Everything But the Skates

Ball Hockey Scores Street Cred in Bohemia

By Ray Paul Biron

HBC Plzen team members watch from the sidelines. Photo by Ray Paul Biron.

HBC Plzen team members watch from the sidelines. Photo by Ray Paul Biron

“You can enter over my dead body.” That is what a Soviet official told Vit Rezac when he requested to join the International Association of Street Hockey in 1988.

Unlike baseball in the Czech Republic, which had the benefit of being popular in communist Cuba, street hockey, also known as ball hockey, was seen as a sport predominantly played in the democratic, anti-communist nations of Western Europe, Canada, and the United States.

Street hockey is a modified version of ice hockey that is played on pavement without any form of skates. The rules are identical; however the arena has noticeably smaller dimensions and an orange plastic ball is used instead of a black puck.

Although not yet an Olympic sport, Street hockey is played on the international level, including world championships every two years. Since the beginning of international play in 1989 the Czech Republic has become a dominating force in the sport, winning four world championships and competing in eight of the ten finals.

“Maybe one day it will be an Olympic sport, ” said Rezac. “Maybe not in the near future, but I think so eventually. That’s our goal.”

Rezac, the Senior Vice President of the International Street and Ball Hockey Federation (ISBHF) and former member of the Czech Hockey Ball League board, has worked tirelessly for the advancement of the sport on the national and international stage. He is the idealist, with plans to tap markets in the United States, host the next world championships in the Czech Republic, and facilitate the sports growth to the youth around the world. Tomas Brezina, the general secretary of the Czech Ball Hockey Association, is the realist who works to implement these grand ideas.

Often Rezac comes up with his thoughts on the fly, one of which was sending a freelance reporter to a professional ice hockey game to interview a player who may have interest in street hockey.

“That would be very difficult, almost impossible,” replied Brezina. “You have to be from a major news agency to get into the press seats and talk to players.”

Rezac shakes his head. “I don’t do impossible.”

Both men, who hail from Prague, recall the difficulties the sport had growing in the Czech Republic during the 1980s. The sport had grown independently in Canada, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, but was hindered in Eastern Europe by Communist regimes.

“It was very hard during the ’80s because we received little support from the government,” said Rezac. “This changed with the revolution. Things became much easier for us.”

Since then, the sport has gained political and financial backing.

“We are officially recognized by the Czech Republic now,” said Rezac. “We receive around $400,000 a year from the government depending on the economy. More and more people are taking notice.”

Slamming and Sausages in Prague 13

About 16 fans, kids and dads, attended the HBC Plzen versus HC Kert Park ball hockey match one recent Saturday evening in October.

HC Kert Park’s home rink, located next to the Luziny shopping center in Prague 13, features several benches for fans to sit on and a concession stand that offers 35-koruna sausages in a small concrete building.

The players, all in their 20s and early 30’s, first stretched, then took warm-up shots on their goalie in preparation for the match, talking to each other and some interacting with the fans. Most seemed relaxed and excited to begin the match. 

Photo by Ray Paul Biron

HBC Plzen and HC Kert Park face off in Prague 13. Photo by Ray Paul Biron

About 10 minutes before the start time, the head coaches led their respective players off to discuss strategy, HC Kert Park behind a nearby hill and visiting HBC Plzen to the parking lot.

The teams returned, shaking hands and getting into position around the zebra shirted referee in the middle of the rink. There was a moment of stillness, then he dropped the bright orange ball and the match began.

The HC Kert Park, HBC Plzen match began at a fast pace with Kert Park controlling the ball predominately in the first period.

Although in some forms of street hockey the players may wear rollerblades, in Czech and international ball hockey the game is played entirely on foot. This does not slow down the speed of game due to the smaller dimensions of the rink.

Because the orange game ball is made of plastic, it is slower than a puck on ice. Both of these features allow players to maintain the high-paced tempo and intensity associated with hockey.

