Cech, 37, is regarded by many as the finest goalie to play in England’s Premier League. The Czech international won four Premier League titles, five FA Cups and played in four European finals, winning both the Champions League and Europa League during spells with Chelsea and Arsenal. He is the only goalkeeper to win the ‘Golden Gloves’ award with two different clubs and holds the record for the most clean sheets in English Premier League history. Yes, he’s kind of the Dominik Hasek of football, one could say from the Czech perspective.
“It’s kind of a childhood dream to come in and play a game, which has happened,” Cech told Sky Sports. “Nobody will ever take this away from me, which is really nice.”
Cech enjoyed an eventful debut on Sunday as the Phoenix maintained a winning start to the season with a success over previously unbeaten Swindon Wildcats II. The teams were tied at 2-2 in regulation and the celebrity netminder kept his nerve to produce a game-winning save in the shootout. It’s early days, but there are signs that Cech can justify the confidence of sport fans in his homeland, where more than 70% backed him to succeed in his new sport in a poll on a Czech website.
Chelsea, Arsenal... and Dominik HasekEvery goalie loves a customised helmet, and Cech was no different. In his football career, he was noted for the distinctive skull cap he wore after sustaining a serious head injury while playing for Chelsea in October 2006. For his hockey debut, he was equally distinctive. Cech chose to pay tribute to the two London clubs he represented with such distinction, using the two teams’ crests and uniting the blue and red colours of Chelsea and Arsenal with a Union flag across the top of the helmet. Meanwhile, the choice of a number was a no brainer for a man who was glued to the action in Nagano as the Czechs won Olympic gold in 1998.
“The quarter-finals, semi-finals and final were all in the morning, so I didn’t go to school!” Cech told the Chelsea FC website. “We all tried to find a way not to miss it.” As Hasek inspired the unfancied Czechs to glory in the NHL-stacked “Tournament of the Century”, he left an indelible impression on the young Cech – and the choice of a #39 jersey was an obvious tribute from a football legend to a hockey hero.
Smells like team spiritGuildford might be a hockey nirvana for Cech, but it’s easy to forget that the Phoenix already had a goaltender. Sam Calder backstopped the team to victories in the first two games – but there was no sign that the 22-year-old was disgruntled about losing his place. After Cech denied Swindon’s Mason Lipsey to win Sunday’s shootout, Calder was among the first onto the ice to congratulate him.
Calder, a Guildford lad who has spent time with the Flames without yet suiting up for an Elite League game, is typical of the development roster at the Phoenix. An average age of just 23 makes Cech by far the most experienced athlete, even if he is taking his first steps in hockey. And, for assistant coach Ben Potts, that elite level know-how is a big part of what the goalie has to offer.
“Petr is a winner and always has been throughout his career,” he told the club’s Twitter account. “That mentality never changes. I am sure this winning attitude will pass onto our team.”
Cech himself hopes that he can inspire the young players around him to new heights.
“If you have a dream and you chase it and do everything you can to make it happen … I did that in football and all my dreams have come true,” he said. “This might be the last dream I was hoping [to fulfil], but I worked hard for it.
“I think it can act as something for these young players to know that if you chase your dreams then good things might happen.”
The biggest day for the PhoenixNews of Cech’s debut broke during the week and suddenly Guildford Phoenix was at the centre of unprecedented media attention. Demand for tickets was so great that the club, which competes in the lowest tier of domestic hockey in England, hastily set up an online box office to cope with the interest. The reward was a busy rink for the game and – hopefully – a new audience for hockey in the town.
Cech’s debut also generated widespread coverage among football journalists. The BBC’s flagship sports show ‘Match of the Day’ tweeted extensively about the game, Chelsea FC’s website ran a preview of the goalie’s new adventure and there was even a tongue-in-cheek riposte from Elite League franchise Coventry Blaze denying rumours that 61-year-old Coventry City goalkeeping legend Steve Ogrizovic was about to suit up for the team.
It all adds up to a big boost for the team, and the sport as a whole in Britain.
No career changeHowever, Cech is not planning to abandon football completely. After retiring from the game at the end of last season, he took on a backroom role as a technical and performance advisor at Chelsea. And he explained that he will be continuing in that position but, at last, will have time to indulge his love of hockey as well.
“Some people seem to think I changed my job,” Cech wrote on his Instagram. “No I didn’t. Luckily my job as the Technical and Performance advisor at Chelsea FC doesn’t stop me in my spare time from playing the game I loved as a kid and which I’ve been playing for years.
“While I was a professional footballer, I couldn’t play competitive games for obvious reasons. Now I can.”
The Phoenix has a further 19 games in NIHL2, where it faces opposition from Basingstoke, Swindon, Bristol, Cardiff and Solent.