Rangers in Prague

The New York Rangers opened their European pre-season in Prague, facing off against HC Sparta at Tesla Arena.

Unlike the NHL’s previous stops in Prague, the Rangers played in Tesla Arena for the first time, the home base of HC Sparta. In previous years, NHL teams played in O2 Arena to begin their regular season.

The Rangers are no stranger to Prague, they played against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL Premiere games in Prague back in 2008 at O2 Arena. The Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes commenced their season last year in Prague at O2. This was the first time the NHL had played at a more local rink.

While the Rangers are well admired as being an Original Six club in the NHL, Sparta’s roots begin a good 23 years before the Rangers. Sparta was founded in 1903 by a Canadian expatriate, Lyle P. O’Connor. They started off as a bandy team, which is a type of Russian ice hockey that uses a ball rather than a puck. Back then, they were called BC Sparta for Bandy Club Sparta.

It was in 1909 that they switched to playing ice hockey, thus changing their initials to HC Sparta (hockey club).

The team has been through some of the biggest events in world history, including World War I where it claimed the lives of three of their players, reducing the roster to only 8 players. But that wasn’t the only war the team faced over the course of their existence. From the World Wars, to the Czech resistance to the communist years, many players have gone down in Czech history during the political turmoil throughout the course of the 20th century. Several players were even involved in the Czech resistance where they had a hand in the assassination of a German Nazi General and 17 Italian ambassadors.

Cue the 300‘s “This is Sparta,” and you have the roots of HC Sparta. They were fighters, soldiers, and participated in some of the largest political upheavals that their home country had ever faced…yet they were also hockey players.

For the Rangers, they don’t have such a colorful history filled with wars, political resistance or assassinations happening on their own soil. They’ve only had 9-11, where the biggest tragedy known in America brought two towers down in their hometown.

For the Rangers, there is pride in being in New York. They’ve faced tragedy as a team, and embraced the police officers, firemen and the people of New York as if they were somehow part of who they are as a hockey club. That is the New York Rangers.

Another tragedy that affected the entire hockey community recently was the plane crash that killed the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team last month.  Karel Rachunek, a former New York Ranger, perished in that flight.  His two brothers Ivan and Tomas both play for Sparta.

Heading to a local rink in Prague is not the normal fare for the Rangers. Tesla Arena opened its doors back in 1962, just six years prior to the current Madison Square Garden opening in New York City.

The wear and tear of Tesla Arena can be seen in every direction you turn. They use mainly old benches that you pull down from the wall, rather than regular seats throughout most of the arena (VIP sections have seats).

This being a European rink, the Rangers were faced with playing on bigger ice. That was one advantage that Sparta believed could be a serious advantage to them against the Rangers. That plan didn’t necessarily work out to their benefit as they had hoped.

The game started off in true Sparta style, with men in 300 garb (i.e. similar to the movie). Spartans marched out with torches blazing in hand. The arena was jam packed with Sparta fans, drums booming and flags flying high. This is hockey in the Czech Republic.

Martin Biron was given the nod for the Prague game so that Henrik Lundqvist could start in Gothenburg, Sweden when he faces his former club, the Frolunda Indians, on Friday.

“The challenge for me is going to be to focus on my job,” Lundqvist said of playing in Gothenburg.

“It’s fun,” he said of being able to take the night off from Sparta. “I get some time to chill, to take the team around a little bit on Saturday.”

This marked Biron’s first hockey game since his injury last season that took him out of playing hockey for over seven and a half months. This game was a good test for Biron to see if he’s ready to play again. After a Rangers shutout, you could say his confidence to play is definitely at the forefront.

With a scoreless first period, the Rangers were able to start off the scoring in the second period with a goal from Artem Anisimov at 5:45. Ruslan Fedotenko followed at 8:30 with a power play goal.

That was all the Rangers needed to defeat Sparta. Even when Sparta called a timeout with only a couple of minutes left in the game, they were still no even match for the NHL.

The Rangers now head to Gothenburg, Sweden where Lundqvist will play host to the New York Rangers by taking them around and showing them his town. He’ll be serving as their tour guide.

Afterwards, they’ll head to Bratislava, Slovakia on October 2, followed by Zug, Switzerland on October 3. That’s four countries in five days during their pre-season. They’ll then begin the season in Stockholm versus the L.A. Kings on Friday, October 7 followed by the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday, October 8.

An American in Prague

While I’ve been writing stories and talking to a lot of ex-pats over the years about transplanting themselves in Prague, it’s not so often that I get to talk to an American hockey player that has decided to make the jump across the pond to play in Prague.

Alex Foster signed with the Maple Leafs organization after college, and later became the captain of the Toronto Marlies. His father, Dwight Foster, is also a former NHL player who played for the New Jersey Devils, Boston Bruins, Colorado Rockies and Detroit Red Wings. His uncle is Wes Jarvis, who played for the Leafs, Washington Capitals, L.A. Kings and the Minnesota North Stars.

With NHL roots in his family, the Foster kids were exposed to hockey at a young age. Alex started skating at the age of three and then went on to play in organizational hockey around the age of five in Michigan.

“The first step is a parent putting you into a sport, if you go that route,” Foster explained. “Obviously, [my dad] played hockey, so he wanted to give us the opportunity to see if we liked hockey. It caught on for me and one of my older brothers (he was a goalie). It caught on for us. We kept playing. Whether we played hockey, baseball or any sport, or played the piano, whatever, they were supportive.

“I played baseball growing up through high school, but then it was baseball or hockey. You had to pick one.”

Alex left the Maple Leafs organization during free agency this past summer and signed with HC Sparta. While moving to a whole new country with your fiancee can seem a bit scary, they’re not the only ones in the Czech Republic. His sister, Gen Elkins, is also in the Czech Republic with her husband, Corey Elkins, who plays for HC Pardubice (NHLers Milan Hejduk and Petr Sykora are just a couple of players who list Pardubice as their former club).

Just how does a Michigan native adjust to a new life in a foreign country?

“I thought it was going to be a lot different,” he said of the difference of moving to Prague. “You hear about oh, be careful, there’s a language barrier, this and that, pick pocketing, watch whatever town you’re going to. You go to a lot of areas that are very touristy, clean…it’s beautiful here. Obviously, it’s different. There are changes here and there, but you adjust very quickly, especially young people. A lot of people speak very good English. It’s exciting, but it’s new. It’s a lot of fun.”

“I’m finally getting used to the bigger ice,” Foster said. “I thought today we might have had a little bit of advantage with their team not being used to it as much. They played really well. From back home, you can see the big difference in skills, transitioning from American style hockey, and like the bigger rinks. It’s a bit of a change.

“It’s exciting,” he said playing against the Rangers. “I’ve played in a couple of games in regular season and a couple of games in exhibition. You always wonder what it would be like to play against the top guys. They had a pretty complete lineup tonight. I played against Brad Richards…Gaborik. We did end up losing obviously, but I thought it was a good game for us. It was exciting.”

Is Sparta equally matched against the Rangers?

“Maybe it’s a little bit more work,” he said. “I can’t say that we’re evenly matched otherwise a lot of our guys would be in the NHL. It was a good game.”

Alex’s parents were also in attendance at the exhibition game.

You can follow Alex on Twitter: @Alex23Foster