When you think of hockey, it would be hard not to think of Canada, the so-called ‘first nation’ of the sport. But if one thing is for certain, it’s that Czechs equally love the game and have a deep and rich history with it, just like the northern nation where the game was invented and popularized.
For the men’s sport, Czechia’s top division is the Extraliga, where 14 teams battle each year for the title of best club. Among the rosters of those 14 teams, are 13 Canadian players, three of which play for the club the Kladno Knights. The club, owned by Czech hockey legend Jaromír Jágr, has had some of the most popular players in the sport wear its jersey. Players such as Tomáš Plekanec and Tomáš Kaberle, and of course Jágr – who all had successful careers abroad in the NHL have all dressed for Kladno, and in the case of Jágr, sometimes continue to dress for the team.
Today, Kladno is a club that proactively recruits international talent, bringing together players from Czechia, Canada, the United States, and Lithuania to form their roster.
Jake Dotchin, Landon Bow, and Deven Sideroff are the three players that bring their Canadian edge to the team, and I was curious to meet them and learn why they ended up playing in Czechia. I took a trip to the arena where the Knight’s play, just outside the city centre of Kladno, a city that the Canadian guys describe as a place that’s all about hockey and their team.
I first met Dotchin, or ‘Dotch’ as his teammates call him. He’s originally from Cambridge Ontario, and had a career in the AHL and the NHL, too. He rocks a handlebar moustache reminiscent of Wendell Clarke’s, a famous enforcer and goal scorer who played for the Toronto Maple Leafs for nearly two decades. Much like Clarke, Dotchin is known as the enforcer of the team, fiercely protective of his teammates. But outside the arena he’s a proud Canadian and even prouder dad. It’s his third season with Kladno, and he explained to me how he got here in the first place.
“I didn’t have a guarantee in North America, just PTO’s (professional tryouts), it was a ‘go tryout and see what happens’. I think I could have gotten a contract had I gone, but I was skeptical with my daughter coming so soon, and if I got cut I might have missed my daughter being born. So I chose not to play that season, and I stayed home with my daughter while she was a new baby. Summertime came, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I called my agent and he was positive about me finding something. One afternoon he called me and said ‘I’ve got a great opportunity for you – Jaromír Jágr wants to sign you’, and I was like ‘woah I know Jágr, NHL guy with such a huge career’, so we took the steps to finalise the contract, and the rest is history now.”
Like many kids who grow up in Canada, Dotchin never had his eyes set on playing in Europe. But as he says, playing in Czechia has surprised him, both in the quality of the game and the club.
“Growing up Canadian or even American, you don’t really look at Euro hockey and think ‘I’m going to play there’, it’s always about the NHL. But coming over here really surprised me. It’s a good league, the speed is quick, guys finish checks here compared to other countries. This is my third year here in Kladno, and I’ve really fallen in love with it. The staff and team treat me, my family and my daughter so well. It’s a good place for sure, and I think it’s something that I’ll look back at down the road and be super happy that I got to experience the Euro side of the game.”
A new league in a new country definitely comes with shocks or differences, and for Dotchin it’s meant adjusting his style of playing to match that of the Czech league.
“One shock for me was the playing style, it’s a bit less physical for my personal game and the way I play. Even now it’s still a bit of a learning curve to take a deep breath sometimes and not play off my instinct, to take a bit of the physical side off my game and not protect guys – that’s kind of what got me my chance in pro hockey. It’s my third year now, and I’d say I’ve adapted, maybe not perfectly, there are still a few hiccups here and there.”
While it’s required a transition in his game, Dotchin says that the hockey community here in Czechia – from the club to its fans, has welcomed him with open arms. But to Dotchin, that’s just a symptom of the hockey community.
“Of course coming here and not knowing anybody was nerve wracking, but the hockey world and the hockey community is so small and close knit that you could be in the Czech Republic or California, and people are welcoming you with open arms and will point you in the right direction, from helping you around town to helping you around the rink. There’s lots of good guys in our sport.”
Clad in a bright blue sweater and also a moustache is Deven Sideroff. The 26 year old British Columbia native also had a stint in the NHL and AHL, but has spent the last few years playing hockey throughout Europe, he tells me more about that.
“I started juniors in Canada, and then I went to the States and played three years of pro-hockey. Now it’s actually my fourth year playing in Europe. I started in Austria, then went to Sweden, then Slovakia, and now I’m here. I’ve pretty much been all over the map, and I’ve liked it so far.”
When Jake Dotchin said earlier that the hockey community is small and tight knit, Sideroff’s arrival in Kladno is really the perfect example of this. It was through his mutual connection with Dotch that Sideroff ended up on the roster of the Knights.
“I actually got here because of Jake Dotchin, I played with him in America, we both played in San Diego together. He was texting me last year and wanted me to come play with him then, but it didn’t really workout at the time. Over the summer he was texting me again, and that got me in contact with Jágr and the GM of the team, and it all worked out.”
Since he brought him up, I thought it would be a natural moment to ask Sideroff about what it’s like to play alongside Jágr.
“It’s really nice for a guy like me – I would still say I’m very young and I have lots to learn. He’s a guy that I can look up to, and teach me the right things, he’s done it right his whole life. For me it’s great, and I don’t think it will ever get old being on this team with him.”
