It would seem that not everyone considered the NHL’s opening weekend in Prague to be the success the league and the teams involved did. Former Metallurg Magnitogorsk coach and current head of the Czech junior team, Marek Sykora, was decidedly unimpressed with the the event, according to this interview in Russian publication Sport Express.
“The level of hockey demonstrated by the North American teams was, to put it mildly, mediocre,” Sykora shared. “I understand that the NHL clubs are only starting the season and that no one will give everything they’ve got at the start of an 8-month marathon. But against the background of the [level of] entertainment in the games of the KHL or Czech league, in which we now see enormous passion, I did not consider the games between Tampa and the Rangers to be a high quality product.”
When it was pointed out to the that — despite ticket prices that were 10-20 times those usually charged for games in Prague — the arena was full both days nonetheless, the Czech coach attributed the success in ticket sales to former Ranger Jaromir Jagr and a campaign of misinformation undertaken by the NHL. “First of all they love Jaromir Jagr in the Czech Republic. All advertising for the two games was built up as if the legendary number 68 would be in Prague on the roster of the Rangers.”
Sykora alleged that most fans were under the impression that two of their country’s stars would be participating when they purchased their tickets. “The most significant portion of the tickets were sold several months ago, and the spectacle was hyped as an opportunity to watch Jagr and Straka. It’s no secret that many fans in the Czech Republic supported the Rangers in the NHL precisely because of these two hockey players.”
“Over the weekend the majority of visitors to the Sazka Arena were dressed in the sweaters of the New Yorkers, with the names ‘Jagr’ and ‘Straka’,” the Czech coach shared. “And in place of [those players] second-rate Americans Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan were pawned off on them.” Sykora, it would seem, has no problem telling people what he really thinks.
Asked if he was accusing the NHL of deceiving Czech fans, Sykora pulled no punches. “Unequivocally. I remember how many advertisements for Jagr there were in Prague this summer. Posters, TV commercials, features in the press. The grandiose campaign of the North American league as a result turned out to be a soap bubble, but the seats in the arena were sold off in advance.”
“For the sake of selling as many tickets as possible shrewd moves were devised.” Sykora alleged, adding that these moves included informing people that the games would only be shown on pay TV so as to encourage people to attend the game in person (the information later proved false and the games were shown on a regular TV). That, plus the poor quality of the games, caused many spectators to feel cheated, according to the influential Czech. “In the end, many fans left the game embittered. In addition to the absence of the two main names for our viewers on the New York roster, the actual games have turned out dull, without an abundance of beautiful goals and high speeds.”
But Sykora didn’t believe these factors would prevent the NHL from returning to the Czech Republic in the future. “My journalist friends say that the management of the North American league has seriously decided to open the regular season in Prague again next year. I heard that one of the participating teams will be Pittsburgh. I trust this information. First of all, there aren’t so many distinguished teams in the NHL, and no will come to see the Rangers anymore after the fraud with Jagr. Secondly, the overseas bosses above all want profits, and Pittsburgh is the only team, perhaps, that can provide sell outs with the high ticket prices.”
Surprisingly he doesn’t include league darling Sidney Crosby in the list the reasons the Penguins would attract Czech fans. Instead he cites Evgeni Malkin, who he explains is followed closely by Czechs because of a goal he scored against their team in the World Championships last spring. He also notes the fact “Pittsburgh is known by all as the team of the best years of the career of the same Jagr,” and points to Prague favorite Petr Sykora (no relation) as a big draw. Perhaps someone should point out that like Jagr and Straka last year, Sykora is a free agent at the end of the season and therefore not guaranteed to be with the Penguins this time next year…
As for the players themselves, Sykora offered praise to a handful of players on both teams. “On the New York roster Lundqvist looked confident, [and] up front Gomez and Drury were on fire. On the Lightning, I’ll mention both goaltenders — Smith and Kolzig. They have played a brilliant game. One can see that the owners of the 2004 Stanley Cup have collected a very strong brigade of goaltenders.” Somewhere in North America John Tortorella weeps.
But Sykora was unimpressed with Tampa rookie sensation Steven Stamkos, claiming the 18-year old looked better during the World Junior Championships last winter, when he played against Skyora’s own team. “Perhaps after his victory in the draft there is less motivation for him,” he posits, ignoring the fact that Stamkos was playing against a level of competition far higher than his own team was capable of providing last January.
The Rangers’ own Nikolai Zherdev earned his criticism as well. “He had obvious problems with speed,” Sykora said of the Russian winger. “In both Bern against Magnitogorsk and in Prague, he was slow. Zherdev’s technical skill, expertise, and dedication are at a good level, but to progress, he should be more mobile.”
On the other hand, the Rangers other Russian received positive reviews, a fact that is likely to cause Ranger fans to call the Czech’s qualifications into doubt — if they hadn’t already. “I don’t remember anything in particular with Kalinin, therefore, he has played well. For a defenseman the main thing is to not show himself so vividly as Volodya Malenkikh [the defenseman who gave the puck to Ryan Callahan on the game winning goal] in the Victoria Cup. In general, I have liked Dmitri for a long time. He is a player of a considerable level.” But he’s not such a fan of Kalinin’s former team. “I’m happy that in the NHL he has replaced dull, mediocre Buffalo with a stronger team.”
Finally, he was asked about attempts by the Rangers to convince fans in Prague that free agent signing Markus Naslund was a suitable fill-in for Jagr. “I do not want to offend the Swede, but he does not hold a candle to Jaromir,” Sykora replied. “So the PR campaign around Naslund looks ridiculous. Every expert, like me, could see that to replace Jardo with Naslund is impossible.” He concluded by pointing out that the Rangers mistake was the KHL’s gain. “The KHL should be glad that in New York they did not realize in time that they let Jagr slip away. During the season they will surely comprehend this mistake.”
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