It’s fairly safe to say that football is the favourite sport in many countries, but for many in the Czech Republic, ice hockey (lední hokej) is even more important than football.
The modern ice hockey started in Canada and the the game spread later to Europe, where it became popular particular in countries with sufficient natural ice cover in winter for matches. These days the game is played indoors. Matches are fast-paced and physical, and can last up to three hours.
Ice hockey has a cult following in the Czech Republic, and even the smallest town has a “winter stadium” (zimní stadion), where games are played. At the national level, the biggest teams, including the Slavia Praha and Sparta Praha, play in the Czech Extraliga. At the international level, the Czech team competes in the World Ice Hockey Championships, held in the late spring. Even if you don’t know much about ice hockey, you’ll certainly notice the special atmosphere when the Czech team is playing, if you’re in Prague during the championships. And if the Czech team wins, you can expect a carnival atmosphere on Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
The Czech men’s national ice hockey team is one of the world’s best and is currently ranked fifth by the International Ice Hockey Federation, after Finland. The team has won numerous titles, including a famous gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. It has also won gold three times in a row at the ice hockey world championships, from 1999 to 2001.
Previously Czechs and Slovaks played together in the Czechoslovak National team, which won many victories, including famously twice over the Russians at the World Ice Hockey Championships in 1969. These matches acquired a special significance after the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968.
Czech players are among the best in the world. As a result, they’re much in demand, and after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 many were snapped up by the big American and Canadian teams. Some Czechs also play in the Russian league. The most famous Czech hockey “expat” is Jaromír Jágr, one of the world’s best players.