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Slovak league enduring rough times, soldiers on

Wednesday, 09.05.2012 / 12:30 PM / Across the Pond

By Bill Meltzer - NHL.com Correspondent

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Slovak league enduring rough times, soldiers on
Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and the late Pavol Demitra got their starts in hockey with HC Dukla Trencin. Chara paid tribute to Demitra at the 2012 World Championship, while Dukla has renamed its arena in Demitra's memory.

Slovakia's Extraliga has endured some rough times in recent years. Never as well-stocked or well-funded as the Czech Extraliga or other, more prominent, European elite leagues, the Slovak circuit has nevertheless been the original source of many electrifying talents who later went on enjoy success in the NHL and international competition. A handful of prominent Slovakian players, such as Zigmund Palffy, Miroslav Satan and Zdeno Ciger, later returned to the domestic league.

The Slovak Extraliga league faces a major new challenge in 2012-13: survival without its most famous and decorated team. HC Slovan Bratislava, which won the championship last season (its eighth Slovakian Extraliga championship and ninth including the country's Czechoslovakian era), has left the domestic league to join the KHL.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and the late Pavol Demitra got their starts in hockey with HC Dukla Trencin. Chara paid tribute to Demitra at the 2012 World Championship, while Dukla has renamed its arena in Demitra's memory. (Photo: Getty Images)

With the departure of Slovan, HC Kosice assumes the mantle of the top team in the Extraliga. The club has reached the playoff finals in each of the last five seasons, winning the championship three straight years (2008-09 to 2010-11), sandwiched around seven-game losses to Slovan in the finals. Over that span, Kosice has finished in first- or second-place during the regular season four times, and has not finished lower than third.

In total, the Kosice Steelers have won six Slovak championships and two Czechoslovakian championships (1985-86 and 1987-88). The team's most famous alumnus is Peter Bondra, but the organization also helped give a start in hockey to the likes of Marek Svatos and Ladislav Nagy.

Last season, Kosice ran away with first place during the regular season, winning 37 of 55 games (35 in regulation) to rack up 110 points. Backstopped by Czech goaltender Alexandr Hylak, who led the league in most major statistical categories while starting in 52 games, the club allowed a league-best 130 goals against in 2011-12. Hylak, 28, will return to the net for Kosice this season.

Offensively, Kosice ranked second in the league last season with 191 goals (only HK 36 Skalica scored more). However, the team will have to deal this season with the loss of Miroslav Zalesak. The former San Jose Sharks right wing served as Kosice's captain last year, and led the club with 47 points (15 goals, 32 assists) to place 10th among the league's top scorer. After the season, Zalesak signed with Czech Extraliga club HC Chumotov.

The highest-scoring team in the league last season was second-place HK 36 Skalica. The club, which has yet to win its first championship but reached the finals in 2008-09, ended up losing in the playoff quarterfinals for the third straight year.

Far and away, Skalica's top attraction in recent years has been Palffy. Last season, the now 40-year-old former NHL star led the league in scoring (26 goals and 57 assists for 83 points in 48 games) for the third time since 2007-08. The four-time NHL All-Star Game participant recently showed his scoring touch in a dominant performance in an exhibition game against Hungarian-based EBEL team Fehervar.

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Last season, Skalica featured four of the league's top 10 scorers. Center Rene Skoliac was runner-up to linemate Palffy in the scoring race, racking up 62 points (20 goals and 42 assists) to go along with 114 penalty minutes. Jan Hruska, who has since left Skalica to return to the Czech Extraliga's HC Kometa Brno, ranked fourth with 25 goals and 52 points. Fellow Czech Petr Obdrzalek has also returned to the Czech circuit. He'll play for Jaromir Jagr's HC Rytiri Kladno in 2012-13, after ranking eighth in the Slovak Extraliga last year with 50 points (16 goals, 34 assists).

HK Poprad disappointed in the playoffs last year, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs after posting 101 points during the regular season. A playoff finalist in 2011, Poprad is still looking for its first Slovakian championship. The club has lost the services of high-scoring veteran winger Martin Kulha, who is off to play for Ukrainian team Berkut Kiev after leading the Extraliga last season with 31 goals. Former Vancouver Canucks forward Lubomir Vaic (51 points last season) is also gone.

Among North American fans and within Slovakia, HC Dukla Trencin is arguably the best-known team in the country outside of Slovan and Kosice. The team, which has won three Slovak championships (most recently in 2003-04) and the Czechoslovakian championship in 1991-92, has found the going tougher in more recent years. However, the club nicknamed the Soldiers finished in fifth place last year and then upset Poprad in the first round of the playoffs to march on to play Slovan in the semis. Trencin got swept in four games.

More than for its historical success in the Extraliga, Trencin is world famous for its development program. The Dukla junior system and/or Extraliga team was the breeding ground for numerous future NHL standouts, including the likes of Chara, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra, Palffy and Andrej Meszaros. Chara and Gaborik are both Trencin natives, and Chara brought the Stanley Cup home in the summer of 2011 to celebrate the Boston Bruins championship.

The Dukla development legacy doesn't end there. Current and former NHL players ranging from Andrej Sekera, Marcel Hossa, Tomas Kopecky, Branko Radivojevic, Richard Lintner and Lubomir Sekeras all spent part of their formative years in Trencin as well.

Dukla has renamed its 52-year-old home arena, formerly called Trencin Ice Stadium, in honor of Demitra. The 36-year-old three-time NHL All-Star was a member of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team that perished in a plane crash on Sept. 7, 2012. A native of Dubnica, Slovakia, Demitra joined the Trencin system at age 19 before leaving for North America. During the 2004-05 season, he spurned much higher-paying offers to return to Slovakia to play for Dukla. Demitra led the league in goals (28), assists (54) and points (82) in his one-year homecoming.

Beyond the aforementioned teams, there are several closely-bunched playoff bubble teams. HKm Zvolen finished seventh last season but scored a major playoff upset by knocking off Skalica in the first round. Last season, MsHK Zilina featured high scoring right winger Peter Sivak (21 goals, 51 points) but the 30-year-old forward is reportedly headed to North America to play on a minor league contract with the ECHL's San Francisco Bulls (a San Jose Sharks affiliate). HK Banka Bystrica's biggest strength was its goaltending and defense, allowing it to gain the eighth and final playoff spot.

A more notable face of Slovak hockey in recent years has been the partial-season inclusion of a team has come to be known as HK Orange 20. The club is made of junior players loaned from the Slovak organizations who are considered candidates for the Slovakian national team at the World Junior Championship. Each autumn, the club plays one game apiece against each of the Extraliga teams -- typically faring poorly against the adult pro players, but gaining valuable experience and ice time together.

Quote of the Day

You could see out there that everybody was willing to compete, to sacrifice, even blocking shots to the end. Even in the third when we were up 5-0, guys were still working hard and blocking shots That's a nice feeling also for the future.

— Flames goalie Jonas Hiller after his team's 5-0 win over Carolina
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