No matter how much success they have in the NHL and internationally, most NHL players remain in touch with their hometown roots and youth hockey clubs. This is especially true of European players, who often stay with the same hockey programs from the youth ranks to the professional level -- or at least until they move on to a big-name program that attracts widespread scouting from NHL clubs.
New York Rangers
forward Ales Kotalik
returned to his hometown of Jindrchuv Hradec, Czech Republic, last weekend in order to pay tribute to the KLH Vajgar hockey team on the 80th anniversary of the club's founding in 1929. The town of 22,700 residents in southern Bohemia has produced several NHL players and a handful of others who've had successful careers in European leagues.
In addition to Kotalik, KLH Vajgar provided the foundations upon which San Jose Sharks
forward Milan Michalek
, Phoenix Coyotes
defenseman Zbynek Michalek
and Avangard Omsk (Kontinental Hockey League) goal-scoring star Jan Marek
built their careers. Other well-known alumni include longtime Czech Extraliga standout Josef Straka
(now playing in the KHL) and Extraliga veteran Petr Sailer.
Kotalik, whose father, Viktor, has longstanding ties to KLH Vajgar, began his training in the club's hockey school before moving on to the HC Ceske Budejovice program. The latter team enjoys a much higher profile, not only in southern Bohemia but around the hockey world. HC Ceske Budejovice is a fixture in the Extraliga, the top professional league in the Czech Republic. Conversely, KLH Vajgar's senior team plays in the secondary tier of the Czech minor leagues.
It was at the behest of the Kotaliks and the KLH Vajgar club that the Michalek brothers, Marek and a host of other well-known players suited up for KLH Vajgar in an Aug. 1 exhibition game against Ceske Budejovice. According to Internationalhockey.net, a capacity crowd of 3,350 fans turned out to the 34-year-old indoor rink in Jindrchuv Hradec to see the game and celebrate KLH Vajgar's 80th anniversary. In addition to the aforementioned players, Montreal Canadiens
center Tomas Plekanec
and Phoenix Coyotes
forwards Petr Prucha
and Martin Hanzal
donned KLH Vajgar uniforms.
HC Ceske Budejovice won the game 9-7. But the final score wasn't what mattered. Inevitably, the highlight of such affairs is everything but the game itself. People come out for the player introductions and pregame ceremonies as well as postgame festivities. This match was no exception. It was a typical no-checking exhibition in which the primary objective is to have fun and avoid injury. Being the offseason, players weren't yet in peak game condition and the passing wasn't as crisp at it figures to be in a few weeks.
Even so, local fans were thrilled to be able to see so many prominent players in such a small, intimate setting. The event also provided an opportunity to honor the team's most famous alumnus, Ludek Musil. A legend of Czechoslovakian hockey, the 90-year-old Musil received a special award as KLH Vajgar's all-time leading scorer.
KLH Vajgar was established in 1929 as VBK Vajkar. The club enjoyed considerable success in its early years, but the devastation that World War II and communism wreaked on the former Czechoslovakia directly played into the club's declining fortunes on the ice. The team merged with Slovan Hradec after the war and settled into the background of Czech hockey. But its youth hockey program has remained strong, especially over the last 30 years.