Slovakia’s Tipsport Liga is ready to welcome back one of its most titled clubs following Slovan Bratislava’s return to the fold.
The eight-time Slovak champion – a record shared with HC Kosice – dropped out of the Russian-operated Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) at the end of last season after seven years due to financial problems. At the start of August, the executive committee of the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation (SZĽH) reported that it would support Slovan’s application for a licence to play in the national league. The decision was formalised by the newly-formed League Council – comprising Miroslav Satan, Igor Guryca and Richard Lintner – earlier this week.
Slovan will feature in the Tipsport Liga curtain-raiser on 12 September when it travels to play HC Kosice at the Steel Arena. The venue was also the setting for the Bratislava club’s last game in the competition when it won its eighth title in a game seven showdown against its traditional championship rival in 2012. The game, which will also be screened live on Slovak TV, was described as a perfect start by Satan.
“We will take off in style,” he said. “I’m sure that the opening game between Kosice and Slovan will attract a big crowd to the Steel Arena and a big TV audience. It will be the perfect start to a rich season of Extraliga hockey in 2019/20."
The key issue for Slovan ahead of its application for a new license was a series of debts built up towards the end of its time in the KHL. The club owed money to the city authorities in Bratislava for the rent of the Ondrej Nepela Arena, and also owed salary payments to several players. The arena rent was settled in June and Miroslav Valicek, General Secretary of the Slovak Hockey Federation, confirmed that the outstanding salary payments had also been made.
The club has also secured a new deal with Bratislava’s city authorities and will continue to play at the Ondrej Nepela Arena in the coming season to continue domestic top-level ice hockey at the arena three months after Finland had won the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship at the venue.
Slovan has made big changes behind the scenes ahead of the coming season. Incoming GM Juraj Bakos officially took his place in July and brings a wealth of experience from a long spell at Kosice. Bakos was involved when the club from Eastern Slovakia won a hat trick of titles from 2009-2011 before stepping down in 2017. Head coach Roman Stantien is a familiar figure at Slovan. He spent the bulk of his playing career with Vsetin in the Czech Republic but had one season in Bratislava as a player. As a coach, though, Stantien had four seasons on the staff while Slovan played in the KHL.
Bakos admitted that he was joining the club in a difficult situation but identified a recruitment strategy to bring "the Eagles" back to the heights. “We want the core [of the team] to be made of Slovak players who have already played for Slovan and have a warm relationship with the club,” he told the hcslovan.sk.
That includes people like defensive duo Andrej Meszaros and Michal Sersen. The 33-year-olds both had extensive KHL experience with the club: Meszaros was captain for two seasons, while most of Sersen’s 354 KHL appearances came with the club where he learned the game.
There are similar figures on offence. Roman Kukemberg, 39, won three Slovak championships (one with Dukla Trencin, two with Slovan) and was part of Ak Bars Kazan’s Gagarin Cup winning roster of 2010. Michel Miklik, 37, a veteran of three KHL campaigns in Bratislava, returns after a productive spell in France, while Milan Kytnar, scorer of Slovan’s first KHL goal, is back at the club. Their experience will be crucial in developing prospects like Marek Sloboda, a 21-year-old who got his chance last season and showed promise in a struggling team.
For the first time, the Slovak championship will run with 13 teams. That’s prompted a change of format. First, no team will be relegated. The champion of the 1.Liga will be promoted to join the top flight next season. Second, after 48 games of the regular season, the championship will split. The top six teams will play a further 10 games among themselves on a home-and-away round robin basis, while the teams placed 7-12 will do likewise. The club in 13th place will end its season after 48 games. Following the second phase of regular season play, the top eight clubs will contest the playoffs as usual.
Slovan joined the KHL in 2012, at the same time as Lev Prague. It was the second Slovak team to play in the competition following Lev Poprad’s single season in 2011/12. Under the guidance of head coach Rostislav Cada, Slovan made a solid start to its KHL career. The Belasi finished sixth in the Western Conference to make the playoffs in its debut campaign, before suffering a first-round sweep against a Dynamo Moscow team on its way to back-to-back titles. The club also enjoyed sell-out attendances at 25 of its 26 home games. Subsequent seasons, though, proved to be a struggle. Slovan only returned to the playoffs once in six seasons, suffering another first-round sweep at the hands of CSKA Moscow in 2016. Last season, in its final KHL campaign, Slovan managed just 10 wins in regulation time and finished rock bottom of the championship table against that background of financial uncertainty.
Original article by Andy Potts, iihf.com