Catching up with: Pavol Mihalik
The Coventry Blaze went into their first Elite League campaign loyal to a team of players who had delivered a British National League Championship double the season previous.
Going up against a host of Superleague powerhouse’s night in, night out, a third placed finish was seen by many as a more than successful season.
Paul Thompson though isn’t most people. Third place wasn’t good enough. His loyalty to his British National League heroes was over. A year wiser, he knew what he needed.
And so in the summer of 2004, wholesale changes were made. Out went Blaze legends, Steve Chartrand and Matty Soderstrom. The popular Hilton Ruggles moved on whilst Thompson’s trusted British duo of Shaun Johnson and Michael Tasker headed back up North.
In came heavyweight enforcer Andre Payette, offensive juggernaut’s Adam Calder and Dan Carlson, whilst on defence Thompson added a past star of the Superleague in the form of Neal Martin.
One of the lesser profile signings though was a 27-year-old Slovakian defenceman, who before a brief stint in France had spent the majority of his career playing in his home-land.
Pavol Mihalik, an Extraliga Champion in 2001/02 with HC Slovan Bratislava arrived in Coventry without any idea of quite how popular he would become.
The cult started as Blaze took to the ice early season against Nottingham Panthers, who had in their line-up a 6’0” monster of a man. John Craighead, a bona-fide past AHL and DEL enforcer who had spent much of the previous season bullying the boys in Blaze blue. It was a 2-2 game at the Skydome Arena and into overtime it went. Craighead picked up the puck and went charging through mid-ice. Next thing, the bully was three foot in the air, helmet flying in the opposite direction with his big black hair let wild.
Under him stood the 5’10” Pavol Mihalik whose hip-check was to become legendary in Blaze folklore from this moment on.
Craighead came down crashing to the ice before chasing the Slovakian for retribution. Two minutes in the box and a Blaze overtime winner later, the American left Coventry sulking, knowing he wasn’t going to have it all his own way anymore.
“Of course I remember that one,” laughs Mihalik. “My good friend Dave Adey (Blaze TV commentator) is always reminding me of that hip-check.”
The scorer of that overtime winner vs. the Panthers, Pavol’s countryman Michal Vrabel was to leave Blaze in mid-December as the club were able to add locked-out NHL defenceman Wade Belak to the roster. Inconsistent before, the Toronto Maple Leaf gave Blaze an extra ingredient, one that would lead to the ultimate success – an Elite League Grandslam.
“We had tremendous team spirit, however at the beginning it did not look like we could win all of the trophies,” re-called Mihalik. "The arrival of Wade Belak helped the team a lot. Honestly it was the craziest season in my whole life. I had never seen so many fights on the ice! On each line we had a guy who would play tough, good centres, great scorers, strong defence and a super goalie. And I will never forget James Pease…."
Sadly, we’ll never have the opportunity to feature Wade Belak in our ‘Catching up with series’. Deceased in 2011, the big number 3 will forever be remembered fondly, not least by his teammates.
“I am very grateful to have had a chance to play with Wade and meet him off the ice," said Pavol. "He was a great player but also a great guy. He came to England to play hockey, not to look for fights where I would say that it would have been the opposite way round. I know he finished season with the 130 penalty minutes, but I guess it was a dream come true to fight Belak for some fighters.”
Despite the club’s magnificent success of 2004/05, it wasn’t all rosy for Pavol who suffered a season ending injury after Sheffield Steelers' forward Jeff Christian appeared to shove the Slovak head first into the boards as he chased down a puck behind his own goal.
An angered Paul Thompson said of the incident, “Christian shoved Mihalik into the boards and I think we're lucky that Pavol's only having his shoulder screwed back together and not his neck.”
“I obviously don’t have the best memories from that game,” reminisced Pavol. "Apart from the injury, my Mum was visiting me for the first time in England and witnessed the incident live. I was not lucky, as I would have loved to finish the season playing and taken an active part in such a great season. But that is sport, what was meant to be happened, life goes on.”
It wasn’t just the Head Coach who felt aggrieved either as the Blaze travelled to Sheffield a couple of weeks later for their first encounter with the Steelers and Christian since the incident.