As the second period begins the lights are turned on, illuminating the rink and the grounds around it. By then the temperature had dropped significantly and many of the watchers bundled up. More fans arrived, surrounding the rink and crowding the concession stand, cheering mostly for Kert Park. As the period went on, HBC Plezen began to dominate the match and by the halfway point had scored the first goal of the game. Goals, like in ice hockey, are relatively hard to come by and total goals rarely exceed five. As the game went on Kert Park refused to give up, continuing to create scoring opportunities although unable to convert them into any points. The intensity picked up as players slammed each other into the boards and more than once an extra push or grab went unseen by the officials. Compared to the contact seen in ice hockey, which is played at a much higher speed, street hockey is relatively tame. However, players were still going at each other as hard as they could, looking for any way to disrupt their opponent’s path to the ball. The fans cheered on and by the end of the period there were more than 30 crowded around the rink.

Playing For Fun, If Your Boss Let’s You Escape

The Czech National Hockey Ball League itself was founded in 1989 almost immediately after the Velvet Revolution and the ISBHF was founded four years later in 1993, as many other countries throughout the world developed their own national leagues.

However, despite outstanding international success, the sport is still relatively minor on the national stage and suffering from the growing pains of any up and coming sport.

The Czech National Hockey Ball League contains 12 full teams from around the country, including two from Prague. Players are not paid; although some of the good ones receive bonuses. The coaches, likewise, have a very minimal salary. Because players are not paid, the league often becomes second priority to school and work. Consequently the majority of games have to be played on the weekend.

“Most of the players are young, between 22 and 27” said Brezina. “Once they acquire girlfriends and families it often falls off. Some players like this only play the home games.”

Brezina also recalls when one of the Czech Republic’s best players could not compete in the world championships because he could not get work off.

“That’s just how it goes,” said Brezina. “Our players have to get permission from work if they are going to travel. It is much easier for students because they can just send a note to their teacher.”

Photo by Ray Paul Biron

Sunset over the arena. Photo by Ray Paul Biron

One such student-player is HBC Plzen forward Andre Ondrej Krpal who is currently finishing his degree in Engineering at Western Bohemia University.

“I started playing when I was very young at the park with my friends. When I was 12 I saw an advertisement to play for my school so I decided to join. I love the sport, I play now for fun.” Krpal, like most other players, has never played ice hockey.

“My skating is very bad,” said Josef Kadane, former player and current head coach of HBC Plzen who was translated by one of his players. “I am not a fan of ice hockey at all.”

The rules of the two sports are relatively the same. Icing and off-sides are identical and so are the various penalties such as high sticking. There are three periods in both sports; however, the length is 15 minutes in ball hockey as opposed to 20 minutes in ice hockey. Ice hockey is still the more popular sport in the Czech Republic followed by soccer, but Rezac insists that street hockey is not very far behind.

Rezac also has plans for deeper cooperation with the United States and Canada. He and other officials have already met with the National Hockey League and he plans to start pick-up games between visiting American students in Prague and Czech teams.

Rezac, Brezina, and others are currently focused on bringing the World Championships to Plzen for 2017, but beyond that is unknown.

“Maybe one day it will be an Olympic sport, ” said Rezac. “Maybe not in the near future, but I think so eventually. That’s our goal.”

Back In the Rink

As the match comes to an end with Plzen pulling off a 1-0 victory the fans disperse and the players head to the showers inside a near by school.

One boy goes on the rink and begins kicking the soccer ball into the net. The lights stay on for about another hour, letting the concession stand close up and giving the players time to pack up their things. Many of the Kert Park players live only a few tram stops away, while Plzen players may have a little over an hour drive back home. As one of the Plzen players left the rink, a boy wearing a San Jose Sharks hat ran up and asked for his signature.

Ray Paul Biron is in the Tufts University College of Arts and Science Class of 2016. His hometown is Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

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Categories: Culture, Fall 2014 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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