New KHL club Lev Praha takes root in Czech capital

The newly-formed hockey club Lev Praha has made its debut in the Kontinental Hockey League. The first Czech-based team to join the KHL got two wins out of its three home games before setting off on a tour of Russia and Belarus. But has the new club also succeeded in bringing Czech hockey fans to see KHL action in Prague?

Lev Praha - Spartak Moscow, photo: CTKLev Praha - Spartak Moscow, photo: CTK Czech fans tried out several chants to cheer HC Lev Praha on Thursday, during the Prague-based team’s debut in the Kontinental Hockey League. Lev Praha, or Lion Prague, the first Czech club to join the KHL, won two of the three home games, beating Dinamo Riga and Donbas Doneck and only losing to Spartak Moscow.

Some members of Lev’s emerging fans spoke to Radio Prague about why they came to root for the new club.

“It’s the first Czech club in the KHL, and it’s an opportunity to see some of the world’s best players. It’s something new that has not been here before.”

“I just hope that the fan club will grow. The best hockey league in Europe is now in the Czech Republic, and I think it will be great.”

One of the big questions ahead of the Lev’s premiere in the Kontinetal Hockey League was whether the team would find enough fans in Prague where two clubs – Slavia and Sparta – sometimes struggle to attract crowds to their own Czech top division games.

HC Lev PrahaHC Lev Praha Club managers were hoping to see the 13,000-seat arena at least half full for the first three games, and their wishes came nearly true. Some 6,000 spectators came to see the opening game on Tuesday; on Saturday, more than 5,200 people found their way to the arena while Monday’s game played out in front of 4,800 fans.

Former NHL player and Czech TV hockey commentator Martin Hosták believes that people will buy tickets, especially when some of the KHL’s best teams come to the city.

Martin HostákMartin Hosták “I think they will find their own followers but I’m not sure how many. At the beginning of the new project, everybody’s curious about what it will be like and so far, the games were well played when Lev Prague won twice. So I think they might find their spectators and have their own crowd.”

One of the things that helped is around half of Lev Praha roster is Czech; in fact, the team can rely on some of the best Czech hockey players, such as national team stars Jakub Klepiš, Jiří Novotný, Tomáš Pöpperle, and others.

Meanwhile, there were indeed signs that the KHL is primarily a Russian-based league. For example, Lev head coach Josef Jandač addressed a post-match news conference in fluent Russian. But can historical reminiscences play a role today, more than 20 years after the fall of communism? Maybe with older fans, says Martin Hosták.

“For some people, especially those who remember the 1968 invasion, this might be an issue. But these are different times and Russians are no longer enemies. So I think this won’t a problem for young people who would form Lev Praha’s fan base anyway.”

Lev Praha returns from its three-game trip to Russian and Belarus in some ten days which should give its fans in Prague enough time to come up with just the right chants.