Located in Central Bohemia, about 15 miles northwest of Prague, the town of Kladno, Czech Republic, has produced a disproportionate share of hockey players who not only have played in the NHL, but in many cases stand among the best in the game. The working-class steel mill town of about 70,000 gave rise to the HC Kladno hockey club and its legendary development program.
Among the luminaries who hail from Kladno -- or at least got their hockey start in the town's hockey program -- are current players Tomas Plekanec, Patrik Elias, Tomas Kaberle, Ondrej Pavelec, Tomas Vokoun, Michal Frolik and Marek Zidlicky. Likewise, recently acquired Philadelphia Flyers right wing Jakub Voracek is a Kladno native and a product of the HC Kladno junior system.
Past NHL or international hockey standouts with ties to Kladno and its team include Michal Pivonka, Frantisek Kaberle (Sr. and Jr.), Milan Novy, Frantisek Pospisil, Pavel Patera, Martin Prochazka and Otakar Vejvoda Jr.
Jaromir Jagr. The five-time Art Ross Trophy winner, three-time Ted Lindsay (formerly Lester Pearson) Award winner, six-time Hart Trophy finalist and 1999 Hart Trophy winner is the town's most famous resident from any walk of life.
When news broke July 1 that Jagr had signed as a free agent with the Flyers, no one was happier than Voracek. By the time Voracek was 4 years old, a 21-year-old Jagr already was a local legend in Kladno and a rising superstar in the NHL. Like so many other Czech youngsters, and especially fellow HC Kladno junior program players, Voracek grew up in awe of Jagr's exploits.
"I was excited when I found out (June 23) that I was coming to Philadelphia," said Voracek, who was acquired in the deal that sent Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets. "Now to have Jagr come to play here, too, is amazing. It almost doesn't feel real right now."
Founded in 1924 as an athletic club for the young men working in the mining industry, it soon grew into a powerhouse team during the communist and early post-Velvet Revolution years. The HC Kladno junior hockey program once was among the top five in Europe, while the senior team won six Czechoslovakian championships and one European championship.
In recent years, however, the organization has fallen on hard times, financially and on the ice. The junior program still produced numerous highly regarded prospects for the NHL Entry Draft, but relatively few of them ever played a significant period of time with the senior team, which has changed sponsors a half-dozen times since the mid-1990s and now is known officially as HC Vagnerplast Kladno.
Throughout Czech hockey, there was an exodus of top prospects to Canadian junior hockey, as young players hoped to increase their chances of impressing NHL scouts while getting a head start on learning English and acclimating themselves to the smaller North American rink. The Kladno team was among the hardest hit, and Voracek was one of its junior players who made the difficult decision to come to North America rather than follow the once-traditional route of playing first in the Extraliga and for the Czech national team before going overseas.
By age 15, Voracek already was a star on Kladno's Under-18 squad, dominating opponents that were up to three years older. Voracek averaged more than an assist per game (39 in 30 games) for Kladno's Under-18 team in 2004-05. Meanwhile, scouts got their first glimpse of the player in international competition as he played on the top line of the Czech Republic's national Under-16 squad.
Promoted quickly to the national Under-17 team, Voracek was the youngest player competing at the 2005 Four Nations Tournament. His dominant performance earned him rave reviews from scouts. A natural center, he could switch to wing with equal effectiveness.
By now it was clear that the 16-year-old Voracek was ready for the top junior level of Czech hockey. With Kladno's Under-20 team in 2005-06, he scored 21 goals and added 38 assists in 46 games. The 6-foot-1 youngster even got into one Extraliga game for Kladno's senior team.
He elevated his game even further in the U20 playoffs, totaling 7 goals and 4 assists in just six games. Weeks later, at the 2006 World Under-18 Championship, Voracek dazzled North American and European scouts alike by posting 3 goals and 3 assists against many of the world’s top prospects.
"That tournament opened some eyes," recalled an Eastern Conference NHL scout. "He was an under-ager (not yet draft eligible), but he showed more patience with the puck than a lot of kids we were scouting for the (2006) draft."
On June 28, 2006, the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads drafted Voracek with the first pick of the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft, and he has been playing in North America ever since. In his first season in Halifax, Voracek tallied 86 points in 59 regular-season games and a whopping 24 points in 12 playoff games. As a result of his quick ascension, Columbus drafted Voracek with the seventh pick of the 2007 Entry Draft. In his second season in the QMJHL, he increased his output to 101 points in 53 games.
Voracek has been an NHL regular since the 2008-09 season. Despite the fact that he already has been playing abroad for five years, Voracek has kept an eye on what has gone on with his hometown hockey program.
"It's definitely been rough," he said. "Hopefully, they will get things straightened out."
HC Kladno hasn't won a Czech championship since the current Extraliga was formed 18 years ago. In recent seasons, the team frequently has dwelled at or near the bottom of the standings of the 14-team league and the team was in very poor financial health. The team finished the 2010-11 season in 13th place. With the club having become financially insolvent, there was widespread speculation that the organization would be forced to sell its license to play in the Extraliga in order to pay off debt.
Jagr has been determined to make sure the club that gave him his start in the sport does not fade into history. For several years, his father, Jaromir Sr., was the president of the HC Kladno organization. Last February, the younger Jagr agreed to take over the post from his 70-year-old father. This spring, with the team's financial problems reaching the crisis stage, the Czech hockey icon took even bolder action.
In May, he reached an agreement for the team to become a limited liability company with himself as the majority owner and the Kladno town council holding a minority share. Jagr has the right to block any motion to sell the club's Extraliga license or fold the team, as well as primary control of how revenues get channeled into the hockey program. The council exercises a greater degree of control in making sure finances put into the club also benefit the local economy.
"It's possible to say with certainty that hockey will stay in Kladno, which was the most important part," Jagr told Czech news agency Denik.cz. "Now we've reached an agreement and I hope the club will play up to par and not have to drop down to the second league."
Jagr, who briefly returned to suit up for HC Kladno during the 1994 and 2004-05 labor stoppages in the NHL, has pledged to play his final professional season with the team before he hangs up his skates for good. At age 39, he will play at least one more NHL season (after a three-season absence to play in the KHL), and then evaluate his future.
While playing with the Czech national team in recent years, Jagr often has taken young players under his wing. He will have the opportunity in Philadelphia to do the same with Voracek, who will be entering his fourth NHL season.
Jagr is far from the only current or former NHL player from Europe to take ownership of their European hometown team in order to rescue it. His new Flyers teammate, Kimmo Timonen, is a minority owner of once-sinking KalPa Kuopio of Finland's SM-Liiga in conjunction with its majority owner, longtime NHL forward Sami Kapanen. Timonen even convinced teammate Scott Hartnell to buy a share of KalPa.
In the years since Kapanen and the others stepped up, KalPa has experienced a turnaround. Jagr is hoping to achieve similar results with HC Kladno.