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Guelph's Kudla returns to Slovakia league from Czech hockey

Defenceman is back where he started his pro career with the Slovak Tipsport League, but on a different team

Guelph native Patrick Kudla is back playing in the Slovak Tipsport League, the top hockey league in the country, after spending a couple of seasons in the Czech Tipsport League.

“I played in Slovakia my first year pro which was three years ago and then I went to Czech for two and now I'm back in Slovakia,” the defenceman said during a video call. “(I’m with a) different team, but it’s the same league.”

Kudla, who’ll turn 26 early in April just before the end of the league’s playoffs, joined Nove Zamky Mikron HC for the 2018-19 season following a single year of Ontario university hockey with the Guelph Gryphons. He then moved on to play for Litvinov HC in the Czech league before returning to Slovakia this season to play with Trencin Dukla.

“To be honest, it's not been the greatest,” he said of his 2021-22 season. “I haven't been playing to, I think, my full potential, but right now we've got a new coach and he's been really good for us implementing new systems and offensive strategies to just kind of get the boys rolling. Since then we've done a lot better than at the start of the season.”

Kudla is sixth on the team in scoring with four goals and 11 assists in 38 games, tops among the team’s blueliners which also include fellow Gryphon defenceman Justin Lemcke. They weren’t teammates at the U of G, though, as Lemcke joined the Gryphons the year Kudla was beginning his pro career.

This season hasn’t been a great one for Dukla Trencin either as they’re ninth in the 12-team league, five points out of eighth and the final playoff spot.

“We haven't gone on a long win streak and we've gone on four or five-game losing streaks,” Kudla said. “We'll sneak in one or two wins and then we'll lose two games and then we'll win one and then lose four or five. We haven't gone on a streak yet, but we've looked a lot better since the new coach has come in. We'll see.”

Trencin is in the western end of Slovakia, near the border with the Czech Republic. It’s about half the size of Guelph, but their home arena can hold 6,150 fans when they’re allowed to be at 100 percent capacity.

There’s no huge break for Christmas, but there are two or three breaks during the regular season so the national team can play some exhibition games. However, they’re not long enough for trips back to Guelph.

“They're 10-day breaks, but you usually only get two or three days and that's not enough time to fly back,” Kudla said. “Usually when I come over I'm here for the season.

"We'll see how the season goes. It can be as late as the end of April or as early as mid-March. It's usually eight months, give or take, that you're away from home.”

Travel in the league is fairly similar to what travel is in the Ontario university league if you ignore trips to play the UQTR Patriots in Trois-Rivieres, Que., and Lakehead Thunderwolves in Thunder Bay. And it’s all by bus.

“It's not a huge country so our furthest road trip is maybe five hours, so it's nice,” Kudla said. “Where I play is right in the middle. A lot of our road trips are like two, two and a half hours. Some are closer and some are a bit further but our longest one is five hours (to Kosice), which is right on the Ukrainian border.”

While the travel is similar to the university league, play isn’t.

“Compared to U SPORTS, it's a lot different because there's so many different types of hockey players,” Kudla said. “When you play in U SPORTS, I feel like when you go all the way down to the fourth line, guys can score and guys want to contribute. I feel like when you play pro there are a lot more roles. Guys on the third line are there to block shots and play against the first line of the other team. It's not to say that they can't score or they don't have the ability to score, they lock in on that (checking) role a lot more. So it's different.

“Because of pro, it's salary based. Some teams have more money than other teams so you go into a game against Bratislava who's really, really good and there's teams on the lower end – it's just a much different game. It's a lot of just game-by-game where whichever opponent you play you're going to approach in a different way, but I've loved it since I started playing here.”

Like every other hockey league in the world, the Slovak league has been affected by the pandemic. While Kudla didn’t get COVID, 15 of his teammates did so four games had to be postponed. And the league went a couple of months without fans in the stands, although they’ve recently allowed arenas to reach 25 per cent capacity.

“We just started getting fans back now which is nice,” Kudla said. “We played for about a month and a half to two months without them. It sucked.”

Empty arenas mean little in the way of atmosphere.

“It's not fun,” he said. “In Europe it's a lot different than in North America where they get excited for the big things like a goal. Here it's every little thing they're going crazy for. The fan sections, they've got the drums going and they've got the chants going. A big thing for playing in Europe is the fans and when they're not there, it sucks. You score a goal and you want to be all fired up about it, but there's no one there to celebrate.”

While Kudla’s grandfather emigrated from Slovakia, Patrick isn’t fluent in Slovak.

“(I speak) a little bit, but I can't hold a conversation,” he said. “It’s just like greetings and a little hockey. Our first coach was Slovak so he would do the meeting in Slovak and then he'd do the meeting in English. He spoke really good English. Through that, you pick up some terms.

“All my teammates speak pretty good English, too, so it's not like you have to rely on it, but you just pick up some words. You go to the grocery store and you have some greetings. When you go to pay, some of them don't speak English so you want to know a little bit just to get by, but definitely not enough to hold a conversation.”

Having a Slovakian surname can lead to some interesting interactions with fans.

“A fan came up to me and started speaking Slovak to me and I'm like 'No, no, no, I'm not actually Slovakian.'“

While Kudla has enjoyed playing in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic, he hopes his career path takes him to other places.

“The goal is always to either get back to North America and play in either the AHL or NHL or to get up to play in either Sweden or Russia, but to get to those leagues you've got to have good seasons in leagues like this.”