In the world of sport, this weekend marked the cancellation of the entire NHL ice hockey season. But North America's loss has been the Czech Republic's gain. Thanks to the lockout, more than 50 players from the NHL have joined clubs in the Czech Extraliga, nearly all of them Czechs returning to their home towns. But recently the first North American player joined a team in the Extraliga. His name is Jason Marshall, and Kate Barrette traveled to Plzen in the region of West Bohemia to meet him.
Marshall. It's not a very Czech name. But it still fits nicely on the back of a Plzen Hockey Club jersey.
The 6 foot 2, 196 lb Jason Marshall wears the jersey proudly - despite the fact that he comes from a Canadian Rocky Mountain town thousands of kilometres west of here.
Presented with an offer from the city of Plzen's hockey club in late January, Marshall accepted, making him the first and only North American NHL'er playing in the Czech Republic's elite hockey league.
"I just got a phone call and someone said that I might have an opportunity to come and play here in the Czech Republic. They didn't say what team, and I was like, well I only know one person really well in the Czech Republic, and that's Pavel Trnka, and he grew up in Plzen. It just so happened that it was Plzen, so I said, yeah, I would love to go, and I got on a plane the next day and here I am."
Plzen, the capital of West Bohemia which is best known for its delicious beer 'Pilsner Urquell,' is also known for its love of hockey. Plzen's team, which is currently battling for the last remaining spot in the Czech playoffs, plays in what Marshall says is a beautiful arena that in some ways reminds him of rinks back home:
"You know it's a perfect size; I think it seats 9,000 people. And it's full, and the stadium goes straight up, so it makes it feel like they're right there and everything is close and it's loud. And I mean the ice here is great. It's like playing in Canada - Edmonton always has great ice, and all the Canadian cities usually have good ice, maybe it's because it's cold outside, I don't know what it is exactly, but the ice is great and it's a beautiful rink."
For Marshall, Plzen isn't such a small town with its population of 175,000. But it's small enough that every waiter who served us recognized the player, asking if he was indeed, "Jason Marshall."
Marshall has played for a host of NHL teams during his career, from Minnesota to Anaheim. But even with all his years of experience, Plzen's fans have made a distinct impression. He told me they sing for the whole game, play drums and wave flags and scarves, and that it really helps the team, especially when it's away.
"Well the fans here in Plzen, I've been told they were the best in the league. I've only played here six or seven games and they're the best fans that I've seen in a long time. We were losing 5-0 the other night in Prague, we were getting killed. There were two minutes left in the game, and all our fans were standing up in the whole section, singing, and just cheering right up until the end. So I thought it was really awesome of them to do that."
I asked Marshall what he'd take away from his experience of living in the Czech Republic, once he returns home to North America.
"Well I think you know - I think the fans, during the games, the atmosphere, and after the games when we go out and salute the fans. Little things like that are some things I'll remember. Living in a different country, and trying to learn new words - these are great opportunities and great memories to have later on."
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