Czechs headline Reid tournament
HC Kometa Brno of the Czech Republic first European team at the 36th annual St. Albert bantam AAA tournament
Saturday, Jan 18, 2014 06:00 am
The first European team at the John Reid Memorial Tournament is honoured to be part of history.
“We’re really grateful to be here and very thankful for the invite. It’s a great experience for our kids,” said Libor Zabransky, head coach for HC Kometa Brno of the Czech Republic.
It’s the opportunity of a lifetime for the Czechs to sharpen their skills at the 36th annual St. Albert bantam AAA tournament.
“It will make us better, just to see how it works here because we don't have many chances in Europe during the season to play in tournaments,” said Zabransky, a former NHL defenceman with the St. Louis Blues. “It’s a different style of hockey here. It’s smaller rinks and we have European size rinks. They play more physical here too.
“As a coach I can see a different style of hockey so it’s great.”
With the Czechs headlining the 16-team draw the players feel like rock stars.
“We’re really excited. We love it here. We don’t have this type of competition. There are very good teams here, and so many teams too, that’s why it’s very exciting,” said captain Marek Skvrne, who was impressed with the Servus Credit Union Place facility and its three rinks.
HC Kometa recently celebrated its 60th anniversary and is home to around 300 youth hockey players in Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic.
Current NHLers from HC Kometa include Martin Havlat and Tomas Vincour.
“We are like a big organization,” Zabransky said of the first Czech Republic club to produce an NHL player, forward Jaroslav Jirik who played three games for the Blues and 53 for the team’s Central Hockey League affiliate in Kansas City in 1969/70.
Zabransky, 40, was drafted in the ninth round, 209th overall, by the Blues and in 40 games with the Blues spread over the 1996/97 and 1997/98 seasons recorded one goal, seven assists and 50 penalty minutes. He also toiled for the Worcester Icecats in the American Hockey League and in 83 games posted five goals, 23 assists and 103 PIMs before returning to the Czech Republic pro league.
“I was lucky because I got to play with guys like Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Grant Fuhr and Brett Hull. Mike Keenan was the head coach (in Zabransky’s first season). It was a great experience for me. I was in the States for three years and I learned English and a different style of hockey.”
After retirement Zabransky moved behind the bench and has coached this current group of players for a number of years as they climbed the age-group ranks. His team won its age division championship in 2013 and is highly ranked in its division this season.
“We play in the highest league in our city in my country. We are one of the top teams in the Czech Republic in our age, 2000 and ’99,” Zabransky said. “We should be in our four team (playoff) group. I hope so. I believe in my team.”
Zabransky described his team as young but very skilled.
“We don’t have big stars but we play as a team. We can move the puck in the neutral zone and power play.”
Skvrne, 14, agreed with his coach.
“We play like a team and you can see it on the ice,” said the slick centreman. “We’re not so big and tough like the other guys here.”
The Czechs opened the tournament Thursday with a tough 2-1 loss to the Okanagan Hockey Academy of Penticton and settled for a 2-2 draw against the host St. Albert Gregg Distributors in the feature game.
On Friday the Czechs were scheduled to played the Winnipeg Monarchs, with the result to determine which playoff bracket they would be slotted in for Saturday.
Skvrne has high hopes the Czechs will reach Sunday’s 2 p.m. final.
“We want to win it and we still have a chance to win it,” he said.
Visit www.johnreidmemorial.com for playoff schedules and results.
In the tournament opener for the Czechs, Jonathan Smart wired a shot from the top of the faceoff circle that rattled in off the post and past netminder Lukas Dostal for the game winner with only four seconds remaining.
“If you shot 10 shots you don’t shoot one like that. It was very lucky for them,” Skvrne said.
It was Okanagan’s second goal of the period after the Czechs opened the scoring in the second stanza. The Czechs were outshot 32-21.
“It was a great game, both sides,” Zabransky said. “I was surprised how good of a team it was against us. They made smart plays and played hard, but we could've won.”
But losing on the last shot of the game on a miscue was a gut-wrencher for the coaching staff, which includes Norm Lacombe, who coached the Sabres at the 2013 tournament and is working with HC Kometa’s pro team.
“Our defence returned to the bench and they left that side open so it was a mistake but that's young kids, 13-, 14-year-olds,” Zabransky said. “With my team, eight guys are born in 2000 so we’re losing some pounds against the big guys, but I’m very proud of them.”
Leading up to the tournament the Czechs played an exhibition against the Canadian Athletic Club on Tuesday in St. Albert and they outshot the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League team 33-25 in the 2-1 win.
“This team (Okanagan) was playing hard and more physical than in the exhibition game,” Zabransky said. “Both teams were pretty good so I’m happy we have this chance to play these great teams.”
The Czechs survived a rash of penalties in the third to gain a point against the Sabres, who twice tied it up in the last period.
“We felt very hurt by that,” Skvrne said of the officiating that left the Czechs shaking their heads in disbelief over some of the calls that went against them, which resulted in some difficult five-on-three situations in the third.
Three minutes into the second, Lukas Frydrych busted through the Sabres’ defensive pairing and found the back of the net with a great move against netminder Chris Curr.
In the third, Ryan Cooper knotted the score during a five-on-three power play with 15:35 to play.
The Czechs regained the lead on Skvrne’s goal and Zach Marano fired the equalizer with 4:08 to go after the Sabres killed off a penalty.
Shots favoured the Czechs 32-31.
“It was the second game of the day so it was very tough for us,” Skvrne said. “We played bad the first period but then we played better.”
He gave the Sabres rave reviews for their performance.
“They were a good team. They’re big and tough. They have a good goalie.”