Among Czech goalies, Jakub Kovar stands out. Since he joined Avtomobilist in 2013, the Pisek native has been a huge success — 3 All-Star call-ups and leading the league in shut-outs in 2014-2015. He’s also established himself as a real crowd favorite in Yekaterinburg, where he’s played all but one of his seven KHL campaigns. In that time, he’s played his part as the Ural club went from an Eastern Conference outsider to a team expected to compete at the top.
That progress was evident at the start of the 2018-2019 season, when Avto set a KHL record unbeaten streak at the start of the season and went on to top the Eastern Conference. During that campaign, Kovar reflected: “We started out almost from nothing but we knew that everything we making progress.” Part of that progress was a result of signing the likes of Nigel Dawes and later Pavel Datsyuk, but part was also down to the way the club developed its own players — something Kovar saw first hand. “When I came, Anatoly Golyshev and Nikita Tryamkin were just starting out,” he said. “Now they have become real leaders for Avtomobilist. The three of us are still together, like the last musketeers on the team.”
Jakub Stepanek is the only other Czech goalie to play more than 300 KHL games. He spent much of that time with SKA, but also represented Lev Prague, Severstal and Slovan in a KHL career that lasted almost a decade. His final tour of duty in our league was in Bratislava; when Slovan dropped out of the league he went back home and remains with Ocelari Trinec, where he spent most of last season.
In terms of wins, though, Stepanek is overtaken by Alexander Salak. He began on a SKA team with serious ambitions to win the Gagarin Cup, moved on to help Sibir reach the Eastern Conference final in 2015 (where only defeat to Ak Bars denied the Czech a match-up with his former Petersburg team-mates) and became something of an adopted Siberian during his three-and-a-half years in Novosibirsk. During his time at the club, the goalie was noted for jumping into his jeep and heading into the wilderness for fishing trips, or taking his family on vacation to the wild mountains of Altai. Sibir’s GM, Kirill Fastovsky, told Championat.com: “They to Altai, to Sherengesh. If you’re in Novosibirsk, these are two places that are easy to get to, and it’s the right thing to do. It’s worth taking a look, plunging into that lifestyle, and Salak is a big fan of that kind of outdoor recreation.”
More recently, injuries slowed Salak’s progress at Lokomotiv, where in 2018-2019 he dropped behind young Ilya Konovalov in the pecking order. Last season he was summoned by Dinamo Riga to try to salvage a difficult campaign. He performed strongly — notably stopping 70 out of 71 shots in back-to-back games — but could not lift the team away from the foot of the table.
When Salak moved to Sibir, he was a regular feature on the Czech national roster but after Dominik Furch came to the KHL in 2015 the Prague native took over Salak’s place. Furch was just 25 when he came to Avangard, but he played three strong seasons in Omsk, only seeing his numbers slip in his final playoff campaign in 2018. And, even when on international duty, he remained hugely popular with Avangard’s fans — despite blanking Russia in the opening game of the 2016 World Championship in Moscow. “After that Russia game I read a few comments on social media and it was really nice to see how our fans supported me,” he told the club’s website during that tournament. “Of course, they were rooting for their country, but even so they were happy for me that I got the shut-out and wished me luck for the tournament.” Furch’s KHL career ended with a season at Severstal in 2018-2019; he played in Sweden last year but, still only 30, could yet return to the KHL.
The fifth goalie on the list, Jakub Sedlacek, is another who came to the KHL as a youngster. In his case, he was just 23 when he joined Dinamo Riga and helped the Latvians to the 2014 playoffs. The Zlin native remained there for three more seasons, earning a recall to his national roster for the first time since his junior days. His last KHL action came in 2017-2018 with three games for Slovan. For the last two seasons he has been under contract back in Zlin, but spent last season on loan at Sparta Prague.
