PLZEN, Czech Republic – He lost some hair and shades of gray started to predominate his play-off beard but apart from that Martin Straka hasn´t lost his magical hands. The HC Skoda Plzen General Manager also acts as a player and there he decided the Czech Extraliga final thriller series with a goal in overtime of game 7 that earned his club its first ever Czech title.
More than 96 minutes were played when Jan Kovar found the puck on his stick near the right side of the boards. Without a doubt he passed it to Straka. The veteran didn´t have to think. Having been in such situations numerous times before in his career, he controlled the puck once before releasing a wrist shot towards the short corner.
Much to Straka´s own surprise, the shot surprised PSG Zlin goaltender Jakub Sedlacek and concluded an exciting series between both teams.
“At first I didn’t realise I had scored,” the player said after the game. “I thought the goalie caught it but as soon as I saw it was in, it was all emotions.”
The relief of Straka and his team mates has its reasons. The complete Plzen squad were already on there toes with just a few seconds left to play in the third period and the team leading 3-2. The only thing they had left to do before being able to write history was surviving a face-off in their own zone.
Zlin’s Petr Holik won that faceoff though and Peter Cajanek picked it up and passed it to Filip Cech on the blue line. The forward didn’t hesitate and let go of a Howitzer that flung past Marek Mazanec and into the net with ten seconds left to play.
“I’ve won three World Championships but never won a Czech title,” said Plzen veteran forward Tomas Vlasak. “When we conceded that late goal I really thought I was not allowed to win one.”
The goal seemed to kill any Plzen title hopes. The overtime period that followed was dominated by Zlin, who wasted several good opportunities and was denied by the post and bar. Nevertheless Plzen looked down and out and it was only a matter of time before their luck would end.
“We had bad luck with that equalizer close before the end and survived a scare when Zlin missed on an open net opportunity,” Straka said. “But we felt luck was turning in our favour and that was a great feeling.”
The Indians kept hanging in the game and as a second overtime period was necessary to decide the series, Plzen regained control and started getting chances themselves. The last one coming after 96 minutes when Straka’s shot proved to be the final shot of the series.
After having fought of numerous challenges in a sometimes physical and rough series, the players who were enemies for well over a week had grown a huge amount of respect and friendship for each other. Once all initial on-ice festivities were concluded, extensive hand shakes and comforting hugs were shared between both teams.
Long-time Zlin defenceman Martin Hamrlik’s words underlined that there were no grudges between both teams. “I’ve been playing for Zlin all my career and for the first time ever we have won the regular season and made it to the playoff final, which we then happen to lose,” said the player who announced his retirement at the age of 39. “But that’s part of life. I’m not the first player who ends his career this way.”
The double overtime thriller didn’t come as a surprise when noticing that throughout the complete series neither team was able to win twice in a row. “I think our team character was decisive in winning the title”, Ondrej Kratena commented. He set a new Czech record for titles won, moving ahead of Jiri Dopita with eight titles to date. “Like in the quarter-finals against HC Litvinov we were almost down and out away from home but once again we prevailed and came out strong when it matters most.”
For Martin Straka the title comes as a reward for five years of hard work.
In 2008 he left the New York Rangers to return home. In Plzen, the city in which he was born and raised, Straka was trained to become a more than average NHL player that carved out almost 1,000 NHL games during a 15-year stint. Upon his return he saw his former team struggling and took control of it on and off the ice. Apart from leading his team as a player he also took on the job as General Manager.
“Everyone was telling me I was the only one who could save this organization,” Straka said with a smile. “One year after my return I was forced to inject a huge sum of money to save the team from bankruptcy. People told me I was crazy but at that time I was working to obtain the majority of shares in the club to be able to ensure it was going in the right direction.”
Straka, who spent more time off than on the ice by then, persisted and surely but slowly Plzen worked its way up to the top of the standings. Straka was unmoved when faced with criticism and continued to work on his “path to glory”-plan.
Perhaps it took longer than expected, but Straka and Plzen did get what they planned for and now know it was worth the effort. The Indians completed their scalp in capturing their first-ever Extraliga title as celebrations took off in the hockey-mad city of Plzen.
As the cup was hoisted from player to player, Straka oversaw everything from a distance while enjoying a big cigar. The chief gave his nod of approval and saw his tribe was doing just fine.