This Tuesday marks 80 years that the first match was held in the country’s first national hockey league. The teams Sparta Prague and Vítkovice faced off on a natural ice rink in Ostrava-Vítkovice. Forward Vilém Kubečka scoring the very first goal but Sparta came back to tie it. For much of the month, the league, now known as the Extraliga, will be celebrating the anniversary.
Some prefer football over hockey but for many fans in the Czech Republic there is little doubt which is the national sport. The milestones in Czech hockey are indeed many: there was Czechoslovakia’s first gold at the World Championships in 1947; the country’s defeat of the Soviet Union in 1972 (symbolically important after the invasion of 1968), and Olympic gold at Nagano in 1998. This Tuesday marks another big milestone: the founding of Czechoslovakia’s top hockey league. The sport, of course, had been played in the Czech lands before Czechoslovakia was even founded; January 3rd, 1937 marked the first time a match was held within the new league system. Zdeněk Zikmund, the spokesman for the Czech Ice Hockey Association, told me more:
“Hockey was played here even when we part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and already we took part in the Worlds; but what was missing was a fully organized league. That began on this date 80 years ago. We were not the first to have a league, the Scandinavian countries were sooner, but we were sooner than Russia where they began playing what was known as ‘Canadian’ hockey after World War II.”
In Czechoslovakia, teams in the new league included not only Sparta and Vítkovice but also Poprad, Mladá Boleslav or Opava. Among the Prague clubs were Slavia and also a club known as LTC, who went on to be the first league champions and dominated over the next decade. Zdeněk Zikmund again:
“LTC stood for Lawn Tennis Club and as the name implies was made up of former tennis players. They began turning primarily to hockey in the 1930s. The club’s chairman Jindřich Citta built the team into a powerhouse which dominated from the late ‘30s, over the course of the Protectorate and for two or three years after the war ended. The record for most league titles is held by Dukla Jihlava but LTC were second with 11 titles, along with Kometa Brno.”
The very first game back in January 1937 was en plein air; indeed, the first indoor matches were only introduced in the mid-1950s and the first televised match was in 1957. All the same, outdoor matches, although now only held on special occasions, retain an undeniable attraction. Zdeněk Zikmund once more:
“The open air tradition was renewed several years ago and last year we saw a special hockey week held at Kometa Brno, who have an amazing fan base; there were junior matches, women’s matches, and two Extraliga games. The second saw a record 21,500 visitors, which not even our biggest arena can boast.”