Mazanec minds the net
by Derek O'Brien|01 FEB 2020
Mountfield Hradec Kralove goaltender Marek Mazanec makes a save against Frolunda captain Joel Lundqvist in one of the two finalists’ preliminary-round encounters.
photo: Mountfield HK / Champions Hockey League
Mountfield Hradec Kralove has been a surprise story in European hockey this season. Though domestically the team is currently languishing in eighth place in the 14-team Czech Extraliga, it has advanced to the Champions Hockey League final, thanks in large part to the goaltending of Marek Mazanec.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs,” Mazanec said about the way his team has played this season. “We’re going to the final in the Champions League, which is great for the team and the city, but we just need to do better in our own league.”

After spending the last six seasons abroad – mostly in the AHL but also 23 games in the KHL with Slovan Bratislava and 31 in the NHL with the Nashville Predators – Mazanec is back in his native country and has been ever-present in the Mountfield crease all season long. He’s started 40 of the team’s 41 Extraliga games so far and 11 of 12 in the CHL. 

“I’ve had one game off and that’s just because I was sick,” said Mazanec. “We don’t play very many back-to-back days like in the NHL or AHL, and I like playing. It’s much better than just working out and practising. The games keep me in shape and mentally sharp, so I don’t mind that at all.”

Mazanec’s play in the knockout stages of the CHL has been nothing short of amazing. In the three two-game, total-goal series, Mazanec has allowed one goal in 120 minutes each time – against German champion Adler Mannheim in the round of 16, Swiss club EV Zug in the quarter-finals and storied Swedish team Djurgarden Stockholm in the semi-finals. Along the way, he’s stopped 144 of 147 shots for a save percentage of 97.96. 

Of course, Mazanec humbly gives credit to the team in front of him for the success. 

“It’s always teamwork,” he said. “We’re well prepared tactically and we play really well defensively, waiting for good chances.”

But that begs the question: Why the stark difference between the team plays in its own league and against clubs that are at least as strong from other leagues? Does Mountfield approach these games differently? 

“I don’t think so,” said Mazanec, searching for an explanation. “The teams (in our league) maybe play more defensively against us, which we don’t really like but we have to find a way.”

A native of Pisek – about 180 km southwest of Hradec Kralove – Mazanec turned pro with HC Plzen and eventually went overseas in 2013 at age 22. After starting that season with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, he was called up in late October when Nashville starter Pekka Rinne was injured. Sharing the crease with Carter Hutton, Mazanec started off strong, earning NHL Rookie of the Month honours in November. Suddenly, the Czech goalie had to get used to hearing his name pronounced a few different ways by the North American sports media, who suddenly took an interest in him. 

“They usually say ‘ma-ZAH-nek,” said the goalie, whose name is pronounced “MAH-zah-nets” in his native Czech. “It sounds pretty good to me, so I don’t care. They can say it one way here and another way there.”
Mountfield Hradec Kralove goaltender Marek Mazanec celebrates with the fans after a win in the Champions Hockey League.
photo: Mountfield HK / Champions Hockey League
Over the course of that 2013/14 season, Mazanec played 25 games with the Predators, posting two shutouts. Since then, however, he has played only six NHL games. Last season, he didn’t play an NHL game but dressed as a backup for several games following a trade from the New York Rangers to the Vancouver Canucks in February 2019, which led him on a whirlwind journey.

“That was crazy,” he recalled. “I got traded and had four hours to catch a flight to somewhere in Canada – I don’t even remember where – to get a work visa. Then I got like two hours of sleep and caught another flight to Anaheim to join the team and catch the pre-game skate.” 

Shortly after season’s end, Mazanec made the choice to return the Czech Republic rather than test the market.

“I didn’t really have a good season last year, so I had to be honest with myself,” he explained. “I didn’t want to wait until the late summer to see if any good offers came. Hradec made me an offer and it was good for me so I took it. It was a simple choice.”

Back in his home country, Mazanec enjoys the less rigorous travel schedule that the Extraliga offers, and that his family and friends have a chance to watch him play on a regular basis. But still just 28 years old, Mazanec is still in the prime age for a goaltender and hasn’t given up on a return to the NHL.

“Possibly, we’ll see,” he said about going back to North America next season. “There’s still a lot of work ahead of us, so let’s wait till the end of the season and see.”

Certainly, his play in the CHL can’t be hurting him in that regard. Already a fairly recognized goalie outside the Czech Republic from his Nashville days, fans in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden have seen what he can do over the past couple months, and CHL games are televised in more than 30 countries.

“I don’t know if they’re noticing or not,” he laughed. “I hope so. I’m not watching the games on television. I’m too busy playing.” 

Plenty of people will surely be watching the upcoming CHL final on 4 February, where Mountfield faces a stiff test in three-time champion Frolunda Gothenburg – also the reigning champion in Sweden. Interestingly, both teams advanced from Group H, with Frolunda finishing first and Mountfield second.  In the head-to-head meetings between the teams, the away team won each time by one goal. In Gothenburg on 1 September, Mazanec stopped 30 of 32 shots in a 3-2 win, and in Hradec Kralove six days later, he stopped 29 of 33 in a 4-3 loss.

“We already beat them once so I believe we can do it again,” Mazanec reasoned. “We’re going to need to score some goals and get good defence because they’ve got a lot of skill and speed. It won’t be easy at all.”

Facing a talented group led by American playmaker Ryan Lasch, veteran captain Joel Lundqvist and young gun Samuel Fagemo, Mazenec refused to single out any Frolunda players that he has to be careful of. He believes they’re all dangerous.

“Every single one.”