Updated: January 15, 2015 11:57:56 am
Tomas Prochazka does not remember his first hockey coach. Perhaps, because he never had one. He was eight when his father’s colleague, who was working in hockey, introduced him to the sport. Fascinated, he learnt most of it by himself with little guidance by amateur coaches and played on tennis courts.
At school, he was the odd man out. In a country obsessed with ice hockey and football – even a sport as obscure as floorball – Prochazka attracted quizzical looks when he mentioned field hockey. He continues to draw curious glares even now. A Czech player in the Hockey India League (HIL)? “Always the odd one out,” he smiles.
At at the closed auction two months ago in Delhi, there were two purchases that stood out, both involving the newly-formed Dabang Mumbai. One, of course, was the acquisition of Belgian superstar Tom Boon for a record $103,000. The other was signing of the little-known Prochazka, hailing from a country with virtually no hockey tradition.
But Mumbai’s German coach Valentin Altenburg knew what many others did not. Prochazka has been playing in the German first division for more almost a decade. And the 30-year-old defender, known for his powerful drag-flicks, has been one of the vital cogs in his club Mannheim HC’s rapid rise from being in the second division to playing the Euro Hockey League (EHL).
Next week, when Mumbai open their campaign against Punjab Warriors, Prochazka is likely to play in front of a crowd that will be more than the total number of people who play the sport in his country. “It’s a very small sport. I mean, Czech Republic is a small country with tiny population. To be a small sport there means you need to have very few people aware about it. That’s the case,” Prochazka says.
There are merely 3,000 registered players – men and women – in the Eastern European country. The number further declines if you consider just men who play the sport seriously – around 1,000. Till a decade ago, they did not have proper playing surfaces, though there are around seven now. Most of them played on grass while youngsters learnt the skills playing four-a-side matches on tennis courts. “Another big problem is, there were no real (read qualified) coaches when I started playing. It’s just the parents teaching the young players,” he says. “It’s improving now but still, coaches hardly get paid.”
Like most other nations, there is acute shortage of finance in Czech hockey. Prochazka says most of the funds are spent on ice hockey and football. Consequently, initiating grassroot programmes and arranging foreign tours for the national team take a hit. The team, coached by German Chris Faust, has recently started competing regularly in the European Championships and Hockey World League, but the training camps for these tournaments often take place in Germany. The 20-odd squad members used to stay over at the houses of two Czech players who played for Mannheim.
Germany, in fact, has been the breeding ground for Czech players, including Prochazka. At a friend’s advice, he joined a second division club in Berlin a decade ago. “In the beginning, I used to drive down to Germany from Prague on Thursdays. Train for two days, play the match on Sunday and then drive back home again,” Prochazka, who is studying economics at a university in Prague, says.
“I played for the first half of the season and returned to continue my studies. It was only after I joined Mannheim eight years ago that I started staying there.”
Like him, a few other Czech players too have sought a move to Germany to play ‘serious’ hockey. “It’s necessary to move if you want to learn the sport properly. Our basic skills are not very strong. So we learn a lot under proper trainers in Germany,” he says, adding that the reason they lack in skills is that the players start playing the sport when they are 20, 22 years old. “That’s too late. We need to start young.”
Over the next month-and-a-half, though, Prochazka will be a part of the star-studded Mumbai team, in a new avatar and with new owners, that will hope to better its bottom-placed finish last season.
“I was driving when I got a call saying that I’ve been picked for the team. I felt incredible. It’s my first time here and after spending two full days, I know it’s going to be a memorable one.”
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