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Long-suffering Czech champs enjoy spoils of victory

by Bill Meltzer

Vladimir Ruzicka helped guide HC Slavia Prague to the 2007-08 Extraliga championship, securing a berth in the new Champions Hockey League where they will compete against the European defending titlists.
For much of Czech sports history, Slavia Prague has been the "other" team in the country's capital city. In both hockey and soccer, archrival Sparta Prague has gotten the lion's share of glory while long-suffering Slavia has longed for brighter days.

Slavia's hockey branch, HC Slavia Prague has finally had its breakthrough in the last decade. The 2007-08 season was especially sweet for the club, as it won the championship and ended Sparta's back-to-back reign as Extraliga champions.

Guided by head coach Vladimir Ruzicka, a former Boston Bruins standout and a legend in his homeland, Slavia captured just the second championship in its history. The team capped its playoff run with a seven-game victory over HC Karlovy Vary in the finals.

By virtue of its Extraliga championship, Slavia earned an automatic berth in the new Champions Hockey League, where it will compete against the defending titlists from around Europe as well as a second club from each of the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden and Finland.

Meanwhile, on June 21, Ruzicka was tabbed to succeed Alois Hadamczik as the head coach of the Czech national team. His two-year contract includes the 2009 and 2010 IIHF World Championships and the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver. Previously, Ruzicka was the national team's assistant coach from 2002 and 2004 when he became temporary head coach after the death of Ivan Hlinka. His team won the 2005 World Championship in Vienna, but he resigned to focused on his duties with Slavia.

108 tortured years of history

Come Oct. 4, Slavia's home arena, the 17,360 capacity O2 Arena, will play host to the first of a pair of NHL season-opening games between the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Slavia will be idle on those days in between road matches against HC Trinec and HC Kladno.

But the champs' presence will be felt in another way. The discerning and vocal Czech hockey fans will demand their NHL guests exceed the electric atmosphere of Slavia's championship-clinching win at O2 Arena.

Although Extraliga hockey is a decided notch beneath NHL-caliber play, it will still be a tall challenge for the Rangers and Lightning to stir emotions and create memories that will be every bit as enduring to the locals. Slavia's title win, while important in its own right, was steeped in 108 years of often tortured history.

Established in 1900 as SK Slavia Prague, the team was relegated from the top league in 1936 and toiled for the next 57 years in the Czech equivalent of the minor leagues.

What's more, for many years, Slavia earned the enmity of the communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia and struggled for a fraction of the funding Sparta and other clubs received. The reasons were political. The team was originally founded as Prague's athletic club for well-to-do members of the Czech nationalist movement. For a brief time in the 1950s, the team was even forced to change its name to Dynamo Prague -- a pro-Soviet Union moniker.

In 1994, five years after the "Velvet Revolution" saw the bloodshed-free fall of Czech communism, Slavia finally earned a promotion to the Extraliga. Led by Ruzicka, who retired in 2000 to become the club's head coach, the team slowly rose from pretenders to contenders, climbing into the top quarter of the league standings by 2001.

The following year, Slavia recruited longtime NHLer Josef Beranek. The former Edmonton Oilers, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins forward had just returned home after a 531-game NHL career. For the last seven seasons, team captain Beranek has been a mainstay for Slavia.

Beranek won a league scoring title in 2003-04 and was integral on and off the ice in the team's Extraliga championships of 2002-03 and this past season. Although he scored just one goal in 12 playoff games this year, he inspired his teammates by playing through torn knee ligaments.  Like many players on Slavia, Beranek has come to relish the team's underdog identity, which he claims inspired the club to its two crowns.

"You can achieve far more (this way) than when everyone expects you to win," Beranek said to Slavia's official site after the finals.

Skating to glory on home ice

Vladimir Ruzicka has been tabbed to succeed Alois Hadamczik as the head coach of the Czech national team.
For many years, Slavia played its home games in Prague's tiny Eden Arena. When Slavia won the 2003 championships the team's fans crowded into the building to watch the clinching victory on a large-screen television.

The party went long into the night. In scenes reminiscent of the 1998 Czech Olympic gold medal team's homecoming, long-suffering Slavia supporters turned out in droves to greet the team's return, as many fans and a few players openly cried tears of joy.