Perhaps the brightest of the Czech stars to patrol the blue lines of the KHL was Karel Rachunek. Sadly, his career in the league was cut short after just three seasons when he was killed in the Lokomotiv air disaster of 2011. But in those three seasons, he was a key figure for Dynamo and Lokomotiv, going to three All-Star Games and proving himself one of the most productive D-men in the competition. His haul of 126 points places him third among Czech defensemen in the league, and he compiled that tally from just 186 games. Leading scorer Filip Novak needed 407 games to amass his 150 points.
Miroslav Blatak became the first Czech to lift the Gagarin Cup when he, along with compatriot Jakub Klepis, helped Salavat Yulaev to victory in 2011. It was his second championship with the Ufa club; this Zlin native also played on the team that won the last Russian Superleague in 2008. In total, Blatak spent six seasons in Bashkortistan before moving on to Avangard in 2013. Two more years in Omsk had him thinking of a return home — especially after the birth of his son — but when there was an offer from Severstal, the lure of the KHL proved strong. “I was planning to play closer to home, maybe in the Czech Republic,” Blatak told the club’s website at the time. “I want to be close to my family because my son was born not long ago. But instead I got an offer from Severstal. It’s good that there’s a direct flight to Prague — I think my family will be using that a lot — and I’m ready to do everything I can to help the team.” In the end, Blatak’s time in Cherepovets was not long and he finished his career with his hometown team in Zlin in 2017.
After Blatak’s triumph in 2010, Filip Novak — again helped by Klepis — won the first of his back-to-back Gagarin Cups with Dynamo Moscow in 2012. Novak had a brief taste of the NHL as a youngster before returning to Europe and making his KHL debut with Dinamo Riga in the inaugural season. Then he joined MVD and helped Oleg Znarok’s team to the grand final in 2010 before following the coach to Moscow and wearing the ‘A’ through both championship campaigns. Later, he moved to Traktor — and despite playing less than a full season, quickly got on board with the club’s work to promote the team in its region. He was among a group of Traktor stars to play an exhibition game against an amateur team from Chebarcul and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “We had a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it,” he told the town’s website. “In the Czech Republic I don’t remember a time when a pro team went to play against amateurs. We didn’t have the best of seasons, so I think this was really important for the club to connect with its fans. I think everyone enjoyed it and I hope that we’ll see more supporters coming from the towns where we play.”
Jakub Nakladal never won a Gagarin Cup, but he got all the way to game seven of the 2014 final. That was with Lev Prague, the first and (so far) only non-Russian team to get to the final. After the Czech franchise folded, Nakladal played a season in Finland then got a taste of the NHL, playing 30 games for Calgary and Arizona. He returned to the KHL in 2016 to play four seasons with Lokomotiv. By that time, he was an established KHL star, but he admitted that there were challenges early in his career in Russia, when he played for Salavat Yulaev and Spartak and had to adapt to the extra pressures facing imports.
“The salaries are completely different [from the Czech Republic] so the expectations are different as well,” he told hokej.cz back in 2012 after his arrival at Spartak. “And the Czechs and Russians have different mentalities as well.
“At Spartak I came to play in the key moments of each game. It was a new situation, playing for a club that isn’t among the leaders, like in Pardubice or Ufa. People expected more from me and I had to learn to be one of the leading players on the team.”
After leaving Loko at the end of season, Nakladal is returning to his boyhood team, Dynamo Pardubice. There, he’ll rejoin Jan Kolar, another stalwart Czech D-man. Kolar went back home in 2019 after seven seasons in the KHL, starting with Donbass and finishing with a long spell at Amur Khabarovsk. In that time, the defenseman also completed 100 appearances for the Czech national team and believes that he continued to improve as he played a higher level of hockey in the KHL. “I tried to keep working on all aspects of my game,” he told hokej.cz on his return to Pardubice. “I wasn’t just improving the things I could do, I wanted to work on the things I found difficult. When I think back to my last season [in Pardubice] I’m sure my game has improved.”
