Thursday, January 24, 2008

HC Slavia Praha – HC Slovan Ústečtí Lvi (13-01-2008)

I hadn’t been back to Prague since 2003, but boy, what a beautiful city it is. As it was the heart of Winter, and the Czech football league takes a very long winter break, a football hop was out of the question. However, there is something even better, at least in the Czech Republic: ice hockey. In my humble opinion, the Czech league is the most exciting ice hockey league in Europe; or, at least, it used to be in the 1990s.

As my favorite team (HC Sparta Praha) was playing for the European league, my girlfriend MG and I decided to see a game of town rivals Slavia. Fortunately I checked their website the day before the game, as I had completely missed the fact that they had exchanged their old Communist-style stadium for the brand new Sazka Arena. This ultramodern stadium was built for the 2004 Men’s Ice Hockey World Championships and holds 18.000 people, making it one of the biggest ice hockey stadiums in Europe.

After a 15 minute ride with the yellow metro line B, we got out at station Ceskomoravska and walked the 400 meters to the Arena. We were more than an hour early, so the only scattered fans around were the visitors from Usti nad Labem, a destitute city close to the German border (some 85 km north of Prague). We bought tickets a couple of rows behind the dug-outs, which at 250 Czech Crowns (ca. 9.50 euro) a piece must have been among the most expensive tickets I ever bought for a sports game in Eastern Europe. The game between the number two and number last of the O2 Extraliga, the Czech First Division, attracted some 3.500 spectators, not even bad for a Sunday evening in Prague, but fairly pathetic in such a huge stadium. While the home fans were by far the more visible and vocal, the ca. 500 away fans were enthusiastic and seemed to have the day of their life in this ultramodern surrounding.

The expected severe beating of Slovan didn’t take place. Although Slavia did start well, being 1-0 up, Slovan came back and turned the score around to a shocking 1-2 after the first period. While both the visitors and the home fans didn’t believe their eyes, the former enjoyed themselves tremendously.

The second period was fully for Slavia, 2-0, although the team hardly impressed. But with 3-2 after two periods, the game was still well open. With the level of play deteriorating even further, the game remained extremely tight. In the third and last period Slovan fought like devils and came back to 3-3. Unfortunately, Slavia was able to score the 4-3 and defend it to the end of the game, to the relief of their fans.

While MG was raving about her first hockey game, I could not help but feel a bit cheated out of my East European experience. Sure, the Sazka Arena is beautiful, but it has the same problem as all those new ultramodern football stadiums: no character. There is nothing ‘Czech’ about it. In fact, I felt more at a NFL game than at an Extraliga game. I cannot help it, but I missed the old Eden Stadion!

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