Turbulent summer for hockey in Slovakia

Turbulent summer for hockey in Slovakia

24 Jun 2015 | Michaela Obertová
 

In the late days of June, the hockey season is usually over even for the die-hard hockey fans in Slovakia as even the last on ice hockey event - the Stanley Cup finals have finished. These weeks belong to summer preparation and acquiring of players. Nonetheless hockey is still getting its fair share of attention from Slovak media and fans alike even in these first few days of summer of 2015.

 
 
 
 

Of course, Marián Hossa has just returned home after winning his third Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks, but most of the attention is elsewhere. There are ten clubs competing in the Slovak Extraliga, yet only a handful of them are hitting the headlines with information about new incoming players. It has become somewhat of a tradition over the last few years that there are several Extraliga teams, whose fate for next season is uncertain during the summer months. Yet it was not an Extraliga club stealing the spotlight in the Slovak media over the last few weeks and months. The most focus lay with Slovan Bratislava and its future in the KHL as well as the elections of the president of SZLH (Slovak ice hockey federation), which will see the incumbent largely unpopular among fans Igor Nemeček face off with World Champion from Gothenburg 2002 Richard Lintner on the 25th of June.

Extraliga situation 

The struggles of Extraliga teams are not new and recur almost every year on a smaller or bigger scale. Prior to the 2012/2013 season for example only four clubs were granted the license for Extraliga (Košice, Banská Bystrica, Piešťany and Skalica) on the first go as the other teams had not fulfilled the conditions.Payment schedules to pay off debts towards players, coaches etc. were put in place and all the teams were allowed to participate in the 2012/2013 season. Like in a time loop the situation has been repeating itself every summer and this year is no exception. Currently three clubs stand in real danger of not playing the next season at all (Martin, Skalica and Piešťany), but the problems concern most teams. Generally it is believed that only Košice, Banská Bystrica and Trenčín don't have debts towards players from this season.

One of the clubs where the current situation is an old story is the club from Martin. The debt towards players who had not seen their pay for several months this season climbed up to more than 244,000 Euro. A further problem is the debt that the club has built during the time of its previous leadership. The future of the club should be decided on the 29thof June when the general assembly of the club will meet. At the moment the whole situation turned into a small media war between two parties within the club – the current GM Martin Kalnický (who has also gained the public support of the players and coaches) and one of the shareholders of the club Michal Taliga.

Piešťany currently don't have a single player under contract, the reason is prosaic: they might not have anywhere to play, thus it would be irresponsible to contractually bind players according to the leadership of the club. The cooling of the ice rink in Piešťany, which is property of the town of Piešťany, needs repairs and at this point it remains unknown whether the repairs will take place in time. Piešťany originally received a 1 million Euro grant from the reserves of Slovakia's prime minister. This money was intended for building a training rink in the town, which would serve as a training center for the country's national u18 and u20 team. Piešťany wanted to connect this project with the repairs of the main rink, however as they have been unable to build the training rink the grant was moved to the town of Senec, which showed willingness to invest its own resources into the project in addition to the 1 million provided by the prime minister's reserves. Just last week the president of PiešťanyLušňák announced that Piešťany wouldn't host the prestigious u18 international tournament Ivan Hlinka Memorial this year as there is no guarantee that there will be ice in Piestany by the 1st of August.

Long removed from the days when they were competing to win the Extraliga trophy under the leadership of Žigmund Pálffy, another club which was hit by this year's wave of trouble is the club from small Western Slovak town of Skalica. Its players had not seen their pay for several months during last season. A few months back the club asked for a bigger grant for their youth teams from the town of Skalica, which the town denied. As a result the youth teams were separated from the men's team and a new NGO - a youth club under the direct control of the town of Skalica and with Žigmund Pálffy as the honorary president was created. The split was caused due to the lack of transparency when it came to handling finances by the club of HK 36 Skalica. The men's team has canceled the summer preparation for next season and needs to find 600,000 Euro to fill its budget for next season if they want to play in the Extraliga. The representatives of the club have already conceded that they have also thought about the alternatives, which would see the men's team play in I. liga or II.liga. However the possibility that there will be no men's team in the town remains. Getting the needed financial support might not only show to be hard, because of the aforementioned lack of transparency, but also because despite being a town of only 15,000 citizens the local football team has recently also been promoted to the country's top football league, Fortuna liga.

The promotion of the football team from Skalica is an interesting one as the club was promoted despite being only the runner-up in the second best national football competition. This was caused by the fact that the football team from Košice was relegated from Fortuna liga after not fulfilling the criteria for next season. Many of the football clubs in Slovakia fight similar battles as the hockey clubs and it was three players who did not agree with the payment schedule for Košice paying off their debts towards them that caused Košice's demise. This is an unprecedented step in Slovak sports and one has to wonder whether we might not see a similar situation facing one of the hockey clubs in Extraliga as well somewhere down the line.

The fate of Slovan

Although playing in a superior competition to the Slovak Extraliga, in the KHL, Slovan Bratislava didn't avoid the same woes as the Extraliga clubs, not only building a debt towards players who didn't see their pay for several months, but also a debt towards the city Bratislava for not paying the rent for the Ondrej Nepela ice-rink. For long months Slovak media were filled with speculation on where Slovan would play the next season. Their efforts to play in EBEL or the Czech Extraliga were among other things halted by the fact that the Slovak federation wouldn't grant their departure to said leagues, thus leaving only two viable options for Slovan: The KHL or Slovak Extraliga. Although after all the speculation most people were convinced that Slovan would unceremoniously return to the Slovak league, just last week information about Slovan continuing in the KHL resurfaced and by this point it would be surprising to see the club from the capital play elsewhere.