Meanwhile, plans were under way to build a brand new multi-purpose arena in Prague. The building was slated to open in time to host the 2003 IIHF World Championships and then become Slavia's new home in time for the 2003-2004 Extraliga season.

Unfortunately, construction was beset by delays as the project went badly over-budget. The arena was not ready in time for the 2003 tournament, forcing the IIHF to transfer the tournament to Finland. Slavia played an additional season at Eden.

Finally, a new primary financial backer stepped up to complete the project -- a Czech betting company called Sazka a.s. (as in many European countries, betting shops are legal in the Czech Republic). The newly dubbed Sazka Arena opened in time to host the 2004 IIHF World Championships before turning the ice over to Slavia Prague. The venue changed sponsors and names in March of this year, and is now called O2 Arena.

In 2005-06, the building played host to several games during a hotly contested playoff finals between Slavia and Sparta. Virtually every game of the series was a see-saw, tense affair. Sparta ultimately prevailed and went on to repeat as champions in 2006-07, much to the dismay of Slavia.

Entering the 2007-08 season, Slavia wasn't expected to do much. The club pared down salary in an effort to stem rising costs and falling revenues. But the team gelled under Ruzicka, displaying unity and strong work ethic. 

Slavia finished in second place during the 2007-08 season, eight points behind HC Mountfield Ceske Budejovice. Slavia was the highest scoring team the league, especially at  O2 Arena, where the club won 19 of 26 games and scored 108 goals (4.15 goals per game) while allowing just 56 goals (2.12 per game).

Former Florida Panthers right wing Jaroslav Bednar led the club in scoring with 25 goals and 46 points, good for ninth overall in the Extraliga. One time Ottawa Senators draftee David Hruska finished one point and one spot on the scoring leader board behind Bednar.

Meanwhile, ex Los Angeles Kings defenseman Tomas Zizka led all players in the league with a plus-30 rating, while 22-year-old forward Roman Cervenka potted 19 goals, 30 points and posted a strong plus-20 rating. Starting goaltender Adam Svoboda was a workhorse, leading the league in minutes played and fashioning six shutouts.

Slavia opened the playoffs against seventh-place HC Trinec. The clubs split the first two games at O2 Arena, but Slavia won the next three straight games. In the clinching game in Prague, former Washington Capitals center Jakub Klepis (five goals in 24 regular season games, nine playoff tallies) scoring the deciding goal in overtime.

In the semifinals, Slavia took on the third-seeded Bili Tygri (White Tigers) Liberec. The home ice advantage proved critical in the series, which went the full seven games. In each match, the home side prevailed, with Slavia winning the first, second, fifth and seventh games in Prague. The final game, won 2-1, saw Bednar and Klepis score for Slavia. Meanwhile, Liberec was held to just 12 shots

The finals saw Slavia opposed by surprising fourth seed, HC Karlovy Vary. The clubs split the first four games of the series, before Slavia took command of the series by whitewashing their opponents by a 4-0 count in the fifth game in Prague. Karlovy Vary forced a seventh game with a 4-1 home ice victory in game six.

A record crowd of 17,123 fans came out to O2 Arena for the deciding game. Even before the player introductions, the building rocked with cacophonous pro-Slavia chants and fight songs. 

"Seventeen thousand people, that's why we play it. I've told the guys we can't lose," Ruzicka said to Sportovni Noviny.

The home team didn't disappoint. Tallies by Klepis and Bednar in the opening half of the first period sent the already frenzied crowd into a tizzy. Cervenka extended the advantage to 3-0 midway through regulation. Finally, Slavia's Jiri Vasicek added extra insurance at 17:09 of the third period. Karlovy Vary got a pair of goals back in the final two minutes of the game, but the outcome was already decided.

As the final horn sounded, the zealots in the building erupted in a mass celebration as the Slavia players and Ruzicka displayed the enormous Extraliga championship trophy. The revelry went deep into the night, inside the building and in local establishments.

Meanwhile, the other professional sports branch of Slavia -- the SK Slavia Prague soccer team -- drew inspiration from its hockey brethren. With SK Slavia mired in a slump, head coach Karel Jarolim brought his players to the deciding game of the Extraliga finals.

"We went there to absorb the atmosphere," Jarolim told the Prague Post.

Mission accomplished: The Slavia soccer club went on to win the 2007-08 Czech Gambrinus Liga for the first time in a dozen years.

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