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Two NHL players return home to meet on the ice

THE HOCKEY rink in Trenčín was sold out on September 26, as Slovak hockey fans had their first chance to see two Slovak players from North America's National Hockey League (NHL) square off in a regular season game on Slovak ice.
Buffalo Sabres forward Miroslav Šatan and Minnesota Wild forward Marian Gáborík are playing in Slovakia while they negotiate new contracts with their American teams. Šatan is playing for Slovan Bratislava, which visited league-leading Dukla Trenčín and their 21-year-old captain, Gáborík.

THE HOCKEY rink in Trenčín was sold out on September 26, as Slovak hockey fans had their first chance to see two Slovak players from North America's National Hockey League (NHL) square off in a regular season game on Slovak ice.

Buffalo Sabres forward Miroslav Šatan and Minnesota Wild forward Marian Gáborík are playing in Slovakia while they negotiate new contracts with their American teams. Šatan is playing for Slovan Bratislava, which visited league-leading Dukla Trenčín and their 21-year-old captain, Gáborík.

The 6,100-seat arena sold old out three days in advance of the game, and the daily newspaper Pravda printed a special edition with four pages covering the match-up.

Fans stood throughout the game, in the arena's rows and aisles, as Trenčín outmuscled Slovan to a 4-0 win. Gáborík iced the victory in the third period with a backhand goal, while Šatan was held to just three shots the entire game.

At one point, though, Šatan, a deft passer with excellent peripheral vision, dazzled the crowd by splitting two defenders with a crossover move and charging the Dukla net. Meanwhile, Gáborík showed the bursts of acceleration that have earned him a reputation as one of hockey's quickest skaters.

In the past decade, two dozen Slovak NHLers have suited up for Slovak teams while negotiating contracts abroad. Žigmund Pálffy scored four goals in one game for Skalica in 1998. Šatan, while playing for Trenčín in 1999, tallied five assists during a game in which Gáborík, then 18, set a league record with five goals.

The difference Friday was that two NHLers were playing against each other on Slovak ice.

Gáborík is expected to be one of the NHL's next big stars. He was taken third in the 2000 draft, and last season had 17 points in 18 Minnesota playoff games.

Šatan, 28, averaged nearly a point a game last year for the Sabres. He is also captain of the Slovak national team, which he led to victory in the 2002 hockey world championships. That night, more Slovaks turned out to celebrate the win than gathered in 1989 to mark the fall of communism.

Before the 1989 revolution, the Czechoslovak Extra League had some of the world's finest hockey players. Since then, Slovakia's best young hockey talent has flocked to the NHL. Gáborík is reportedly seeking a contract worth more than $4 million a year, and Šatan just resigned a two-year contract with the Buffalo Sabres, giving him $5 million each year. The top player in the Slovak Extra League earns around $400,000.

Slovan and Trenčín are scheduled for a rematch on October 19, but Gáborík and Šatan will not be there. A NHL rule prevents foreign players from rejoining their North American teams if they have played in the top European leagues after the start of the NHL season, this year on October 8.

Gáborík has said he will return to Minnesota and train with a university team if he does not have a contract by October 8.

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