Founded in 1932, HC Karlovy Vary has been an also-ran in Czech hockey for most of its history. Now, for the first time, the club's long-suffering fans can celebrate a Czech Extraliga championship. Karlovy Vary, which finished sixth during the regular season, capped off an extraordinary playoff run by defeating defending champion HC Slavia Prague in six games.
Until the early 1990s, the club barely caused a ripple -- much less made waves -- on the Czech hockey scene. In the early 1990s, the current management group bought the club and gained sponsorships to make it more financially stable. By 1997, the club earned a promotion from the minor leagues to the Extraliga.
Even then, Karlovy Vary was not a championship contender. The club finished out of the playoffs for the better part of a decade, finally reaching the postseason in 2006. Last year, the club finished second during the regular season and reached the finals before going down to Slavia in a roller coaster of a seven-game series. This time around, Karlovy Vary returned the favor.
The victory was especially sweet for retiring 42-year-old defenseman Josef Reznicek. A veteran of 1,145 European league and international games -- including 1,035 in the Extraliga -- the blueliner capped off his career by hoisting the championship trophy for the first time. A native of the famous Czech brewery city of Plzen, Reznicek was one of the last active players whose career started before the Velvet Revolution and the separation of the former Czechoslovakia into two independent nations.
Reznicek broke into the Extraliga with HC Plzen at the tender age of 17 and played parts of three seasons with the club until becoming a regular in 1986-87. The well-traveled veteran subsequently played for HC Dukla Jihavla, HC Olomouc, HPK Hämeenlinna (Finland), Sachsen Füchse (Germany), a second stint with Plzen and HC Sparta Prague before joining Karlovy Vary in 2005.
Despite his lack of size (5-foot-6, 176 pounds) Reznicek has always shown a feisty side to his game, in addition to his puck-moving prowess. He's topped the 80-penalty-minute mark seven times in his career, including five seasons with 100 or more PIMs; notable because European seasons are usually about 52 games long.
Reznicek has often been a solid point producer in his career but never a star. His only notable national team appearances came with the Czechoslovakian national junior team at the 1986 World Junior Championships and the senior national team at the 1991 IIHF World Championships. But he's been productive enough in Czech league play to put up 25 or more points in eight seasons, with highs of 9 goals (1998-99), 30 assists (2000-01) and 36 points (2000-01). This season, Reznicek's 19 points in 49 games led all defensemen on his team.
Meanwhile, the rest of his HC Karlovy Vary teammates launched into a wild celebration after capping off their playoff quest with a remarkable comeback victory on home ice in the sixth game of the finals. By the 10:17 mark of the first period, the team found itself staring at a 3-0 deficit, which held through the remainder of the opening stanza. The daunting prospect of a Game 7 in Prague seemed likely.
Karlovy Vary's Marek Melenovsky
started the team on the comeback trail with an early second-period tally. Midway through the period, Frantisek Skladany
tallied a shorthanded goal to narrow the deficit to one goal, and get the home crowd back into the game.
At the 6:23 mark of the third period, Ondrej Nemec
scored on the power play to bring his team all the way back from its early deficit. Sensing that Slavia was reeling, Karlovy Vary pushed the attack, peppering Dominik Furch with shots. Finally, at 12:39, Lukas Pech converted a Rastislav Dej setup to give Karlovy Vary the only lead it would get -- or need in the game.
The team slammed the door the rest of the way. At the final horn, players leaped off the bench. Teammates mobbed goaltender Lukas Mensator
, who posted a 2.27 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in the playoffs. Some fans in the crowd openly shed tears of joy. On Easter Sunday, people clad in the team's green and black colors danced in the Karlovy Vary streets and local pubs stayed open through the night.
The team's newly won crown may just be the beginning of a new era in Karlovy Vary hockey. By virtue of winning the Czech championship, the club automatically qualifies next season for the IIHF's big prize money Champions Hockey League. The team will also move from its outdated arena to a new 6,000-seat venue. There has also been talk of the team joining Russia's Continental Hockey League next season as an expansion club, but those plans may have to wait.