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Lightning's Bratislava opponents have storied tradition

by Bill Meltzer
When the Tampa Bay Lightning step onto the ice at Bratislava's Samsung Arena for a Sept. 30 game against defending Slovak champions HC Bratislava, it will mark the first time an NHL team plays an exhibition game in Slovakia. The Lightning, who also have a game scheduled with German champions Eisbaren Berlin two days earlier, will play Bratislava as a warmup to their regular-season opener against the New York Rangers in Prague at the O2 Arena on Saturday, Oct. 4 and Sunday, Oct. 5 as part of NHL Premier 2008.

HC Slovan has one of Europe's proudest club-team traditions, dating to 1921. In the modern era, the club has established itself as the most successful team in Slovakia. The winners of seven Slovak Extraliga championships since the breakup of the former Czechoslovakia (1997-98, 1999-2000, 2001-02, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2006-07 and 2007-08),  the club also won the 1978-79 championship during the existence of the Czech-dominated Czechoslovakian league.

Known to the locals as Belasi, the Slovan athletic club has both soccer (SK Slovan) and hockey (HC Slovan) branches. While many North Americans fans may be unfamiliar with the club, HC Slovan players have been integral parts of the Czechoslovakian and Slovakian national teams for decades -- and have made their mark on the North American game right up to the current era.

Maco, Nedomansky and the Stastnys leave a legacy

From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, goaltender Vladimir Dzurilla and center Vaclav Nedomansky starred for HC Slovan and Team Czechoslovakia. Both players were also central figures in setting two history-making precedents.

The late Dzurilla never played for a North American team, but it wasn't for lack of talent. It was because the communist government wouldn't grant him permission to play for the Edmonton Oilers (then of the WHA) or to join an NHL team. Nevertheless, Dzurilla managed to make his mark on the North American game.

A refrigerator repairman by off-ice trade, Bratislava native Dzurilla played for Slovan for 16 years (1957-58 to 1972-73) after initially being rejected by his hometown team. Nicknamed “Maco,” Dzurilla was a workhorse, starting almost every game he was available to his club team (his 571 matches is still a league record for goaltenders) and the national team (139 matches, second all time).

During the 1976 Canada Cup, Dzurilla opened the eyes of North American hockey fans that the Czechoslovakian team was nearly as formidable as the Soviet Union squad that drew the lion's share of attention in play against Canada. The 34-year-old Dzurilla backstopped Team Czechoslovakia to a 1-0 victory against Team Canada at the Montreal Forum, in front of a sellout crowd and countless viewers watching the game on Canadian television. He turned back 29 shots from an opponent packed with the top stars of the NHL -- in a game and tournament the NHL players took very seriously.

Dzurilla was drafted by Edmonton and the Montreal Canadiens reportedly tried to bring him over to back up Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, while the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals allegedly targeted him as a starting goaltender despite his advanced age. But it wasn't to be. Dzurilla finished his career in Europe.

Nedomansky, meanwhile, was the first Czechoslovakian-born-and-trained player to play in the NHL. Born in the Czech portion of the country near the Slovakian border, Nedomansky starred for HC for a dozen years. Internationally, he was a member of the Czechoslavakian national teams that won Olympic silver at the 1968 games in Grenoble, France, and bronze at the 1972 tournament in Sapporo, Japan. He also played in nine IIHF World Championships.

In 1974, the same year he won Best Forward honors at the 1974 Worlds, Nedomansky defected to Canada. He played three seasons in the WHA before going on to enjoy a distinguished six-season NHL career, spent mostly with the Red Wings. Nedomansky's top NHL campaigns were 38 goals and 73 points in 1978-79 (when he was 34) and 35 goals and 74 points the following season.

Following in Nedomansky's footsteps were Peter, Marian and Anton Stastny. Breaking in with HC Slovan, the brothers spearheaded the team's 1978-79 championship, with Peter's 32 goals and 55 points in just 39 games leading the way. The brothers also played in the IIHF World Championships for the national team.

In the late 1970s, the Philadelphia Flyers attempted to secure the services of all three brothers. They drafted Anton in the 12th round of the 1978 draft, only to subsequently lose his rights when it was learned he was not yet old enough to be draft-eligible.

According to the book Full Spectrum, the Flyers then paid an agent named Louis Katona $20,000 in upfront money, promising an additional $280,000 if he could secure the brothers' defections and deliver the trio to Philadelphia. The team budgeted $1.25 million dollars apiece for signing Peter and Marian to multi-year deals and $830,000 for Anton.

