Jagr brings pride, talent to HC Kladno

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Consider Pavel Patera amongst the luckiest people in the Czech Republic.

Six seasons into his captaincy of HC Kladno, the 41-year-old forward who appeared in 32 games with the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars between 1999 and 2001, is playing on a power play unit with Jaromir Jagr, Jiri Tlusty, Tomas Plekanec and Marek Zidlicky.

It’s quite an upgrade for a team that finished in ninth place in the 14-team Tipsport Extraliga a season ago.

The Rytiri Kladno – Kladno Knights – a Jagr-owned team located under an hour northwest of central Prague, is currently in third place in the Extraliga, the Czech Republic’s top hockey league. They’re on pace for practically unprecedented success both on and off the ice since winning five of six titles between 1975 and 1980, around the time when Czechoslovakian star Milan Novy was skating circles around the opposition to the tune of MVP campaigns in 1977, 1981 and 1982.

HC Kladno last enjoyed a winning season in a non-NHL lockout year in 1996-97 and had to play its way out of the relegation round to maintain its Extraliga status in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Since its success in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, its most successful years came between 1993 and 1995, when a teenage Patrik Elias and Tomas Vokoun cut their teeth in professional hockey before moving on to their North American careers. A 20-year-old Frantisek Kaberle helped guide Kladno to its last season atop the Extraliga standings in 1995 before joining MODO of the Swedish Elite League and eventually the NHL.

Of course, the labor disagreement between the NHL’s owners and its players association has sent much of its labor force across the Atlantic Ocean, and among the European franchises to benefit the most has been the Rytiri, whose 8,600-seat capacity Zimni Stadion has been packed to the very last row for nearly every home game.

Kladno drew an Extraliga record 17,182 fans to Prague’s O2 Arena earlier this year, and after finishing at the bottom of the Extraliga with an average attendance of 3,754 fans last season, currently leads the league with an average attendance of 8,524 after their 4-1 win over HC Vitkovice Steel on Friday night.

What other professional sports team can boast an attendance increase of 127 percent?

“Of course it’s good,” said Jagr, who owns 70 percent of the club; the other 30 percent is owned by the Statutory City of Kladno, according to the team’s website. “We’re drawing a lot of fans, especially in the other rinks. And I think the hockey’s a lot more popular than before.”

“But on the other side … I don’t have many games left. I would like to play in the U.S. as soon as possible, like everybody. For this type of hockey, I’ve still got time left. But for the NHL, I don’t have many games left.”

Jagr, who also played for Kladno during previous work stoppages in 1994-95 and 2004-05, successfully recruited Montreal’s Plekanec, another Kladno native, and Carolina forward Tlusty, who grew up in Slany, located just north of Kladno. Zidlicky, who was still wearing the red and black gloves he wore in the Stanley Cup Final with the New Jersey Devils last spring, is from Most, a city just over an hour north of Kladno, near the German border.

“It was the easiest thing, because I grew up over here and started playing over here, so they brought me over here,” said Tlusty, who had two goals in the win on Friday and previously played for Kladno’s junior teams. “My family lives around here. I’ve got so many good guys who I grew up with.

“I wanted to help the team bring some points. Hopefully the lockout will end soon, and then I can go back, and the guys will finish the season.”

It was a wishful sentiment, no doubt, considering the continued public relations battle and saber rattling between the opposing sides that can’t even agree to enter the same room together.

“I hope it will start, but things are not going well,” Tlusty said. “Hopefully Gary Bettman and those guys will pick up their work and they will get the season going, because I think it’s sad for hockey that we are not playing right now. It’s our job, so I’m looking forward to go back there and playing for Carolina.”

Plekanec hardly saw the ice at a time he wasn’t flanked by Tlusty to his left and Jagr to his right. Long stretches of play were contained in the attacking end; the score could have been a wider margin of victory than the 4-1 final.

Though the trio, plus the defenseman Zidlicky, had logged long hours on the ice together at World Championships and at other international competitions, it was still remarkable to see how such a collection of players who came from separate NHL teams had practically a clairvoyant sense of where the others would be headed on the ice, considering the lack of NHL structure and systems play inherent in the Extraliga.

Noting that Jagr is “a similar kind of player as [former Montreal teammate Alexei] Kovalev”, the three were clearly the best forwards on the ice and raised the level of play to that of the NHL while skating together. Though Vitkovice tied the game in the second period and hung in as best as could be predicted – an under-.500 team, their most noteworthy players were 691-game NHL veteran Marek Malik and former Dallas Stars draft pick Ondrej Roman, a Memorial Cup winner with Spokane in 2008 – matching Kladno’s skill was something the visitors simply couldn’t do.

“There’s more skating here. There’s no system,” Plekanec said to a collection of Montreal supporters assembled underneath the arena. “In the NHL, there’s like more kind of a system. Everybody’s same spot, every time, so you know where everybody is. But here it’s kind of different.”

For Jagr, there’s still the balance between playing for the team that he owns, and not trying to tread over the feet of the coaches whose salaries he pays. Having turned 40 in February and as the possessor of the greatest attributes measurable (by statistics) and immeasurable (by skill) of any European player to appear in the sport, there’s still room to offer his own advice to his younger teammates.

“You don’t want to tell the coaches what to do, but in some situations, I feel like I’ve got more experience than them,” Jagr said. “I’ve played 24 years professionally. I’ve played a lot of hockey games.”

Jagr is also neck-and-neck with Teemu Selanne on the race up the NHL’s all-time goal scoring charts, even though he left to play three seasons of KHL hockey with Avangard Omsk between 2008 and 2011. Assuming the lockout ends, he’ll be in the same division as Selanne’s Anaheim Ducks as a member of the Dallas Stars and could potentially play up to six games against another future Hall of Famer, the winger widely regarded as not just one of the greatest Europeans of his generation, but of the sport’s history. Jagr’s 665 goals rank 11th all time, placing him just 25 goals behind former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Mario Lemieux, who ranks ninth. Selanne’s 663 goals rank 12th on the all-time list.

“Hopefully the season’s going to start. It would be very sad for everybody, especially for us – me and Teemu,” Jagr said. “We don’t have many games left. The separation, the goal separation is only two goals. It’s the final countdown. It would be kind of special, but you never know what’s going to happen.”

Without the three labor stoppages during their careers, both players, barring injury, would have been amongst the likes of Brett Hull (741 goals), Marcel Dionne (731) and Phil Esposito (717), who rank third, fourth and fifth on the all-time goals list. Selanne scored 26 goals and led Anaheim in scoring as a 41-year-old a season ago with 66 points. Jagr ranked third on Philadelphia with 54 points (19-35=54) as a 39-year-old.

Should the lockout end, he’ll be in the Western Conference for the first time in his career and will look to return Dallas to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. But for now, home is with Kladno in the Extraliga’s oldest arena that pulsates with fan support and a resurgence of premier hockey talent – with thanks greatly due to Jaromir Jagr.