BRNO, Czech Republic – In the year that many teams struggled to stay alive financially, Brno returned to the upper echelon of Czech hockey. After decades of misery, the former Czechoslovakian giant is back in front managing to double their budget to 93 million Czech Crowns (3,6 million Euro). The remarkable comeback can be contributed to a wealthy sponsor, a big, loyal fan base and an ambitious hometown hero.
Raised in 1953 as Ruda Hvezda Brno (“Red Star”), the team immediately dominated Czech hockey. In its first year of existence, Brno lost the title to Sparta Prague on goal difference but their revenge was sweet. During the following 12 seasons the Brno Stars twinkled brighter than ever capturing 11 titles (1955-1958, 1960-1966). They set a national record during the 1963-64 season by losing just six points in 32 games and scoring a massive 232 goals.
By then the team had undergone its first name change to ZKL Brno. Yet it didn’t mean they stopped producing star players. From 1966 to 1968 they ruled Europe winning three consecutive European club championship titles before the performances declined. The past two decades, Brno played a marginal role in the Czech second and third level. Unlike the local football and baseball heroes (14 championships in a row since 1995).
Old, weathered photos on the wall show illustrious players in a Brno jersey. Vladimir Bouzek was a lethal offensive player straight after World War II. He was part of the Czechoslovakian team that captured the IIHF World Championships title in 1947 and 1949. Shortly after Bouzek’s departure, Vlastimil Bubnik took over the reign. In total he played 13 seasons for Brno. He participated in nine World Championships and four Olympics. In total he wore the national team colours 127 times, scoring 121 goals.
More recently, legendary goaltender Vladimir Dzurilla tended the net for Brno. The refrigerator repairman by profession won the Best Goalkeeper Award of the 1965 World Championship but is best known for his heroics against a Team Canada consisting of the likes of Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Phil Esposito, Bobby Clarke and Darryl Sittler during the Canada Cup in 1976. During the round robin games, Dzurilla shut out the Canadian stars in a performance that is still talked about in Montreal.
Other famous names that appear in the Brno history hall-of-fame include Jaroslav Jirik (the first Czech player in the NHL) and Robert Kron (close to 800 NHL games).
But the days of Brno producing such players are long gone. Brno’s last Extraliga showing dates back to the 1995-96 season when they reached rock bottom in 2002 playing at the third level. At the time they were close to bankruptcy and the management was facing court. With just an average of 300 fans per game, the team’s future was anything but rosy.
Brno’s resurrection can be attributed to two people. Egbert Zündorf, CEO of a Brno trade fairs company and former Kometa Brno player Libor Zabransky. A dynamic duo with ambitious plans.
Libor Zabransky, a two-time Czech champion, was forced to quit the game at the age of 30 due to heart problems. The Brno-born defenceman was drafted by the St. Louis Blues and played 40 NHL games. The year after his retirement, no longer able to suffer the downfall of his hometown team, he bought the club aiming to return to its glory days. Although the team was saved from bankruptcy and back at the Czech second level, the reconstruction went slowly and cost both patience and a lot of money.
In order access the money, Zabransky asked for the help of Egbert Zündorf. The experienced businessman not only runs the financial department of the team but also attracted new sponsors. He also got the local authorities to support the team. Currently, the arena is owned by the city of Brno, but there are talks about Kometa exploiting it fully themselves.
The past four seasons Kometa climbed to the top of the second-tier league with one of the league’s top budgets. Yet their promotion bids failed year after year. Zabransky and his crew decided not to waste any more time on the ice in order to achieve a spot in the Extraliga. Last April, after losing the promotion to Slovan Usti nad Labem, Kometa Brno agreed to buy the Extraliga licence of Znojmo. “The Eagles” from Znojmo had just lost their main sponsor and owner Jaroslav Vlasak decided to sell the club after keeping it in the top flight for years.
The Comet’s trip to the frontline was completed.
Right from the moment that Kometa obtained its Extraliga licence, head coach Vladimir Kyhos was busy ensuring the team will have a competitive squad next season. The core of the Znojmo team (among others goaltender Jiri Trvaj, defenceman Radim Bicanek and forward Jiri Dopita) was transferred to Brno while several Kometa players moved the other way. Like an episode of Extreme Makeover, the roster was strengthened by veterans Peter Pucher, Marek Vorel, Jaroslav Svoboda and Jakub Sindel.
The reinforcements are necessary as Zabransky has set high targets for the newcomer. “Our aim is to reach the playoffs this season. The first season will be difficult but we should be able to handle it,” he says confidently. “So far I’m pleased but it’s not as if I’ve fulfilled a dream already. That will be the case when we capture the Extraliga title.” Despite all the good news, Zabransky is on his guard. “We need to stabilize our organisation, so far we’re only halfway. We are financially secure and now have a great commitment to the city and its people,” Zabransky knows.
The team owner also feels a commitment to the fans.
The fan support for the new-style Kometa team has been tremendous. Whereas there were just a handful of spectators seven years ago, there’s now over 500 fans travelling with the team to watch them play exhibition games as their Rondo Arena is facing a reconstruction. Tickets for these games need to be obtained in advance as there’s a genuine chance they will be sold out on game day, something unheard of in the Czech Republic.
The Blue-and-White army will finally get a chance to fill the largest Czech arenas with their continuous singing and drum-banging support. “No team has better fans, not even the noisy Pardubice fans,” Slovakian Brno forward Peter Pucher claims. “From opponents I’ve heard that they have no idea what’s going on when they play against us. Our fans can help us win games for sure.” The merchandise department is working double shifts at the moment and on game days the city promises to turn into a blue/white sea.
On September 9, the Extraliga kicks off for Kometa Brno with a home game against Lasselsberger Plzen. If the exhibition games are any indication, the odds are looking good. Brno won six of its first eight matches and coach Kyhos is currently putting the final pieces together. Come season opener, the puzzle needs to be completed.
Having suffered for so many years, the city of Brno has regained its pride and it is now yearning for a repeat of the successes of the old times.