When you think of hockey in Slovakia, it brings up memories of talented ice hockey players with such skill that we can't really comprehend. Players like the Stastnys, the fantastically named Miroslav Satan, Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara, and the late Pavol Demitra. For the Montreal Canadiens' faithful, the names Jaroslav Halak and Martin Réway have been, or will be, spoken with high regard at one point or another.
I traveled by train to Bratislava from Vienna to see the KHL's HC Slovan in action, and I was surprised that it was only 55 minutes between the two capital cities; maybe something to consider for a future Central European Hockey League. I had been to Bratislava before, but it had been so long ago the country was still Czechoslovakia. It is a small, cozy place, not over-crowded with tourists, with Bratislava Castle dominating the skyline.
While I stayed in the Old Town, the arena is located in a more modern area a bit off to the east. The Ondrej Nepela Arena has been recently refurbished, and while small, the stands are steep, offering an excellent view of the ice from any vantage point. It is of high European standard and has hosted the IIHF's World Championship in 2011. The arena is easily accessible via tram or bus.
I was greeted by Mr. Milan Vajda, who helped to provide press credentials and gave me the tour of the team's facilities. He likened his HC Slovan Bratislava to an Arizona Coyotes or Florida Panthers of the KHL; a team that seems small, but can make a splash into the playoffs now and then.
The opponent was a team that everyone likes to cheer for, the one that Vajda said is the second-favourite team of many Slovan fans: Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. With the tragic plane crash forever etched in the minds of hockey fans around the world, the club receives great support from many a fan of other teams in the league.
Lokomotiv is one of the better teams in the KHL, and Slovan was fighting to stay in the playoff race. Slovan's coach was therefore using the trap game, playing defensively secure and trying to take advantage of any breaks that would come Bratislava's way. The tempo was good and the individual skill was clearly visible, but with the style that Slovan plays in order to grind out a point or two, it made for a competitive game. Unfortunately Lokomotiv is just too strong to be stopped by such a tactic, and the defensive mindset results in Slovan getting shutout at home. The game was sold out, but as there were many fans coming in to the city at the start of the weekend, it was not the result many wanted, and Slovan needs to retain as many casual fans as it can.
[Update: Slovan later played at home against Medvescak Zagreb in one of the more intense games I have seen (on TV) in a while. In an attempt to secure the win, Slovan's coach threw caution to the wind and went for it all. The crowd was intense, and the winning goal in the final minute had the crowd nearly blowing the roof off the building.]
As I left the arena, Slovan Bratislava was still in the playoff race and I can only imagine how that tightly packed arena would feel in a playoff scenario. The team could definitely receive a boost from such a cauldron of noise and support.
Slovaks are proud of their history and eager to share it with visitors, but they also want to prove that they can still topple the big teams when it matters. Building a team that selects from a pool of mostly Slovakian players is an interesting concept, and while that may limit Slovan in some ways, it benefits them in the public's eye as a true Slovakian team.
Similarly built teams have had success in other sports, mainly the Basque region in football with Athletic Bilbao, so it is possible, and the local fans really enjoy it. It also gives players a local place to play professionally, on a team they supported growing up, and where friends and family can see them regularly.
I enjoyed my time in Bratislava enormously, and if you have the opportunity to go to Europe, I can recommend Bratislava for a lot of reasons, among them the ice hockey history, and the new stories being written.