Vladimir Maximov is one of a dozen of Russian journalists making an organized by the KHL media-tour to Prague and Bratislava. He worked in the CSKA press service while Jan Marek was a player at the club, and shares his memories of the Czech forward.
I’ve never made friends among hockey players. There are those I know and who know me, and whose sporting success I follow. I’ll help someone set up their computer, someone else sends their regards having moved to another team, and I was even invited to the home of a certain goaltender from Canada, but I didn’t make the trip. The kind of things you do with acquaintances, but not friends.
I was far from happy when CSKA signed Jan Marek. I knew little about the man himself, and moreover his hockey achievements were somewhat overshadowed by a whiff of scandal about his time at Magnitogorsk. There were stories that he’d had a brawl with someone, conflict with someone else – of course, no-one needs guys like that in their team.
One has to be a little reserved when meeting strangers, but when I first encountered Marek he impressed me. He was helping Peter Caslava and Karel Pilar get kitted out, and he was very courteous to our service staff.
The problems started almost straight away, in the form of injury – the worst start for any team. There was a great deal of expectation from Marek, as one of the leaders of the team, and unusually for a hockey player he somehow took it very much to heart.
During a run of defeats I found a few seconds after one game to find some simple words in support of Marek. You know the kind: play your own hockey, keep trying, success will come. Like in those American movies, where the school team made up of losers suddenly turns the corner and becomes state champion. For Jan these words unexpectedly struck a chord, and he started to share with me his concerns. He said for this kind of money one should score into an empty net. He said he was sick of failing to convert the coach’s plans into action. It seemed he deeply regretted his move. In the end, he said it wasn’t that he had chosen the wrong team, but that CSKA had chosen the wrong player.
Then came the interview with Sovietsky Sport, in which Marek allegedly said that his CSKA comrade, Yan Stastny, was playing the kind of hockey you would find in the Czech second division. Marek later distanced himself from the remarks in a speech to the entire team, and he and Stastny shook hands, but even this did not completely clear the air. Suddenly, the club announced that Marek was to miss the derby against fierce Moscow rivals Spartak as a punishment. We went to general manager and head coach Sergei Nemchinov and gave a defense of Marek, as a result of which Nemchinov gave Jan a place in the side, a heart-to-heart talk, and a bottle of wine from hockey legend and vintner Igor Larionov. And in the second minute of the game, Marek dispossessed a Spartak player and sent a sublime pass to none other than Yan Stastny, who scored and seconds later was hugged by Marek like you hug your best friend but not some barely known Czech second division player.
A happy ending to the story? No. CSKA once again crumbled and suffered a humiliating defeat. Fairy tales are few and far between in real life.
But there is always a light at the end of even the longest, darkest tunnel. CSKA snapped the losing streak and embarked on a run of victories, the most precious of which was against Dynamo Moscow. I recalled the old saying about failure having few friends but success having many.
After the triumph over Dynamo I had no chance of getting near Marek. He had scored the game-winner and was being warmly congratulated by one and all, even club president Vyacheslav Fetisov. And I had no urge to join in – I wasn’t Marek’s analyst or his agent; I was just someone who had expressed a few words of support.
While I stood quietly in the corner of the vast CSKA changing room, I felt a gentle dig in the ribs and in that Czech-accented Russian familiar to every hockey fan I heard the words: “This day means nothing. But for what you did in those days – thank you, friend!”
There was to be no miraculous, Hollywood-style recovery for CSKA. The team languished well below the play-off zone for the rest of the season, and when the deadline approached the leading players were put up for sale. Marek was on his way to Atlant.
At first all went well, but then things started to go wrong agsain. There were reports of an injury, but whatever the reason his form had deserted him. He was anonymous in four appearances against Severstal in the first round of the play-offs, and on the 8th of March he only played 10 minutes against SKA, during which he contrived to earn a -3. Soon the Petersburg men had a 3-1 lead in the series and it seemed a sad end to Jan’s season was looming.
I had half a mind to phone him, or write a few words of encouragement, but I did not wish to overestimate my importance in Marek’s life and decided not to bother him during the play-offs. On the 16th I almost choked on my breakfast from surprise when Marek himself called me.
“Hi! My wife is defending her thesis in Prague; she’s studying journalism. They said to her that since her husband has played for the Red Army then she may as well write the club’s history for her thesis. She found nothing on the Internet. Can you help?”
Of course I agreed to help, but more importantly I told him my favorite story, one which has always helped me to find inner strength and believe in myself:
Alexander Suglobov arrived at CSKA in season 2007-08, when the roster had never been stronger. It was hard for him to make an impact as he was on his way back from a serious injury, he was in the fourth line, and the search for his replacement for the following year was already underway. CSKA qualified for the play-offs and were up against Ak Bars, and in Game 1 received a 0-6 hammering from the Kazan men. CSKA went into Game 2 like an army making a last stand. Midway through the second period, with CSKA trailing 1-5, the coach decided it was time to shuffle his pack. Suglobov found himself in the first line, and what followed? What followed was the kind of hockey I’ve never seen in my life since that day. CSKA’s men regrouped, fought their way back, and Suglobov completed a hat-trick by leveling the score with a short-handed goal. That game was the turning point in Suglobov’s career at CSKA, with whom he was to spend three more seasons and become a favorite with the fans.
