Thursday night is a historic night for hockey in the Czech Republic, as for the first time the Kontinental Hockey League--a league that has been well-represented by Czechs over the years--will play in the country for the first time. The home team is HC LEV Praha, a team that won its first seven preseason games but then lost its last three, perhaps an indication that the players had had enough preparation and were itching to play a game that counts. Now they finally get the chance.
LEV debuts at home vs Dinamo Riga
After all the waiting and preparation, it´s not time to get things started. On Thursday night, HC LEV Praha makes its KHL debut at Tipsport Arena in Prague. Their opponents will be Dinamo Riga.
Though this is a new team, many of its players have names that are familiar to hockey fans, both in the Czech Republic and abroad. Many have experience in the KHL, NHL and at major international tournaments. On Tuesday, three of those veterans were acknowledged for their leadership by coach Jiří Kalous when he named the team captain and alternates. Jiří Novotný, 29, becomes the first captain of Lev Praha.
"Of course I am happy and it´s an honour for me to become captain," said Novotný. "We have many leaders in the dressing room and I´m not the type who would try to tackle something myself. We´re a team, and I of course wouldn´t try to have everything the way I want. Everything is all about agreement."
Among the leaders that Novotný referred to are defenceman Ondřej Němec and forward Ľuboš Bartečko, who will serve as alternate captains. At 36, Bartečko is the oldest player on the team, and he served last season as captain of the team´s predecessor, Lev Poprad. Four other players, Jaroslav Svoboda, Tomáš Surový, Marcel Hossa and Tomáš Mojžíš, are at least 30 years old.
Other than Canadian goaltender Drew McIntyre and Slovakian forward Juraj Mikúš, who are both injured, Lev will ice a full lineup on opening night. With McIntyre out, Tomáš Pöpperle will get the start in goal. Having played the last two seasons for Sparta Praha, Pöpperle is no stranger to the rink at Tipsport Arena. He´ll be backed up by Ondřej Kocián.
Thursday is the first KHL game in Prague, but it was only four years ago that the league debuted in Riga, Latvia. Four years later, that team has made a mark, coming off back-to-back quarterfinal appearances. Gone from last year´s squad are top scorers Mikelis Redlihs, Janis Sprukts and Fredrik Werg, but coming in to take their places are former Los Angeles King Raitis Ivanans, American Rob Schremp, and Swedish goalie Mikael Tellqvist, who is expected to get the start on Thursday. Three Lev players used to play for Dinamo: Hossa, Mikúš and Surový.
In addition to those three players, Thursday´s opponents are also familiar to Lev general manager Normunds Sējējs, who also held that position in Riga when they joined the KHL in 2008.
"It was quite similar," he responded when asked to compare starting the two teams from scratch. "People then also said, ´Why did you pick him?What are you looking for over there?´ and so on. A lot of people play a lot of politics, but personally I think that when we start to play good hockey, it will go away. History is history, but we are here for us to show people some good hockey and have fun."
The fun begins outside Tipsport Arena at 5:00 pm on Thursday with special pregame festivities. Doors open at 7:00 and the opening faceoff is scheduled for 8:00. The game can be seen in Central Europe on Sport1.