There’s another Nakladal connection to round off the list. Ondrej Nemec was another player who featured on the famous Lev Prague team of 2014, contributing 10 (3+7) points in that playoff run. Despite defeat, he told journalists after the game that there was pride as well as pain. “It hurts, but we played great hockey throughout the playoffs,” Nemec said. “The seventh game came down to luck but we have nothing to be ashamed of. We represented the whole Czech Republic with pride.” However, it wasn’t long before Lev was no more — despite Nemec and others being keen to continue — and the defenseman went on to have a short spell as captain at Atlant before switching to CSKA and finishing his KHL career where it began at Severstal. Now aged 36, he’s still in action for Kometa Brno and was part of the Czech Olympic team in PyeongChang.
With a strike rate of more than one point per game, Jan Kovar is one of the deadliest forwards ever to play in the KHL. He followed his brother to the KHL, joining Metallurg a year after Jakub Kovar started in goal at Avtomobilist. Centring Sergei Mozyakin’s line in Magnitogorsk, he won two Gagarin Cups and made a big contribution to Mozyakin’s own record-breaking achievements. Among his compatriots, Kovar has over 100 points more than his closest rivals, despite rating just fifth for games played. And there are few better judges than Danis Zaripov, the third player on the Kovar line in Magnitogorsk. He tried to explain what makes some combinations click. “To be honest, I don’t know for sure,” he said in an interview with KHL.ru. “But when you have a shared hockey philosophy, when you go through the same physical preparation, you get a successful combination. Suddenly you know when it’s the right time to shoot the puck into the zone or to the net. We had that at Metallurg, Jan Kovar did a huge amount of work. It’s fun to play like that!”
Kovar won two Gagarin Cups with Magnitka. The first, in 2014, saw him up against Lev Prague in the final. That team provides two more of the leading Czech forwards in the KHL. Jiri Novotny joined Lev after spells with Atlant and Barys. By the time he got to Prague he was already well on the way to his 440 appearances, a record for a Czech in the league. Novotny captained Lev for two seasons and saw how attitudes to the team changed. When it started in 2012-2013, there was suspicion from many in Czech hockey, who feared that a team in the KHL would undermine the national championship and potentially the national team. But success began to write a new story. “I think in the second season, when Lev played very, very well, Czech fans began to change their perceptions and viewed Lev positively,” he said in June 2014 after the club folded. “Many people changed their minds. I’m sure some people will be happy that the club failed but there is a lot of sadness among the fans who joined our journey. And, because of our performances, we didn’t attract fans just from Prague, but from the whole country. It’s a great shame to lose that.”
Novotny never got as close to the Gagarin Cup again, but team-mate Jiri Sekac lifted the trophy with Ak Bars in 2018, defeating CSKA in the final. Sekac led the team’s scoring in the regular season before another ex-Lev man, Justin Azevedo, blazed the path to Gagarin glory in the playoffs. Sekac later moved to CSKA, where he remains under contract for another season. That could see him overtake Jan Bulis and clock up the third highest number of games for a Czech forward in the KHL. Bulis is the fourth Czech forward to score a century of goals in the league — exactly 100 markers from his 392 games for Atlant and Traktor; Sekac is 11 short of joining the 100 Club.
As well as Novotny and Sekac, one other ex-Lev forward makes the list. But Roman Cervenka’s time in Prague was brief — a handful of games during the NHL lockout season of 2012-2013. He began his KHL career with Avangard, producing two impressive seasons to help the Hawks reach their only Gagarin Cup final to date. That earned him a call from Calgary, but the lockout limited him to just 39 outings in the NHL. Back in Russia, he joined SKA and won a Gagarin Cup in 2015, helping to overpower Ak Bars in a surprisingly one-sided final series. Prolific throughout his time in the league, his 232 points came in just 282 games.
If Cervenka enjoyed one of the best point-to-game ratios in the KHL, Zbynek Irgl was another highly prolific goalscorer. His 97 goals rank him fifth among Czech snipers, a tally achieved across six seasons with Lokomotiv, Atlant and Minsk.