CSKA, by the way, lost the game 5-6.
“To be a champion, you have to give your all in every shift in every game,” I said to Marek. “Just one game can change everything, not least the way you see yourself.”
“We said our goodbyes, and at 18:50, ten minutes before the start of the Atlant vs. SKA play-off Game 5, and straight away this SMS arrived: “I’ve just understood what you said. Thank you. This will be my game.”
SKA soon took the lead, but Marek equalized. He had more ice time than anyone else and Atlant won. Game 6 was a 2-1 home victory for Atlant, with Marek scoring both goals. I hardly need to tell you that in the seventh and deciding clash, Marek was on the ice when the unfashionable team from Mytischi knocked the mighty SKA out of the play-offs.
This was followed by the Conference final against Lokomotiv, in which the Marek – Bulis – Irgl line stole the show, and then the final of the Gagarin Cup against Salavat Yulaev, when Marek was the star of the team and the series top scorer, despite being on the losing side. In the fifth and final game it was Jan who scored Atlant’s leveler, because he knew that one game can decide everything.
Relations between us stayed warm and cordial throughout this time, and even though in the series against Lokomotiv I was shouting for Yaroslavl, I was also cheering on Jan Marek. At last, I finished the thesis, Jan finished the season, and we met each other again.
We were standing on the steps in front of CSKA’s arena and squinting from the April sun. The weather was still fresh, but we were both already dressed for summer. Marek said he was unlikely to stay at Atlant and wanted a move back to Sparta Prague. After a pause, he asked how much I wanted for my services. I refused to accept money from him:
“I was doing something I love doing, and which interested me. How could I accept money for that? And it would be good if you had at least one thing good to look back on when you remember your season at this club.”
He suddenly turned and looked straight into the blinding sunlight. I could see what was on his mind. He was thinking about his wife, Lucia, with whom he fell in love in the first grade and to whom he only confessed his love in the eleventh. Thinking that even today you can bring someone good news, with no strings attached, but just because someone wishes you well.
“My whole family owes you a dluh, Vladimir. I don’t know how to translate the word, but it’s like a debt, only different. Just remember that we’re always around. If you’re ever in Prague, you must come and visit us,” said Marek, and he headed off to the exit gates, where the sunshine was making the puddles look like golden rivers.
I wasn’t planning to go to Prague, but then and there I got the feeling I’d go there someday. And I felt I’d found a true friend in a hockey player – something I never would have believed.
Life is seldom like a movie or a play. We don’t receive bad news standing center stage, in the spotlight, accompanied by somber music. I heard about the Lokomotiv disaster sitting in a fast food joint. I got a call from a close friend, a very stoic and calm individual, and he was close to sobbing as he passed on the news. I hurried back to work, and I wish I could forget the following days, but I never will.
“It’s a real tragedy for us this year – no snow, so the tourists are disappointed. It’s unusual for the Czech Republic,” the customs man moaned to me at Prague airport.
I was calm. The next day was New Year, but a couple of days later I would have to face a journey which would be hard for me in every way.
To get from Prague to Jindřichův Hradec one must take two train journeys, first on national rail and then on a regional branch line. The first takes you past immaculate villages, tiny old hamlets with their chapels, then fields and forests, and even a farm where they nurture Christmas trees. The sun shone down on smiling locals waiting at little stations.
The regional train boasted all of 40 seats, and several of the stops were in the middle of barren fields. Through the windows were views of abandoned villages, swamps, and patchy forests.
Leaden rainclouds began to cover the sky and followed me to Jindřichův Hradec. Once, in the little town of Staiti (pop. 335) in southern Italy, I thought to myself: surely, this is the edge of the Universe. Now I began to have my doubts. Passers-by quickened their step when I tried to speak in English, German or Russian.
From the station we somehow managed to hail a taxi. The young driver was full of youth and enthusiasm but his only ‘foreign’ language was Slovakian. Since the Czech word ‘hřbitov’ bears little resemblance to the Russian ‘kladbishche’ (graveyard), it was with some difficulty that we communicated our destination.
When I arrived the cemetery was deserted – no workers, no guards, no visitors. Eventually I found two locals who knew a few words of German and they kindly took me to Jan Marek’s grave.
Jan’s final place of rest was right by the edge of a road, under a tree - a modest cross, a hockey stick and some flowers. It was adorned with lighted candles – December 31 would have been Jan’s birthday, and the locals had obviously chosen that day to visit him. A squally wind was howling and the rain beat down mercilessly, turning the pathways of the cemetery into rivers of mud.
Something in me trembled when I saw the cross. It was as if I had seen an old friend and had a lot to tell him. I had done what I wanted to do and should have done. I had come to see him. I wasn’t saying goodbye; I was saying hello again.