mistake, Sykora’s case is yet another perfect example of one of Europe’s secret hockey weapons. Sooner or later in their careers, players do remember their roots and give in to the feeling that home is where the heart is. A feeling that no money in the world can buy.
Continued Sykora: “It’s great to be back here. I started my career in Plzen, have family there and grew up in the neighbourhood.” He might not finish the season in the Czech Extraliga, but much like his line mate Straka and many others he knows he is always given a warm welcome at home.Notebook:
- A crisis is slowly developing in Prague. Both Extraliga giants Slavia and Sparta are struggling this season. Slavia is 11th out of 14 teams with seven wins in 15 games while the star-loaded roster of Sparta is performing even worse,in 13th place with nine losses.
- Many Pardubice faithful feared Dominik Hasek’s departure to the KHL would leave the team with a big void between the pipes. Much to everyone's surprise, 23-year-old Martin Ruzicka stepped right in and is performing superbly, posting a save percentage of nearly 94 %.
- Other than Miroslav Satan and Ladislav Nagy, the Slovak Extraliga also welcomed the return of national team veterans Lubos Bartecko (Poprad), Richard Zednik (Banska Bystrica) and Richard Lintner (Dukla Trencin).
- HC Kosice is running away from its rivals in the Slovak Extraliga. After 21 games they have a six-point lead on Banska Bystrica.