One of Hockey’s Youngest Stars Reflects on His Ascent

Liberec Tiger is a media darling, but still hears “Gypsy” trash talk in the arena

 By Esther Chao

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Dominik Lakatos on the ice for his first season with the Liberec White Tigers. Photo courtesy of Jiri Princ.

Practice. Gym. Lunch. Xbox. More practice. Dinner. Sleep. Repeat.

Dominik Lakatos described his schedule as if it was the most routine day in the world. As he swiped his key card and switched on the lights of the empty locker room at Liberec’s Home Credit Arena, one of the Czech Republic’s leading sports venues, he seemingly forgot that exclusive access to hockey arenas isn’t normal.

“Have you ever been in an NHL locker room?” he asked through a translator.

At just 19 years old, Lakatos plays for both the Liberec White Tigers and the Czech Republic’s national junior hockey team. Multiple news outlets reported his selection for the national team last December, including MladafrontaDnes (MfD), a major Czech daily, because Lakatos was the first Roma hockey player to join the national team for the Czech Republic—a country that has been consistently criticized by human rights groups for mistreatment of its Roma minority.

Since the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993, following the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism, the Czech Republic has established itself as part of the world’s unofficial group of the strongest men’s hockey countries known as the “Big Six.” The group also includes Canada, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States. The Czech team won the gold medal at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan and have won six world championships within two decades.

Lakatos, a 5’11” dark-haired, scruffy looking teenager dressed in sweats for an interview, wishes to be a part of this hockey success, hoping to one day play for the men’s national team. Fortunately, the public and coaches began to take note of his abilities as a center this past year.

“Forwards and wingers like to play with him because he creates opportunities for them.”

He’s had seven goals and four assists in the 36 games he’s played throughout his first season with the Liberec White Tigers’ A-team. During the playoffs that began earlier last month, he has one goal and three assists entering the finals that began last Thursday against Sparta Prague.

“He’s creative, smart,” said Jakub Petr, the head coach of the national junior hockey team, in a phone call. “He can anticipate a situation a couple steps before it happens. Forwards and wingers like to play with him because he creates opportunities for them. As a player, I would love to play with him.”

Such a glowing professional accolade contrasts the image many Czechs have of Roma, thought to have emigrated from India around 800 years ago. Surveys repeatedly show that they are stereotyped as being lazy and thieving.

The Council of Europe has estimated there are approximately 250,000 Romani living in the Czech Republic. Making up roughly 2 percent of the population, they are one of the largest minorities in the Czech Republic, a relatively homogenous country.  They are also a large minority across Eastern Europe.

Roma are stigmatized in everyday life through real estate ads that announce “building without Romani tenants,” overrepresentation in schools for students with mild mental disabilities, and even causal reports of verbal abuse through tram windows and on the streets. The European Commission revealed in 2014 that 32 percent of Romani people living in the Czech Republic have been physically assaulted or threatened because of their ethnicity.

Although there are no discriminatory laws enforcing segregation, Roma often live in disadvantaged areas marked by higher unemployment rates and poor living conditions. A government report in October 2015 concluded that half of the Roma in the Czech Republic met the government’s definition of social exclusion, according to Amnesty International.

But none of these statistics seem to have affected Lakatos’ hockey ambitions.

Originally from Kolin, Lakatos, whose mother is Czech and father is Romani, did not grow up in a predominantly Roma community. He played for the local boys hockey team and, while he claims his ethnicity has never been an issue in his hockey career, he told MfD in January that some schoolmates did remind him of his ethnicity and called him “gypsy.”

“No one knew what my dad had experienced, what he had given up to enable me to play hockey and live a normal life”

Roma children who attend ethnically-mixed schools say they often face varying degrees of bullying and harassment. A 2013 survey among more than 1400 students in the Czech Republic from the ages of 12 to 15 reported that one-third said they would never have a Roma friend and 40 percent would participate in an anti-Roma rally in their town, according to Scio, an educational think-tank.

Reflecting on his own experiences, Lakatos told the Czech daily that he minded his schoolmates’ comments because of his father. “No one knew what my dad had experienced, what he had given up to enable me to play hockey and live a normal life,” he said.

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Dominik Lakatos, the first Roma player on the Czech national hockey team. Photo courtesy expres.cz.

Lakatos’ “normal” life involved moving to Liberec without his parents and younger sister when he was 12 years old. He stayed in a hostel paid for by the Liberec White Tigers, a team in the Extraliga—the Czech Republic’s version of the NHL. There, he played for the team and attended school with other sponsored athletes at the “hockey academy.”

“That’s the hardest thing I’ve done—moving here [to Liberec] when I was 12,” Lakatos reflected. “Because I was here alone, by myself.”

Filip Pesan, his coach for the White Tigers, revealed to MfD that Lakatos had disciplinary problems regarding breaking club rules a few years ago as a teenager. However, he acknowledges that many young players who leave their families and move to a big town face similar problems and temptations, adding that Lakatos has calmed down since.

This fall, the Liberec White Tigers’ promoted him to its A-team, where he plays alongside athletes who have competed in the NHL, Sweden, or Russia and are world champions. The team has done remarkably well during Lakatos’s first season, currently ranked first heading into playoffs. As the youngest player on the team, he finds this experience indescribable and his teammates’ advice invaluable.

“In practices, I look at them so I can get better on the ice, off the ice, everything,” Lakatos said. “Before a game, they talk with me and tell me what I should do. They’re always trying to give me advice and share their experience—always.”

