LIPTOVSKY MIKULAS, Slovakia – There can be comparisons made between the team he signed for and the player himself. Last season, Robin Kovar was stuck in the Czech second division desperately trying to get his career back on track. At the same time, MHK 32 Liptovsky Mikulas had just finished its season as bottom dweller in the Slovakian Extraliga. Seven months later, the sun is shining on both of them.
During the summer of 2008, Kovar and Liptovsky Mikulas came to the rescue of each other and the result speaks for itself. The Slovakian team has been the leader of the pack chasing high-flying HC Kosice all season. A position which is fairly new as they haven’t reached the playoffs in a decade.
“This season has been great so far,” the Czech forward said. “Nobody expected us to play so well but we have a good group of guys that are almost like family.”
So, locker room chemistry once again is the key, or is there more?
“Well, another factor is our coach (Mojmir Trlicik). He’s a really smart coach who teaches us new things. He creates a new strategy for each game and as a result, we play a different style each game. When we beat HC Kosice nobody would believe it but he found a strategy to win, he makes us believe,” Kovar said.
This season’s success marks another high in the rollercoaster career of the Czech native.
Robin Kovar grew up in a small village, Valasske Mezirici, where he was brought to the rink by his father who was a hockey player on the local team. Instantly, he was fascinated with the sport.
“Hockey was the only thing on my mind those days. As soon as I started playing I loved it and I knew this was the thing I only wanted to do.”
It didn’t take long before his talents were discovered. Kovar quickly became the talk of the town alongside another talented player, Josef Vavra. It came as no surprise that both were quickly snapped up by HC Vsetin, back then atop the Czech league. The team, coached by Jiri Hudler’s father, was looking to build on a strong group of prospects in all age categories and the two ten-year-old Valasske Mezirici gems made a perfect fit.
Soon, the pair proved to be too good to play against kids their age and they were bumped up to older teams as under-aged players. It was only a matter of time until the pair would make their debut in the Extraliga.
Kovar still looks back on his spell in Vsetin as one of his favorites. “I had a great time there. We were the best team in the league and we won three junior league championships,” he remembers. “I also watched the stars playing on the first team, I didn’t miss a single game and it was my dream to play on the same level as they did.”
Inevitably his progress was noticed North America. The Vancouver Giants lured him across the pond, but unfortunately for both Kovar and the Giants, things didn't turn out perfectly. Faced with the culture shock of coming from a small town to a metropolitan city, and the obvious language barrier, Kovar struggled to make an impact.
“Actually when I look back now, I don’t think I made the right decision as I wasn’t ready for it,” he admits. “I wasn’t in good shape and suffered an injury that summer. I should have waited one or two years before moving over but I was really excited to go there, to try something new. I’m just mad at myself that I didn’t play better which I could have done.”
Although he enjoyed life in Vancouver, he realized the consequences of not living up to the expectations. “My dream was always the NHL and perhaps I closed the door after those two seasons.”
Added to that, there was another reason that limited his chance to make it to the big show. Kovar is one of the few players who can say he was drafted for just one day.
The Edmonton Oilers drafted him in 2002 but Kovar’s agent had not registered him for the draft. The pick was allowed by the NHL computer, but despite protests from the Oilers, it was deemed illegal.
“It was funny and disappointing at the same time,” Kovar says. “You wait 18 years to get drafted and then this happens. I couldn’t believe it. My agent told me not to worry as I would be drafted the following year.”
But he wasn’t and Kovar was left with just draft day memories. “I guess I didn’t play well enough to get drafted again. Nobody would have guaranteed that I would have made the NHL if I was drafted but it would have made things easier. So my chances were limited.”
After a short spell back home, Kovar once again tested his skills in the Western Hockey League with the Regina Pats but was not offered a try-out in an NHL camp after that season.
But once again after rain there was sunshine for him. Kovar was offered a new contract by Vsetin during the NHL lock-out season and played in a league full of Czech NHL stars.
“I had the chance to play in the Extraliga with all the big names, including my idol Jaromir Jagr. It was probably the best time I had in hockey.”
Unfortunately, Vsetin struggled financially and could no longer pay him even though he would have liked to stay with the team. To keep an income he signed for HC Zlin. A decision he still regrets today.
“This was probably the worst period in my career,” Kovar says. “Nothing worked for me and I couldn’t get along with the coach. At that time I was kind of sick of hockey.”
Kovar left Zlin and tried to pick up his career in the second-tier league. “I didn’t want to stay in that league for another year so I was delighted to get a phone call from Trlicik. I knew the Slovakian Extraliga would be a new chance for me to improve and to date I think I made the right decision.”
After 35 games, Kovar has battled through a few injuries but still has eight goals and 19 points. “Of course it’s nice to rack up a lot of points but the main factor is we all play for Liptovsky Mikulas to do well.”
To date, MHK32 Liptovsky Mikulas ranks fourth, two points behind third-ranked HKm Zvolen and 17 behind leader HC Kosice. They have already opened up a 22-point gap to the first non-playoff spot, virtually locking an extension to the season.
His team’s current position is quite a novelty. They haven’t reached the playoffs in a decade and were fighting relegation nearly every season the last ten years.
“We just try to keep our feet on the floor and get the points where we can. We don’t care if we finish second or fourth as long as we make the playoffs. Anything can happen there. Especially at home when our 4,000-seat arena is packed and extremely noisy.
“I have a contract until the end of the season but if they offer me a new contract I’ll probably sign it. I like this place and we’re on our way to build something special.”
Thousand miles away from where he dreamed to be, Robin Kovar has accepted the way his career has gone. Like the majority of drafted players, even if just for a single day, it turned out that there was no NHL future for him. For these players, it’s necessary to get their minds focused on playing hockey at another level.
Kovar did just that and found new joy in Slovakia hoping to stop the rollercoaster that marked his career.Notebook:
- Josef Vavra has retired from hockey. “He’s working in his father’s company and travels a lot,” Kovar says. “I think he made a wrong decision to quit, but that’s life. I hope to see him again next summer.”
- The Slovakian government has ensured money in 2010 and 2011 to reconstruct the Ondrej Nepela Ice Rink. The arena will be the main stage during the 2011 IIHF World Championship. The reconstruction is targeted to last 18 months and the whole project, including infrastructure changes will cost approximately 85 million Euros. The capacity will be increased to 10,000 seats and five smaller rinks will be built. Reigning champion Slovan Bratislava rents the arena for their home games. During the reconstruction, they will move elsewhere, likely to Ruzinov.
- Former NHLer and national team player Robert Svehla returnêd to hockey. Already a major shareholder, the 40-year-old is the new assistant coach of Dukla Trencin. The team is currently in eighth place. Dukla’s management hopes Svehla's signing will revive the team.
- The Slovakian U20-team that plays in the Extraliga finished fourth at the World U20 Championship. TIt was the second-best result ever after a bronze medal in 1999. Goaltender Jaroslav Janus was named to the Media All-Star Team while Tomas Tatar caught the eye of NHL scouts with seven goals and eleven points. He ranked third in goal scoring.
- MHC Martin replaced coach Ladislav Slizak with Dusan Gregor. The new coach brings a wealth of experience in the Slovakian league, previously coaching Dukla Trencin, HC Kosice and MHK Zilina. Recently, he coached HC Liberec. Gregor signed a contract through this season. Radek Jakubik is his new assistant. Jakubik lost his spot at Dukla Trencin with the arrival of Robert Svehla.