Slovan has long had the reputation as perhaps the most hated club in the country among fans of other clubs, even back in its Slovak Extraliga days Slovan was the club that people just loved to hate. The hate has however taken on a whole new level with the media racket about its KHL future. What has added even more into the fire was the person of the club's owner Juraj Široký. The businessman (many would say oligarch) Široký, formerly also the president of the Slovak ice hockey federation and linked to the Czechoslovak communist secret police ŠtB, who is recently most infamous in Slovakia for the scandal Váhostav. Váhostav owes hundreds of millions of euros to plenty of small and medium-sized companies.While the ownership of Váhostav continues beyond Slovakia to countries like Cyprus or Costa Rica, according to Transparency International Slovakia there are three Slovak companies behind Váhostav, which are linked to Široký. Furthermore when the Slovak prime minister Róbert Fico visited Russia this month, he also spoke with Vladimir Putin about saving Slovan Bratislava in the KHL. Considering that Široký is generally perceived to be linked to Fico as one of the main sponsors of his party by the public in Slovakia and the situationin the Extraliga clubs this was also a thorn in the eyes of many Slovak hockey fans.

A new hope?

It might seem hard for people in Slovak hockey to look positively towards he future in this set of circumstances, yet most hockey fans in the country expect this coming Thursday with the hope for a major change for the trajectory of the sport in Slovakia. The congress of the Slovak ice hockey federation will take place on the 25th of June, which will see the election of a new president for the federation.  When Richard Lintner, who had been playing with his home team Dukla Trenčín in the Slovak Extraliga this season retired in February of this year, he claimed that he could no longer combine his on ice and off-ice activites and that he wanted to help Slovak hockey moving forward. Although we didn't learn all the details until much later, already back then Lintner started his media campaign, appearing in most Slovak media over time. It turned out that his plans to change Slovak hockey had their roots in the meeting of the World Champions from Gothenburg during the 10th anniversary of this most shining moment of Slovak hockey prior to the 2012 World Championship in Helsinki. Lintner, who had previously also worked as the colour guy as well as hockey analyst for Slovak television  during several World Championships as well as trying his hand at marketing while playing for Dukla Trenčín this season, introduced his team, which consists not only of several other World Champions Miroslav Šatan, Peter Bondra and Rastislav Pavlikovský, but also of NHL pro scouts Ján Gajdošík and Oto Haščák, former Slovak national team coach Ján Filc and includes even people like media expert Andrej Miklánek, lawyer Rastislav Železník or Peter Žifčák, founder of a project which aspires to bring ball hockey and hockey back to kids in schools before finally unveiling his program and candidacy for SZĽH president after this year's World Championships. Lintner and his team started a series of meetings with represenatives of Slovak clubs ahead of the congress, but also focused on a large media presence with the aim of getting the fans on their side with the firm belief that hockey is made for people. The other candidate, incumbent president Igor Nemeček, already largely unpopular among fans even before chose a different way, focusing solely on the representatives of clubs. After Lintner released his 24 point program, which focuses on several areas like making hockey accessible for everyone,combining hockey and education, improved marketing or introducing a salary cap (including a salary minimum) into the Extraliga, Nemeček also organised a press conference to introduce his program, which was however similar to Lintner's in many points. For example during the four yearsof his presidency Nemeček never gave much attention to the Extraliga as it saw it as the responsibility of Pro-Hokej, the organisation governing the league rather than the federation. Only since Lintner made the league one of the focal points of his campaign, did Nemeček start to show a larger interest in the league and in the prospect of the control over the league transfering from Pro-Hokej to the federation.

With less than 48 hours to go before the elections, three Extraliga clubs including Martin, Banská Bystrica and Trenčín have publically stated heir support for Lintner, as did Slovakia's top NHLers and other European players and although it's hard to quantify, Lintner seems to have won over the support of the majority of hockey fans in Slovakia. However it will be the delegates of the ice hockey federation, who will decide the fate of Slovak hockey on Thursday and Igor Nemeček has a clear cut advantage in this regard. Not only does he get a vote as the incumbent president himself, several of his co-workers and subordinates will also get a vote as the rules foresee the following represantatives with a vote:

•Three delegates from an Extraliga club
•Two delegates from a I.liga club
•One delegate from a II. liga club
•One delegate from a a Women's I.liga club
•One delegate from a club that plays in a nationwide competition
•One delegate from regional federations
•One delegate from other members of SZLH (including the INLINE hockey association)
•SZLH president
•Other members of executive committee of SZLH
•General secretary of SZLH
•Economic director of SZLH.
•Chairman of the supervisory board of SZLH
•One delegate from expert commissions of SZLH

Although another former player and current GM of the Extraliga club from Nitra has spoken out against the SZĽH epmloyees getting a vote, asking for a change of the rules, but even if such a change gets accepted, it seems extremely unlikely that it would be enforced earlier than the next elections.


Still, the fans in Slovakia are holding out hope that come Thursday afternoon they will be able to say "Hej! Spolu Sme hokej" (Hey! Together we are hockey), the motto of Lintner's campaign, when talking about the relationship between the federation and fans


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