This was an almost unheard of sum of money by 1970s NHL contract standards, but the club realized that the Stastnys were special talents.  If Philly could have added the Stastnys as a line to the roster that was already in place, they very well might have been able to reclaim the Stanley Cup from the Canadiens and, later, the New York Islanders.

Instead, Katona took his upfront money and never fulfilled the rest of the bargain. Insult was added to injury when the Flyers fell just short of winning the 1979-80 Stanley Cup, and the Stastny brothers defected to play elsewhere. On Aug. 26, 1980, Peter and Marian signed with the Quebec Nordiques. Anton joined them on Quebec the next year.

The brothers went on to have strong NHL careers, especially Hall of Fame inductee Peter, who scored 450 goals and 1,239 points during his magnificent 977-game career with Quebec, the New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues. In his final season, he brought his career full circle by suiting up for HC Slovan for four games during the 1994-95 lockout in the NHL.

Anton played nine NHL seasons, all with Quebec, scoring 30 or more goals four times and topping out at 92 points in 1982-93. Marian played four years with the Nordiques and one with the Toronto Maple Leafs. His best NHL campaign was his first, when he tallied 39 goals and 85 points in 80 games.

The prodigal Ciger returns

In the time since the fall of communism and the establishment of an independent Slovakia, the country's hockey program has had trouble retaining talent. Even when Slovak players leave the NHL, they usually wind up in higher-paying European leagues.

To the extent that any Slovak Extraliga club has been able to bring in high-end veterans, it's been HC Slovan. The club has the highest salary budget in the Slovak league -- a reported $3 million per season, which is rather modest compared to elite league clubs elsewhere in Europe but gives the team an edge over most of their Slovak opponents who operate on a shoestring budget.

Former Edmonton Oilers 30-goal scorer Zdeno Ciger is among the few notable Slovak players who went back to his homeland in his prime and stayed for years. With the exception of a one-season return to the NHL in 2001-02, Ciger played for Slovan Bratislava for a decade, earning about $100,000 a year.

On a nearly annual basis, he'd announce his retirement and then promptly change his mind. Finally, after the 2005-06 season, he retired (for the third time, but finally for good) to accept a post as an assistant coach on the national team. Today, he serves in the HC Slovan front office.

HC Slovan does not have the best junior development program in the country. That honor goes to HC Dukla Trencin, which has won three league championships while producing many of the biggest-name Slovak talents who've gone on to NHL stardom, including Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Zdeno Chara, Miroslav Satan, Andrej Meszaros and Zigmund Palffy (who came out of retirement to lead the Slovak league in scoring last season for HK 36 Skalica). Miroslav Satan played with Slovan during the canceled 2004-05NHL season.

But Slovan Bratislava often prevails in the Slovak Extraliga with a superior veteran nucleus. On last season's championship winning squad, two of the top five scorers in the league were Slovan players. Thirty-two-year-old right winger Martin Kulha was second in the league with 33 goals and 63 points in the regular season, tallying an additional eight goals in the Bratislava club's drive to the championship. Martin Hujsa, 29, was fourth in the league with 25 goals and 59 points and contributed six goals and 11 points to the championship run.

Both Kulha and Hujsa remain in the HC Slovan fold, and are slated to play against Tampa Bay in the exhibition game in Bratislava. Other nucleus players on the team include former NHL player Robert Dome (a first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins), Radoslav Kropac, defensemen Jozef Kovacik and  recently recruited Swedish defenseman Henrik Petre as well as Finnish goaltender Sasu Hovi.

While HC Slovan usually relies on its veterans, the junior system produces some decent talent. Among the younger players on the team, one of the most promising is 18-year-old forward Martin Bakos. A standout on the HC Slovan's Under-20 team, Bakos tallied 22 goals and 49 points in 36 games last season and made his Slovak Extraliga debut.
But the top HC Slovan youngsters, like those for most Slovak teams, typically leave while they are still junior-eligible in order to play with Canadian major junior or Czech junior or Extraliga teams. 

Montreal Canadiens backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak is a typical example. He graduated from HC Slovan's junior program and made his Slovak Extraliga debut in 2003-04 at the age of 18. The following year, he opted to transfer to Canadian major junior hockey, suiting up for the QMJHL's Lewiston MAINEiacs and turned pro at 20. After gaining some minor-league experience, he made his NHL debut.
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