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Sparta chairman thrilled to have Rangers in town

by Dan Rosen
PRAGUE -- Petr Briza remembers the conversation well. It's the reason the New York Rangers are here preparing to play HC Sparta Prague at Tesla Arena on Thursday.

A year ago, when the Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes were in Prague for the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere, Briza, the Chairman of the Board for HC Sparta Prague, had a lunch he'll never forget.

Well aware of the buzz the Bruins created by playing an exhibition game against the local team in nearby Liberec, Briza asked Ken Yaffe, the NHL Senior Vice President of Events-International, and Martin Urban, the General Secretary of the Czech Ice Hockey Federation, "Why not us next year? Why not Sparta Prague? Why not here?"

He was aware that the NHL would not be using Prague as a host city for the 2011 Compuware NHL Premiere, but Briza, who was once considered to be Prague's next mayor, is also smart enough to realize there is great interest in the NHL here.

"Liberec drew a huge crowd for the game, so we thought what if we do that next year for Sparta?" Briza told "I offered that Sparta is ready to host a team. A couple of months later, Ken called me and said, 'Hey, still interested?' "


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Briza excitedly said yes. That he got the Rangers to come play a game against his team in their 49-year-old arena made hosting the event doubly special.

HC Sparta Prague has been in existence since 1903, but Thursday's game against New York will be its first against a NHL club.

"I'm very happy we are playing the New York Rangers," Briza said. "With all due respect to a lot of teams, the Rangers are one of the six founding teams and they have a lot of respect in the NHL."

However, for Briza this isn't just about a game. This is about business and the opportunity to sell his club to fans, who after two straight sub-par seasons have lost some of their interest in HC Sparta Prague.

Attendance has been declining at Tesla Arena, but Briza hopes the excitement that has been built with the Rangers in town carries over to next week, when HC Sparta Prague resumes its regular schedule.

"We had quite a bad season last year with an experienced team, so of course during the summer we were thinking about what we put in front of our fans," said Briza. "To play against the Rangers, two very traditional teams in their respective countries, it is the cake we give to the fans. This will keep our name of Sparta in good standing."

He's right about the interest. Roughly 2,000 people showed up to watch the Rangers practice on Wednesday.

"That makes me feel good," Briza said. "Prague has great crowds if you are successful, and we've had successful years, but now we had two bad seasons, so this helps. You're going to be in the building with a great atmosphere, so why won't you come back next week for a regular season game?"

From a player's standpoint, Briza can speak from experience about what it's like to play here against an NHL club. A former goalie for Team Czechoslovakia, he vividly recalls being in net when the Calgary Flames came to Prague to play two games against his national team in September 1989.

There is even a picture of Briza from those games in the program that will be sold at Tesla Arena on Thursday.

"Last year we started a project called the European Trophy with 18 teams, and at first the players thought about how far they have to go for exhibition games, but after a few games there they were excited because it was something new and a great experience," Briza said. "Even though this is only one exhibition game, I think the players have the same opinion, it's new and a challenge for them, one they can enjoy.

"This is a game against the NHL, a first in the history of our club. This is a celebration of hockey."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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