Kladno has a fairly diverse roster, and Sideroff says that it’s been a major advantage for him and the rest of the non-Czech players on the team.
“It helps me out, and I’m sure it helps the other Canadians and the American and the other imports, that we have each other to lean on for a lot of things. When we don’t know what’s said in the room, or if someone is yelling at someone about something that we don’t understand since we don’t speak the language, we lean on each other to get information. We have dinners once a month together so that we can all get our wives and girlfriends together, so it’s definitely nice to have other imports on the team.”
Naturally, the bond Sideroff and the other Canadians have is strong, and at first it was tricky to gel with the rest of his teammates. But as he says, by starting to learn the language and through spending more time together, a brotherhood amongst the whole team is being formed.
“Slowly, more and more bonds are forming. At first you kind of tiptoe around wondering what the culture is like, wondering what they want you to act like, if you’re saying the right things. But as we’ve gotten closer – we’re so tight. You have a few drinks together or you have a party together, they start to speak English, we start trying to speak Czech and everybody loves that, so we’ve really started to have fun together.”
Czech hockey is known for its dedicated fan culture – supporters of clubs will pack the stands with their drums, banners, and come rehearsed with all the chants to sing throughout the game. But Sideroff says the fans have also supported him in other ways outside of the arena.
“I’ve really enjoyed the fans. It’s crazy that they’re so committed to us that outside of the rink they help us in many ways too. If they see us at the grocery store, they’ll say ‘great game’. I had one goal that I scored in shootouts in over time, and after that I had a box of chocolates on my doorstep with a note that said ‘great goal, thank you’ on it. That was pretty cool. The fans are always cheering for us all game long, and it’s different from back home, it really helps a lot.”
I still had one Canadian player I was yet to speak with, Landon Bow – the 28-year-old goalie from Alberta. As I waited for my last interview, I looked out at the arena from the lounge, I saw Jágr skating off the ice, picking up the last few pucks left on it. He often stays on after the rest of the team leaves, and even comes back to practice later in the day again, a true case of a lifelong commitment to the sport – he’s nearly 52 now.
My thoughts drift off as I think about how much this sport means to him, and so many others who play the game, but I’m brought back to reality as Landon Bow walks into the room. It’s Bow’s third season with the Knights, and before he also played professional hockey in North America. Tall with a big smile, and also a moustache (I had forgotten that it’s Movember), we start talk about what brought him to Kladno.
“The last year of my contract with Dallas was the Covid year, so it was a shorter year and they were carrying three goalies, so I was the third goalie that year and only played two games. I was looking at options for what I could do in North America, but nothing was coming up. I was able to get in with a European agent here, and Kladno was the first team that called. I was like ‘absolutely’, it was super exciting. I always knew I wanted to come to Europe at some point in my career, I just didn’t know when it would be.”
Like Dotchin, Bow is also a proud dad, his wife and his daughter live in Kladno with him. He says that having them around has motivated him to get out and see more of Europe.
“This is the first year I’ve had my full family around, I have my wife and daughter both here, and it’s really changed the dynamic of how I do things. They always want to get out and do stuff – well my wife does, my baby just comes along wherever we go. For me normally over the last couple of years I would go to practice, come home and have a nap, and you kind of get lazy, and you do the same thing over and over again. It’s nice to have someone here to push you to go out and do things – go for walks, go to castles, there are so many beautiful things to do around the Czech Republic, so I really appreciate having someone to give me that little extra bump to get out and do things.
“Back home, two hours and you’re still on the same farm, so it’s really cool how you can get anywhere you want here. With the national breaks we’ve had here we’ve really been able to go out and see things.”
Being a goalie has come with less shocks to Bow in terms of the playing style here in Czechia. The biggest change he has noticed is the size of the ice, it’s much larger here compared to North America. But one thing he has noticed a paramount difference in is the fan culture.
“It’s amazing here, all throughout European sports everyone goes nuts, they’re always chanting, always doing something. If you go back home, you’d be playing and it would be really quiet because everyone is sitting there focusing on the hockey and not really enjoying it as a spectacle. Here, everyone comes to the rink and wants to have fun and make it an enjoyable experience. Whether we’re playing at home against Sparta and it’s sold out, it’s a crazy clash between the fan groups, you love to see it. Whenever we go to Sparta, they always sell out for our games. So it’s a different dynamic for sure.”
Like Dotchin, Bow has noticed that the game is much less physical in Czechia, it’s more of a skill based game here. And like Sideroff, he’s loved playing for the Knights because of its rich history with players who have made their mark in the NHL and in Kladno.
“One thing I’ve noticed is back home it’s a lot more physical. Here you’ve got more skill. I didn’t know too much about the Czech game before I got here, so I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. Once I got here in my first year, I saw how good these guys are that don’t want to go to North America and would rather stay home. There are so many good Czech players, especially here, you have such a big legacy with big NHL names like Jágr, Plekanec, and Frolík, everyone who has done a lot, they’re all in Kladno. It’s great to be around these guys and hear their stories.”
As my time in Kladno winds down, I think about how Canadians and Czechs might differ in some ways, but when it comes to hockey, what could unite people more than the love each nation has for the sport? I was reminded of something Jake Dotchin said earlier.
“Czech guys, they do love the game for sure, I wouldn’t say more than us, but maybe at times more than us. This is a great place to come and play hockey for sure.”