With Andre Payette suspended, it was Graham Schlender and Wade Belak who went looking for retribution, both being thrown out of the game, but that didn’t matter - a band of brothers stick together.
“I felt a bit better mentally because of that,” said Mihalik. “It really showed the great character of the guys we had in the locker room, standing up for each all season long.”
Pavol returned to Coventry the following season, but again it was to be a frustrating year as injury struck twice and the team struggled to live up to the success of the year past.
"The pressure was on that next season as the expectations were high from everyone. The thing is though, it was not the same team. It's always harder to defend Championships than to win them. It was a difficult season for me personally too as I got hurt just before the Continental Cup in Grenoble which was something I was really looking forward to playing in."
It was a fourth place finish for the Blaze and a heart-breaking penalty shots loss to Cardiff in the Challenge Cup final to end the 2005/06 season as Paul Thompson rang the changes again, with regret choosing to release his 'Clubman of the season.'
"I really wanted to stay in Coventry," said Pavol. "I thought I might as I had a good season (20 points in 39 games), but the team was not doing that well and that also played into it when it came to re-building a new team for following season."
It was to be the playoff winning Newcastle Vipers for Mihalik in 2006/07, recently described "a band of misfits," the Slovak was joined on the roster by Andre Payette, Paul Ferone, Jason Robinson and Jeremy Cornish amongst others. The toughness he'd seen previously in Coventry really paled in comparison.
"Newcastle was different with a very different team to the one in Coventry. I played lots of penalty killings during that season, thanks to those guys!," laughed Pavol. "But the locker room was a good atmosphere and lots of fun."
Awarded best defenceman and import of the Vipers, Mihalik caught the attention of French Ligue Magnus side Angers, where with wife Zdenka, who he met in Coventry, would stay for six years between 2007 and 2013 before spending two years at Cholet in France's second division.
"When we came to France, we thought that we would not stay longer than a maximum of two seasons and here we go, nearly ten years later we're still here! We like the country, we loved Angers where I ended up spending most of my career as a player. We love the food, the wine and the cheese and also once you learn a language you start appreciating the people too!," Pavol joked. "We have made lots of good friends in France and we are very grateful for that."
Now with two children, Jakub (nearly 6) and Sara (five months), Pavol and his "lovely" wife reside in Limoges where he finished his playing career at the age of 39. Player/assistant coach of Taureaux de Feu last season, he now takes charge as the club's Head Coach ahead of the new 2016/17 season.
"Last season we finished third after losing against Cergy in the semi-finals, which is so far the best result in a long time for the club. When I was playing in my last match in Cergy, my son was playing his first on the same day in a tournament in Limoges! It's just a shame I could not see him."
Not only will Mihalik stand behind a bench for the first time this season, he'll also study towards becoming a qualified coach for all levels in France.
"The club is supporting me in my studies which I really appreciate. We are a relatively small club with a rink that holds a maximum of 1,000 spectators, we have on average 800 people each game. We compete at the third level in France. The club needs to improve its performance in many ways, and this is also one of the reason I have decided to sign here, as I see it as a great challenge and also a good start in my new career as a coach."
A professional of over 600 games, Mihalik has come across a variety of coaches over his career, each with different approaches and methods. Indeed, in the UK he played under two of the best that the country has ever seen.
"I learned a lot from Paul Thompson in Coventry, he was a great coach to me and a good motivator. In Newcastle I had Rob Wilson and he is also a good coach, look at where he is now! But I also had the chance to learn from some other very good coaches in France, like Heike Laime, Kevin Constantine (who coached Jaromir Jagr in Pittsbourgh), Jay Varady (United States U-20's goal medallist as an assistant coach) and in Slovakia it was Milos Riha (recently coaching in KHL Slovan Bratislava), all of whom I am still in contact with if I need some advice. Coaching is something I always wanted to do and I want to pass my experiences and my knowledge to others. Being close to hockey is where I feel good."
We thank Pavol for his time and wish him the best as he pursues his coaching career.
Article: Craig Summerton (@block15blaze)