How Sparta Took to the Ice
HC Sparta is known as the most popular hockey club in the Czech Republic. It has the most fans and is one of the oldest hockey clubs on the planet (founded in 1903). Czechs love to hate it and hate to admit they support it, but still acknowledge that it is irreplaceable. And as the box office confirms, there is no other team able to sell quite so many tickets. To show the changes in the image of this legendary hockey team, we turned to history and to David Soeldner, the author of several books about HC Sparta.
First steps on ice
Sparta started as the least promising part of Athletic Club Praha. In December 1903, a group of speedskaters gathered on the frozen Vltava near Smíchov to kick around a little rubber ball. The training was later moved to the Letna tennis courts, and by 1909, the club had built enough of a reputation to be officially acknowledged as a hockey club both at home and abroad.
After a bright start, Sparta faced a betrayal. The team’s top members agreed to better pay and left for their rivals, the Lawn Tennis Club (LTC) Praha. With this injection of new players, LTC’s focus turned to hockey and it established itself as the nation’s top team. One of the former players remembered: “They emphasized that we had been suffering for a long time, and Sparta’s lack of interest in hockey. So they offered us the opportunity to build our own team with their support and to compete immediately … The Sparta youth really did not have a chance, the old players did not let us in. We got to the ice only during warm-ups, but we never really got to play or compete.” (Josef Maleček in David Soeldner’s book Sparta Praha srdce naše).
Not long after the LTC’s victory in the Spengler Cup in 1948, team members were “inexplicably” imprisoned by a decree of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, which put an end to the club’s existence. Meanwhile, Sparta faced some of the most difficult times in its history, but it managed to survive. “It stayed in the shadows, in the back; it was inconspicuous, until the changes in the country’s political life took place” added David.
Hunting for a home
Despite losing its best players and the lack of sponsorship, Sparta had been Czechoslovakian hockey champions five times. Only after that did the Council of Prague decide to repurpose the old hunting building on Štvanice Island between Karlín and Holešovice and make it a modern stadium that met the needs of hockey enthusiasts and could compete with stadiums in Berlin, Paris, London, and Budapest. The building was opened in November 1932, but Sparta could not call it home until 1956 – before that date, it was only one of many tenants.
Sparta’s lowest moments coincided with World War II. David remembers interviewing team members from that time, most of whom have passed away. He said they had very fond of memories of coming to the countryside and bringing people some entertainment. “They remembered how they would play two or three matches a day for locals, and people would bring them whatever they could find at home as a thank-you – eggs, ham, shoes. That was the time Sparta became a national favourite. The hockey team – people loved them, in the countryside as well.”
Betting on Zábrodský
The golden era of Sparta came in the 1950s, with a change of regime, the disappearance of rivals and the support of viewers, who have now become real fans. “The tickets were almost always sold out. The fans cheered because they were a civilian club, not the military hockey club of Jihlava or the Rudá Hvězda Brno (Red Star, an inland club created by the Communist Party – Ed.) It was as if they were fighting Communism with hockey, and the supporters were standing behind them.”
The team met the expectations – the new coach, Vladimír Zábrodský, was not only an excellent hockey player, but also an exceptional psychologist, who managed to bring together a team out of individual personalities overnight. Exactly 50 years since the founding of the club, Sparta celebrated its first championship title.
In 1960, Zábrodský’s time at Sparta came to an end. Together with other hockey players, he was convicted in the Sazka case: it came to light that three years earlier, several sportsmen had been betting on friendly matches against Rudá Hvězda Brno. Zábrodský had to work as a miner in Ostrava, then returned as player-coach at Bohemians. Losing its star shooter and coach, as well as other brilliant players, took a toll on Sparta.
Hated by the Nation
While Sparta’s Prague fans were standing by the team, the rest of the country gradually developed a strong aversion. The members of the ruling Communist party were frequent visitors to the matches and behind the scenes, which gave team members moral support as well as pride. The reality was very different – there was no actual financial support or protection for the team, just the genuine interest of low-level party members. However, fans and rivals saw it as Prague-centric favouritism. Every rival club wanted the same treatment, so for Sparta, no loss went unnoticed. Victories on away grounds were no longer seen just as victories, but also a chance to throw stones at the team, which had to flee, or to try turning the team bus upside down.
David explained, “From the sixties to the present day, the atmosphere changed, and it has never again been the same. The blame lies neither with Sparta nor the players, but with the fact that the team is from Prague. Not a single sports team from Prague has been popular. People still prefer something of their own. And even though Sparta does have fans all over the country, it has become accustomed to remaining out of sight.”
Homeless once again
Since its earliest days, Sparta has been known for moving stadiums, searching for a place it could call home for more than just a couple of years. First it was Štvanice, which Sparta called home for six years (1956-62), but which it then had to leave – the wooden building was in terrible condition, so it was dangerous for both players and spectators .
In 1962, Sparta moved to the biggest, most modern stadium at the time – Tipsport Arena, then known simply as Sports Hall Sparta. Even there they felt like guests – the government often rented it out for various political and cultural events. For the 1983-84 season, Sparta had to move to the much smaller and less welcoming Eden Arena. Eventually the club moved permanently to theO2 Arena , previously occupied by their rival Slavia. “It doesn’t feel like home for them,” explained David, “and the fans do not get to enjoy the same atmosphere they once created. It undermines the fan spirit.”
Hopes for the future
Locals and visitors have completely different views of HC Sparta. For locals, it is a legendary team who has it all – privileged, envied, but still very much loved. For many foreign visitors, Sparta is – just like Prague – historic, famous, and glorious. Is the Czech view on the most loved/hated team going to change? David was uncertain but hopeful. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen. It’s not going to change overnight. We are very stubborn,” he said with a smile. “But there are thousands of followers, generations of young boys and girls who bond with their parents over their love for Sparta. It is, after all, in our hearts and our blood.”