Hockey Land

20150501_191509There’s nothing more pleasant than train travel. And travelling through the eastern Czech countryside only adds to that pleasure.

There are the fields of bright yellow rapeseed that looks as though it’s straight out of a Van Gogh. The forests are green and inviting, bushels of mistletoe perch in distant trees, already mocking me.

The charm is compounded by the occasional tiny village, the cottages that dot the landscape and make you desire country life.

But then the Moravian countryside is abruptly replaced by gray boxed factories, sections of mill, and discarded tin equipment alongside the tracks. The conductor calls “Ostrava” and my Moravian dream is over.

Ostrava is a city in the east of the Czech Republic. It is a sprawling island of industry, gray, metal, and factories. It is as homely as Prague is beautiful.

Ostrava’s greatest claim to fame is probably Stodolní Street, a collection of streets jam-packed with pubs. These pubs are useful for the crowds of people trying to drink away the knowledge that they are in Ostrava.

Why Ostrava? The hockey world cup is being played in the Czech Republic and PJ has an extra ticket. And since I lack the ability to think things through before agreeing to them, just as I lack the ability to wait before biting into scalding hot pizza, here I am.

And yet, as we step off the train it becomes apparent that Ostrava is not Ostrava right now. It’s Hockey Land. It’s not long before we hear the noisemakers, kazoos, rattles, shouting, chants, screaming, and singing of five different nationalities.

The train station is filled with hockey fans from the Czech Republic, Russia, Norway, and Finland. As of yet, we are unable to locate an American contingent. The USA – Finland game starts in two hours so we make our way to the tram and travel through a city of permanent black and white, a city stuck in a 1940s movie.

Our hotel has One Star, which frankly looks as though it’s been added to the wall in order to impress foreigners this week. It also boasts an hourly rate and “absolute discretion.” PJ and I say that we intend to stay the night and that, yes, we would like two beds.

Our room is on the twelfth floor of a twelve floor building made with one of those little red boxes we used to build igloos when we were kids. It’s sparse, two beds that we both hope have not been rented out the hour before, a table, a balcony in case it all proves too much, and a shoilet (shower + toilet in one tiny box). We drop our things and leave quickly; we do not touch either bed.

The heart of Hockey Land is the sports arena, the ČEZ Aréna. We wait in a line of sorts, surrounded by Finnish hockey fans. They are covered in blue and white and shouting a word that sounds like “Norman” but is really “Suomi” which means “Finland.” They wear big hats and the fox pelts on their heads that dangle down their backs.

The arena is packed with Finland supporters. There are small pockets of rebel American groups, scattered throughout the arena and for once enjoying underdog status. Aside from the announcer’s English accent, which makes us want to give him free lessons, here’s what happened at the game:


Finland 1

We go to a nearby pub.

For the last week people have been warning me about Ostrava. It’s a rough place, be careful. Don’t stay out too late, there are lots of fights. Oh, you’re going for hockey, wow…be careful. You’re Americans, just watch yourselves. And indeed, the arena and its surroundings are bustling with international drunkenness.

The pub is filled with slightly more sedate, yet friendly Finnish fans. The Russians are preparing for their 8 o’clock game by drinking, drinking, drinking, and singing. You can tell the Norwegians by their beards, the fact that they are all chewing tobacco, and that most of them are 300-400 feet tall. There are no other Americans apparent in the pub.

Perhaps for that reason, PJ and I become popular with the Ostravans sitting nearby. This might be because we are not surrounded by the stereotypical vision of Americans taking selfies and speaking in slow and very loud English to hotdog vendors.

The Ostravans buy us shots and take pictures with us. I soon feel bad for making fun of their city. When the Russians slaughter the Norwegians in the second game they come back to the pub wrapped in warm blankets of elation and vodka. There is more singing and shouting. The Fins are either drinking or sleeping at tables. The Norwegians look like grumpy Vikings after losing a battle, which is more than mildly disconcerting. But their grumpiness is quelled in more drinking and all seems well.

We all watch the Czechs battle the Swedes on television. It’s an incredible game happening in another Hockey Town a few hundred kilometers west. Everyone is excited when the Czechs tie, astounded when they pull ahead, anxious when they go to overtime, and groan when they lose the shootout. The atmosphere remains pleasant, though, there is no tension.

We head back to our hotel and a man and woman are paying at the desk. I wonder if it’s for an hour or a night. We are too tired to worry about what might be on the beds; we drop to sleep in minutes. In the morning, at the train station we sip coffee and eat pastries. Hungover. Our train is at 9:15 a.m.

Here comes the distant sound of kazoos, zingers, noisemakers, shouting, screaming, chanting, singing. Thousands of blue jerseys come around the corner.

The Slovaks have arrived in Hockey Town.

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