It was 30 years ago this month that Fife Flyers broke new ground in British ice hockey by signing three world class Czech players.
The story of how Vincent Lukac, Jindrich Kokrment and the late, great Milan Figala came to Kirkcaldy, and thrilled fans the length and breadth of the country, is one worth recalling.
1988 marked Flyers’ Golden Jubilee, and, in turning to the east, the club once again demonstrated its vision and pioneering spirit.
Back then clubs only iced three imports. They were stars who lit up match nights and filled rinks – and Flyers had a track record of hiring the best, but from North America.
In switching their interest to the old Eastern Bloc – the first UK club to do so on such a scale – it was clear they wanted only the very best.
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Flyers spoke with agencies from several countries, including Russia, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Finland.
The Soviet link quickly ended when it became clear the costs involved meant it’d have been as cheap to go direct to the NHL, but Pragosport, based in Prague, tabled a firm offer, one that Jack Dryburgh, rink manager and coach, said would “transform the whole team.’’
He was right.
On offer were players – a defenceman, centreman and winger – who had skated for the national side in world championships and at the Winter Olympics.
The CVs which came through from Prague were arguably three of the very best which have ever landed on the coach’s desk in Flyers’ long history.
Defenceman Milan Figala (33), from TJ Vitkovice, a veteran of 450 games in the Czech National League, 90 appearances for the national team, silver medals at three world championships
Jindrich Kokrment (31) TJ Litvinov, bronze and silver world championship medals, and an NHL draft choice of Quebec Nordiques.
And the mercurial Lukac (32) from VSZ Kosice – a true star in his homeland with 390 goals in 550 games, 150 appearances across 12 years skating for his country’s national team.
World championship gold and two silvers, and Czech hockey’s third top scorer of all time, Lukac was head and shoulders above every other player in the UK.
The players’ first training session in Fife saw the Fife Lounge filled to capacity – and they didn’t hit the ice until 10.00pm
Flyers actually restricted entry to Supporters Club members and season ticket holders only in a bid to ban any ‘’spies’’ from other clubs keen to see the Czechs on ice.
It took Kokrment just two minutes to find the net in a debut 7-3 win over Tayside Tigers in front of a huge crowd. They then routed Glasgow Saints 20-1 with 86 shots on goal –Kokrment plundered stats of 4+5 while Lukac delivered an effortless hat-trick.
But it was their first meeting with Murrayfield Racers which dominated the headlines.
The rink in Edinburgh was packed to capacity – there was not an empty seat to be seen – as they hit the ice, and were promptly brutalised.
Racers’ tactics were to single them out for special treatment. Kokrment lasted 14 minutes before he retired injured but not before serving up a brilliant solo goal.
The game was a mess – punch-ups, chaos and constant disruption which prompted both teams to complain about the referee, the late Mick Curry.
It ended 12-12 – a real hockey derby which saw Fife come from 7-3 down to lead 12-8.
Lukac netted six goals amid the mayhem, and, legend has it the Czechs were so appalled at what they experienced they were ready to pack their bags and go home.
If Racers opted for the ‘beat ‘em up’’ approach, Nottingham Panthers, led by head coach Alex Dampier, decided to play them at hockey, and the end result was a game still revered as a classic – a 5-5 draw which earned a standing ovation from 2600 fans at the old Lower Parliament Road rink.
Lukac, Figala and Kokrment thrilled crowds all season long and took hockey to a level we’d never seen before.
For the trio, it was also a chance to experience a very different way of life.
Lukac admitted they had been “taken aback’’ at the speed of hitting the ice adding: “We were apprehensive because we didn’t have our own equipment, and we had just arrived. ‘’
But it was Milan Figala who perhaps summed it up best: “Almost too much has happened to take in. We were overwhelmed at first.
“It is a fact that we have travelled the world but we have never met with such an enthusiastic reception.’’
The defenceman sadly passed away in 2000. Thirty years on from his debut in Kirkcaldy, he, Vincent and Jindra remain much loved and respected by Flyers fans privileged to watch them play.