PRAGUE, Czech Republic — What at first appeared to be an exercise in futility ended up as an interesting change of pace and a memorable opportunity to cover hockey in a league often described as the second best in the world.
No, I wouldn’t have access to the morning skate — that session for HC Lev Praha games at Prague’s modern, spacious O2 Arena are not open to reporters.
No, there would not be a stack of lineups, statistics and rosters available. Those were apparently only available to those who reached out directly to the teams’ media directors. I found out about this early in the first period. Thank goodness for eliteprospects.com.
No, the Russian fans of the visiting side were generally not interested in speaking English to a North America-based publication . . . except one, but more on that later.
No, and perhaps most importantly/superficially, there wouldn’t be a pregame meal. Of course, that might not be an awful thing to those of us who remember the dishes served at St. Louis’ Scottrade Center in the second round of the Los Angeles Kings’ playoff run this past spring.
And this is not so say that these challenges prevented the adequate coverage of a game — it’s that as someone who speaks neither Czech nor Russian, communicating my queries and needs often constituted a challenging lesson of patience and withstanding the occasional eye-roll when asking, “Do you speak English?”
On the other hand, there were those that went beyond their call of duty to make sure I had the resources I was looking for. Lev Praha’s social media liaison, David Klevcov, seeing my Los Angeles Kings press badge, quickly opened up about growing up a huge Kings fan, and expressed his immense satisfaction over the team’s Stanley Cup.
His associate also put me on the phone with injured Lev forward Vitaly Karamnov, a center for the Everett Silvertips in 2007-08, which was the first year I broadcast junior hockey games and worked in a WHL front office. As we spoke, Pavel Datsyuk took pictures with employees and signed Red Wings paraphernalia in the bowels of an arena 4,350 miles from Detroit.
This all on the day that the NHL said its most recent offer, which already had been rejected by the NHLPA, had been taken off the table. For those in O2 Arena on Thursday night, the NHL lockout couldn’t have been any farther away.
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There was only a sliver of space in between the defenders’ legs on a two-on-two, and Datsyuk found it. The puck was on Mikhail Grabovski’s stick for only a fraction of a second before it was snapped past Tomas Popperle and into the back of the net for a 2-0 lead.
Instead of facing each other as opponents in the Winter Classic, they’re linemates for CSKA Moscow, the Russian Red Army team that has greatly benefited from the NHL lockout — not that the alma mater of Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny has ever been in dire need of reinforcements.
The only reinforcement there was on Thursday night at O2 Arena was that of CSKA’s standing in second place of the Kontinental Hockey League’s 14-team Western Conference after two seasons of treading water. Captain Alexander Radulov — yes, you heard that correctly — fresh off a disappointing conclusion to his 2011-12 season with the Nashville Predators, leads the league in points as he vies for a fourth consecutive Golden Stick Award as the KHL’s MVP, while goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, often maligned in his first season in Philadelphia, watched from upstairs after struggling to find his form through his first four games with a 3.27 GAA and .887 save percentage.
CSKA never trailed in its 3-2 win over first-year team HC Lev Praha — the Prague Lions — also known as the KHL’s westernmost outpost. Of the league’s 26 teams, 20 are based in Russia, with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, Slovakia and the Czech Republic accounting for one team each.
Zdeno Chara is the most prominent figure on Lev’s roster, while Erik Christensen, Lubos Bartecko, Martin Skoula and Jiri Novotny represent names that should sound familiar to fans of the locked-out NHL. Chara, who has not yet won since joining Lev — the team dropped its seventh straight game Thursday after a strong start — assisted on his team’s first goal when his third period power play blast from the point was deflected past Rastislav Stana by Tomas Surovy to cut into CSKA’s 2-0 lead.
Lev surrendered a goal 18 seconds later, and though they pulled within one late and outshot CSKA 16-7 in the third period and 28-25 overall, they were unable to find the equalizer in the final minute.
“We’re not far away from scoring goals and winning the game,” Christensen said. “It’s one goal today, too. It’s been like that the last couple games, too. It’s small, small details that can be better, hopefully that can change the outcome of the next game.”
Though it did not affect the final outcome, several anecdotal moments took place in the game’s waning moments as CSKA twice had outnumbered attacks while staring into an empty net — and came up empty handed on both tries. In one moment, Radulov backhanded the puck wide of the net when pressured by a Lev defender and committed a holding penalty on the ensuing backcheck. Lev scored on the power play. Soon after I received a message from a friend on Twitter: “Alex Radulov’s career in one shift.”
The atmosphere at the game was more subdued compared to other European arenas, though the somewhat sterile and lavish surroundings of O2 Arena and the fact that Lev is in its first year in Prague contributed to minimize some of the sound. The more historic Tipsport Arena — which Lev shares with Czech Extraliga squad HC Sparta Praha — is Lev’s more permanent and acoustic-friendly home; only four games this year will be played at the larger O2 arena, which hosted 12,731 fans on Thursday.
The game presentation was similar to that of an NHL game: “Gangnam Style” and “YMCA” joined the rotation, while the Kiss Cam appeared during two stoppages in play as the crowd seemed to particularly enjoy the moment when two women were shown on the screen together.
As with so many European fan sections, the banging of drums was constant throughout the game, though the Lev fans were occasionally out-voiced by the outnumbered CSKA supporters, who were contained in an opposite end of the arena, surrounded by security, with riot police stationed on the concourse behind the section. For three or four minutes late in the third period, the male CSKA supporters removed their shirts, jumped up and down in unison, and chanted team slogans in Russian that I’ll never understand. For those who have ever witnessed the “Cotton-Eyed Joe” dance in Kennewick, Wash., home of the Tri-City Americans — and boy, is that a stretch! — it’s somewhat similar. If one reader understands that reference, I’ll consider this feature a massive success.
CSKA supporters, wild and all, are passionate about the team’s importance and tradition in Russia.
“CSKA is from my family. It is from my father, from my grandfather. It’s everything for me,” said Nikolai Kalinin, a Moscow resident who also traveled to Slovakia to see the Red Army in action.
On being able to watch Datsyuk, Grabovski and several other NHL-exiled players, Kalinin was grateful, though his support for CSKA runs deep regardless of the players populating the roster.
“I supported this team before [Datsyuk and Grabovski] came here, and I’m glad that they play for my team, and I’m very happy to see them here,” he said.
Noting that he’ll travel to as many CSKA road games as his pocketbook will allow, Kalinin expressed a love for hockey that represented the exact motivation that propelled me to catch several flights, trains and subway rides to end up in an arena far, far away from Los Angeles.
“It’s my holiday. It’s my vacation,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to travel through Europe, to visit Bratislava, to visit Prague, to see beautiful cities, and of course to watch an excellent game.”