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Zdeno Ciger and the New York Slovak



Was sitting in the stands at Samsung Arena in Bratislava, watching the Lightning practice on Monday and noticed Zdeno Ciger's picture hanging from the rafters as an all-time great of HC Slovan. The someone pointed out that he was sitting two rows behind me. Hadn't seem him slide in. He is now the coach of HC Slovan and has won the past two Slovakian elite league titles.

Ciger, a left wing, played briefly for the Lightning during the 2001-02 season, with six goals in 27 games. But Ciger also was afflicted with panic attacks that cut short his time with Tampa Bay. Ciger spoke of the affliction as if the cause was obvious.

"That's because I didn't have good time with the coach, John Tortorella, that guy," Ciger said. "All my life I play lots of hockey and I couldn't sit on the bench and not help the team. ... I was nervous because I was really disappointed. If I'm not playing, I'm dying."

Ciger said he uses that lesson when he is behind the bench.

"That's why I'm trying to sue my guys," he said. "If you're talented, if you're good, I don't think it's a good idea to bench him and let him sit. These are the guys who are going to do the winning."

Ciger said he never thought about coaching until his friends in Slovan's management approached him mid season three years ago. Two titles later, he says he likes it. Despite his success, Ciger said he cannot think about coaching at the national level until he goes through three years of coaching school. He may just do it.

"Everything for hockey," he said. "That's my life."

Ciger spoke about his "demanding" owner Eric Assimakopoulos, the "big business man."

Assimakopoulos, 38, is a native New Yorker, who says he went from construction worker to real estate investor at Morgan Stanley to running his own business that led him to Europe and eventually Slovakia. He not only owns the team, but several hotels in Bratislava, including the one in which the Lightning is staying, and 80 percent of the city's airport.

He said he grew up wanting to play for the Rangers and then wanting to own the Rangers. "And that dream is not over," he said.

"This," he added about hockey, "is my pleasure."

Assimakopoulos has big plans for his team, starting with building a new 10,000-seat arena. The team could certainly use it. The Samsung Arena is old. It started out as an open air arena, he said. The roof was added in 1954. It has 8,000 seats, many still wood and poles that support the ceiling and block crucial parts of the ice, depending on where you are sitting. But the seats are steep, so you are right on top of the ice. And Assimakopoulos assured that when the place is rockin' it is LOUD.

Personally, I love places like this. The charm and tradition way make up for what is lacking in amenities. You get the feeling Assimakopoulos feels the same way deep down, but modernity sometimes calls. It is the same with the Lightning's game against HC Slovan. Assimakopoulos admitted he probably overpriced the tickets which run as high as $1,100 for premier suite seats. But, as he said, they just wanted to break even.

Assimakopoulos said about 1,000 tickets remain. He believes the game will be a sellout.

He certainly doesn't seem to be. Assimakopoulos said he wants to grow hockey in Sloavkia and Europe. And I love this: he wants to be the first owner of a Slovakian hockey team to offer his players disability insurance. I'm sure that will put him in good with the rest of the owners.

On a side note, had a chance to walk around Bratislava today in perfect 60-degree, sunny weather. What a stunning city with a central area and square with charm and architecture that in its way matches Prague's. Unlike Prague, Bratislava is one of those places, I likely would not have had a chance to visit otherwise. I would have missed out.

[Last modified: Sunday, August 16, 2009 4:38pm]


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