ISLE OF WIGHT, UK – Czech forward Jiri Hanzal has proven to be a big hit on a small island off the South Coast of England. Pro Hockey News spoke with the former Edinburgh Capitals player to find out a little bit more.
The Isle of Wight comes to life every year during the summer with its world famous festival and events like Cowes week bringing the masses across the Solent estuary from English mainland on various ferries and boats.
However in the winter the locals have their ice hockey team to keep them entertained and this season the Wightlink Raiders have got off to a great start.
Coached by Canadian Jeremy Cornish, the Island side have already qualified for their first major final with a two legged South East Trophy match up against Chelmsford Chieftains already pencilled in for January.
In the league the Raiders are sitting healthily in second place despite reservations about the squad’s capabilities when it was announced pre season.
The main focus of debate was whether new Czech import Jiri Hanzal could fill the skates of last season’s player of the year Joe Rand, who had been snapped up by Basingstoke Bison in the English Premier League.
On paper Hanzal was an unknown quantity after spending last season in the Elite league with the Edinburgh Capitals.
Add this to the fact that Cornish’s first choice import for 2012/13 season Jimmy Chiripoulos was cut before even entering the country after alleged discrepancies over his CV, and Raiders fans could be forgiven for being nervous about an import who scored four goals in forty three appearances for the Capitals.
“When you play hockey you have to accept that your job does ultimately depend on statistics” admitted the 27 year old, who initially came over to the UK to play for Telford Tigers.
“I have always been a defensive type of forward. In Edinburgh I played third line with young British guys, and it was really tough to get points”
“When I came to the island, I simply wanted to work hard and prove to the fans I could do the job I was brought here to do and get them behind me”
“I know stats are important, but the name on the front of the jersey is more important than name on back if you pardon the cliché”
“The fans have been right behind me so far and I hope this continues for the rest of the season”
For a man born in the South of the Czech Republic towards the Austrian border, Hanzal’s story is an interesting one.
After making his senior debut for his hometown team HC Ceske Budejovice, Hanzal went on to play for HC Dukla Jihlava in the Czech second league before randomly finding himself playing in France where he helped Dunkerque secure promotion to the top division in 2010/11.
“I ended up in France as I was unable to move to another club in my home country without a fee” explained Hanzal, who scored 17 goals and 20 assists in 18 games for the team based on the North coast of France.
“In Czech if you are out of contract the club still owns your rights. The manager in Jihlava wanted only to sell me, but this is very expensive. The financial situation in Czech hockey was not good, so I had to go to other country to play because there was no fee involved that way”
“A lot of guys in Czech have to retire from league hockey early because of those restrictions. In France it was a great hockey year. We had a strong team and a couple of guys had Olympic experience. We won the league and got promoted and it was a real highlight”
Despite this achievement Hanzal’s hockey career was to take him further north and across the English Channel to another unlikely destination in deepest Shropshire. Telford Tigers in the English Premier League signed the 6’ 4” centre man but after only eight games he was on the move again, but this time to Scotland.
“I always wanted to go to UK” explained Hanzal, who confirmed that he did not try a deep fried Mars bar (local delicacy) whilst in the Scottish capital.
“I love this life style and the people’s mentality. I had no idea about hockey in UK but I really enjoyed playing for Capitals. We had great group of guys and a lot of nice people in the team”
After an 18 game regular season in France the year before Hanzal had to get used to a much heavier fixture list in the Elite League, and this years NIHL schedule will not be much different.
“I love playing the games like every player” admitted Hanzal, who started skating at the age of six and chose hockey over figure skating because he ‘always wanted the puck’.
“It is much better to play, than train. In France we played one game a week but in the UK we play two or even three games”
“It was one of reasons of move to UK. I had great pre-season trainings on the ice with couple of NHL players including my brother so a heavy schedule was not problem in my physical shape”
Back on the Island and Hanzal finds himself as top scorer for the Raiders and is adjusting to island life living in a shared house with former Belfast and Peterborough player Robbie Brown and ex Cardiff and Invicta agitator Corey Watkins.
“I am really enjoying my time with the Raiders so far” explained Hanzal, who has also picked up a day time job on the island.
“I have everything I want here and the guys are great. The smaller ice pad was problem in first one or two games, but now I think it is ok”
“We had small ice in France as well but it wasn’t as physical. In UK it is a tougher hockey style. The objectives in the Raiders are the highest. So I hope we will win the league, it will be tough, but we have good goalie and experienced coach, so I hope we can do it”
No interview with a Wightlink player would be complete without the inevitable question of how they enjoy the ferry journey to and from every road game and Hanzal is typically upbeat about the sailing.
“Yes I do enjoy the crossing” he laughs. “On the boat is great time to rest. I am sitting and enjoying the sea all the time”
Wightlink have a big home fixture this weekend against top of the table Chelmsford Chieftains and Hanzal and his team mates will be hoping that the Ryde Arena crowd go home happy.
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Photos by Nicky Craft