LINKOPING, Sweden – A visitor to the HC Linkoping website is greeted with a banner bearing an upbeat message: “Final. Igen.” As in, “Final. Again.”
But as anyone in any sport knows, no matter how you spin it, being on the losing end of a final playoff series two years in a row is tough. Especially when the team then loses its two highest scoring forwards, who also happened to be first and second in the league scoring race. You can be sure that the Champions Hockey League team had a priority to replace Tony Martensson and Mattias Weinhandl.
So, out went Martensson, the scoring champion of the Swedish Elitserien last season, and in came Jaroslav Hlinka, who in May centred the Czech Republic’s first line in the World Championship in Quebec City. The 32-year-old veteran returns to Europe after a year with the Colorado Avalanche in the NHL where he scored 28 points in 63 games.
Linkoping wasn’t the only team after the skilled centre. But this time, the team didn’t finish second.
“I got a few offers but this one seemed the best one for me at the moment. It’s a mix of variables that played into my decision,” he says.
“I’ve already played in the Russian league and that would have meant only money for me. I thought Sweden was a nice country and the league’s schedule and light travel give me an opportunity to be around my family a lot,” he adds.
Adapting to the Swedish league is going to be easy for Hlinka, whose puckhandling skills and skating are straight out the Swedish school. Also, the coach is his old friend, Slavomir Lener, Hlinka’s former coach at both Sparta Prague and the Czech national team.
“Moving from one league to another is not that difficult, it’s hockey, after all. However, there are some areas that need to be refined, and it’s always a new experience. I think I’ve learned something from each team and league that I have been played in. I hope I’ll be successful here as well, and learn something new.
“I think it’s good to know the coach. It’s good when the coach knows me and what I can do, and what my place with the team should be. He knows what he can expect from me,” he says.
This year, Hlinka will also be able to keep his Czech up-to-date with the help of another top Czech forward, Jan Hlavac, who left the Nashville Predators and signed a one-year contract with Linkoping.
“It’s not very important for me to have another Czech on the team,” says Hlinka. “This is the second time in my career outside of the Czech Republic there's another Czech on the team. It’s nice to be able to say some things in Czech, it makes some stuff easier.”
With the arrival of Hlavac, the pressure is on the Czechs. The fans want Hlinka to be the team’s first line forward who dominates the league. All eyes will be on Linkoping’s number 17… sorry, 27 .. Let’s make it 71.
“I’ve played with number 17 on my sweater all my career and have always tried to get that number wherever I’ve played. Over here, Ivan Majesky had it, so I picked number 27 for myself. Then, when Jan Hlavac signed, I knew that he’d always worn number 27 so I switched again. Now to 71,” he says, laughing.
Things are good with Hlinka. A new adventure, an old friend rejoining him, a coach that knows what he can do, and a two-year contract to lean on. It can turn out to be a fun season – and that’s just the way he likes it.
“We, Czechs, like to have fun. I like to have fun, hockey is still a game for me, and I want to feel like a kid and have fun. If I don’t have fun or don’t like to play, hockey becomes just like regular work and you just do it for the money. Money is important, everybody cares about it but I want to have a lot of fun during the season as well,” he says.
And when Jaro’s having fun, the Linkoping management and fans will also be smiling.
It may just be a banner year for Linkoping.