Their guidance helped Lakatos this past winter when he was selected for the Czech Republic’s national junior hockey team and competed in the World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland. He plays the center position, or what Coach Petr calls the “brain of the unit.”

In his first goal of the championships against Slovakia, Lakatos skated across the rink, leading his teammates. Noting the defenders approaching, he quickly passed the puck and subtly coasted backwards towards the goal. When the puck returned to him within two seconds, he spun slightly and whipped it into the net, throwing his arms up in excitement and skating into a team huddle.

“I like players like him,” Coach Petr said. “I like his style. He’s creative. He can express himself on the ice by enjoying the situation. It’s not only about goals or victories but he really enjoys his time on the ice.”  

When Lakatos isn’t playing for the national team or Liberec’s A-team, he plays on the B-team with his best friend, Radek Hubacek. At the end of a pre-game preparation that involves playing Call of Duty or NHL on Xbox, they perform a secret handshake right after warm-up.

When asked to demonstrate, the two friends rose from their chairs in the locker room and
slapped their hands together three times—releasing a dramatic “ahhhh” after the third clap, staring at their clenched fists as if feeling the new-found energy in their veins.

Lakatos’ ability to have fun while dealing with pressure amounted to two goals at the World Junior Championships in December. His noteworthy performance captured media attention and thrust him into the spotlight.

“He was really busy with the media,” Coach Petr remarked. “He had huge support from the Czech Republic and was one of the favorites of the fans.”

Most headlines, however, seem to focus on his ethnicity rather than his performance. Expres.cz, an online site resembling Buzzfeed, posted, “Czech Roma has its first representation in hockey! Where did he come from and who is he?” In response to an article on iSport.cz titled, “Lakatos to talk about his origin: a person is born with nothing he can do about it,” many commenters were annoyed about the mention of his ethnicity at all.

Facebook user Jiri Ladr wrote, “Dominik plays super and you are unnecessarily addressing his origins.”

Another commenter, Petr Matousek, elaborated, “Journalists should realize that people don’t condemn Roma for their skin color but for their way of life. But this guy is definitely not categorized in this group of idlers and freeloaders. So boy, good luck with whatever you are doing and giving your country a good name.”

Coach Petr regarded this emphasis on Lakatos’ ethnicity as a “media thing,” but Lakatos said he is still occasionally reminded of his Roma ethnicity, both teasingly by his teammates and during “trash talk” on the ice by his competitors.

“When you are here in the locker room, I knows it’s fun,” Lakatos revealed. “But when I’m playing against another team and they call me ‘Roma,’ it’s different, you know?”

His heroes outside of hockey? His mom and dad, who still live in Kolin.

There is a negative perception of Roma throughout the Czech Republic and other European countries, such as Poland, Greece, and Italy, as an uneducated minority with heavy reliance on government support and higher rates of unemployment and crime. While some statistics support those claims, Roma advocates argue that racism is one of the greatest barriers to success.

“Vicious circles of poverty, unemployment, social segregation, poor housing conditions and prejudices make it extremely hard to find internal motivation to break through it,” said Martin Martinek, head of the Government Council for Roma Minority Affairs, in an email.

While organizations like his can implement strategies to better these situations, Martinek recognizes a more psychological issue.

“The majority of society has difficulties with acceptance of the ‘different others’, yet the situation is improving,” Martinek said. “Unfortunately mutual trust is still lacking. This needs to change and positive examples such as Mr. Lakatos and many others might definitely help.”

Lakatos wishes to continue advancing his hockey career and prefers discussing hockey over his ethnic origins.

“It’s a good feeling to be on the junior national team,” Lakatos said. “It’s a small dream to be there, but it’s also a small step towards being selected for the men’s national team. Everything’s a small step.”

When Lakatos’ grandfather, who had played for a local hockey team in Kolin, first taught him how to ice skate on a pond, the young boy told his mother’s father he liked hockey—and he wished to play it at the professional level.

The NHL, according to Lakatos, is the best league in the world. The league reports 71 players last season were from the Czech Republic. Lakatos hopes to be one of them.

“He has the potential to play in the NHL if his head is screwed on right,” said Ales Parez, his strength and conditioning trainer at the Liberec White Tigers. “He’s making progress. He’s doing really well. It’s not about talent, it’s about hard work. He has the potential to play if he stays focused and works hard.”

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Lakatos prepares to play, game-face on. Photo courtesy of Jiri Princ.

Going to the Home Credit Arena in Liberec twice a day for stick-handling drills, strength and conditioning, and general practice, Lakatos is dedicated to putting in the necessary work. Even though he finished school with a degree in mechanical engineering, he could never see himself doing anything else other than what he’s doing right now.

“That’s a weird question,” laughed Lakatos when asked what he would be doing if he wasn’t playing hockey. “I never thought about it.”

Specifically, he wants to play for the Los Angeles Kings, the team of Anze Kopitar, a Slovenian center and Lakatos’s personal hockey hero.

His heroes outside of hockey? His mom and dad, who still live in Kolin.

Although he does not get to see his parents and sister often, he says they are “always supportive” and “proud.”

They don’t especially like hockey—relative to everyone else in the Czech Republic—but Lakatos said with a small smile on his face, “they are trying to watch because of me.”

Esther Chao is in NYU’s Stern School of Business Class of 2018. Her hometown is Pine Bush, New York.

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Categories: Culture, Europe, Spring 2016 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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