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Traditional Czech hockey hotbeds hosting World Juniors

by Bill Meltzer / NHL.com

Detroit Red Wings goaltender Dominik Hasek grew up in Pardubice and is a product of the HC Pardubice hockey system.
One of the most rewarding facets of the World Junior Championships -- apart from the games themselves and the drama of the tournament -- is the opportunity it provides for fans from all over the world to learn more about the host locales. As the scene shifts annually from one country and town to the next, the unique aspects of the host city’s sporting and cultural identities are put on display.

Last year’s World Junior Championships were held in the lovely small towns of Leksand and Mora along picturesque Lake Siljan in central Sweden. This year, the tournament moves to two larger and more urbanized locales in the Czech Republic.

A visit to Pardubice or Liberec -- whether to watch a hockey game or see what the metropolis has to offer -- affords a different experience from the other host city, not to mention Prague.

Pardubice, the home of Extraliga club HC Moeller Pardubice, will host the World Junior Championships’ Pool A and medal-round games. The city is located 62 miles (100 kilometers) east of Prague.

The history of Pardubice dates back to the 1200s. In the modern era, Pardubice has become a heavily industrialized city of 94,000 residents. Culturally, it’s known for its restored gothic castle originally built in the late 1400s, the East Bohemian museum and the architecture of its town square. The locale is also know for its 700-year-old tradition of baking gingerbread; many of the tourist shops in the Czech Republic selling the goodies advertise it as Pardubice gingerbread.

Apart from its long hockey tradition, Pardubice’s sporting culture is known for horse racing (the Pardubice steeplechase, which dates back to 1874 is one of the most famous races in Europe).

There have been amateur hockey clubs in Pardubice since 1913. The modern day HC Pardubice organization traces its foundation to 1926. Since its entrance the elite league in 1949, the team has never been relegated from the top level. The team’s logo, depicting a majestic galloping white horse against a red background, is directly inspired by the city’s coat of arms.

The most famous locally born players developed through the HC Pardubice hockey system include future Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek of the Detroit Red Wings, Ales Hemsky of the Edmonton Oilers, former NHL player Jan Bulis and the retired Otakar Janecky (a longtime star for HC Pardubice and Finnish team Jokerit Helsinki). Former NHL defensemen Michal Sykora and Frantisek “Frank” Musil are also local products.

Additionally, Milan Hejduk, who hails from Usti nad Labem near the Czech-German border, first rose to prominence with HC Pardubice and later returned to the team during the NHL’s 2004-05 work stoppage.

During the communist era of Czechoslovakia, a cadre of key national team performers came from Pardubice. For NHL fans, the best-known is Jiri Crha, who played two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs (1979-80 and 1980-81) to become the first Czech goaltender to play in the NHL.

Several of Crha’s contemporaries who were regulars on the Czechoslovakian national team that won three IIHF World Championships were also players from HC Pardubice, including high-scoring wingers Josef Palecek and Vladimir Martinec as well as shifty pint-sized center Jiri Novak. Slovak star Bohuslav Stastny (the older brother of Peter, Marian and Anton Stastny and the uncle of Paul Stastny and Yann Stastny) was also a member of the team in this era.

HC Pardubice has won four Czechoslovakian/Czech championships during its long history. During the communist era, Pardubice won the Czechoslovakian championship in 1972-73 and 1986-87.

During the 2004-05 NHL lockout season, the team was bolstered by some key additions to win its first Extraliga crown in 16 years, downing HC Zlin in the finals. In that series, Hejduk scored the championship winning goal in the final game. Hemsky won playoff MVP honors.

More recently, the club has had its ups and downs. It finished ninth in 2005-06, but reached the finals last year before losing to HC Sparta Prague. So far this season, the team has struggled to keep the puck out its own net and currently sits in eighth place, some 30 points behind league-leading HC Slavia Prague.

The team’s home arena was originally an outdoor rink constructed in 1947. The following decade, a roof was built. HC Pardubice continues to play at the same site to this day, but the building has undergone two large-scale renovations (2001 and 2007) and scarcely resembles its original appearance. Today, it’s a modern multi-purpose building that like most arenas nowadays, has a corporate sponsor. Pardubice’s CEZ Arena seats 10,400 for hockey.

The game-day rink and the HC Pardubice team’s training rink are adjoined in the arena complex. During the World Junior Championships, the Pool A teams are conducting some of their practices on the training rink.

Liberec hockey rises in new millennium

Liberec, the site of Pool B and relegation round play, is the home of HC Bili Tygri Liberec (the Liberec White Tigers). The Bohemian city of 110,000 residents is located 62 miles north of Prague. Like Pardubice, it’s an old city, tracing its earliest historical records to 1352.

Once known as a major textile center and renowned for its centuries-old buildings and churches, Liberec has become more famous in the modern era as one of the Czech Republic’s most prominent cultural, artistic and commercial shopping centers. The hockey team’s name is a nod to the city’s zoo (the first in the country), which most famously houses and breeds rare white Bengal tigers.

The city of Liberec’s most famous hockey-playing native son is undoubtedly longtime NHLer Petr Nedved. The center broke into the then Czechoslovakian Extraliga with HC Litvinov before defecting to Canada.

Former NHL center Petr Nedved is Liberec ‘s most famous hockey-playing native son.

While its hockey history is not as storied as Pardubice’s, Liberec has its own lengthy hockey tradition. The modern Bili Tygri Liberec team traces its roots back to 1956, adopting its current name in 2000. Previously, it was known as Lokomotiva Liberec (1956-1961) and HC Stadion Liberec that played mostly first and second league.

For most of the team’s history, it has been a minor league club. In the mid-1990s, the time lined up new sponsorships and finally got on the path to Extraliga. The team earned a promotion to the Extraliga in 2002 and since then has rapidly become one of the better teams in the league.

Better known for the veteran talent it has brought in during recent years than the NHL-caliber youngsters it has produced, the White Tigers’ system gave a start to several future NHL players, including Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ladislav Smid and San Jose Sharks center Tomas Plihal.

During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Liberec recruited Czech and Slovak NHL players, including Radim Vrbata, Ales Kotalik, Jaroslav Modry, Jiri Fischer, Vaclav Nedorost, and former Vancouver Canucks center Lubomir Vaic. They were joined by former NHL goaltender Milan Hnilicka. The team won the league’s bronze medal, upsetting HC Slavia Prague before losing to Pardubice in the semifinals and winning the consolation game.

The following year, Liberec finished in first place in the Extraliga during the regular season (shattering a league record by going undefeated at home) before a stunning first-round collapse against HC Ceske Budejovice. Last season, Liberec once again grabbed first place during the regular season, but once again lost in the semifinals and had to settle for a bronze medal.

So far this season, the White Tigers have continued their recent tradition of having the stingiest team defense in the Extraliga. Goals have been a little harder to come by, and the team is currently in third place, 10 points behind Slavia.

Tipsport Arena, the Bili Tygri home rink, serves as the venue for the Liberec portion of the 2008 World Junior Championships. The building opened for the 2005-06 season, adjacent to the venerable Svijanska arena it was replacing. Tipsport Arena holds 7,500 spectators for hockey games.
 

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