Ice hockey has been played in Košice since 1921. Slovakia’s first official ice hockey competition was held here in the season of 1922/23. Ladislav Troják, the first Slovak to play in the Czechoslovak national ice hockey team, grew up in Košice. So much for the prehistory.
In 1962 the team Dukla Košice was established. It took a mere two seasons to work its way up from a regional league to the top Czechoslovak competition. In the middle of the 1966/67 season, the recently-established East-Slovak Steelworks (Východoslovenské železiarne - VSŽ), by then the largest employer in the city and the region, took over the club, changing its name to TJ VSŽ. Almost immediately work began on the construction of a new ‘Ladislav Troják’ ice hockey stadium. Since being a professional sportsman wasn’t an option in the socialist society, the hockey players all became official employees of the steelworks.
At that time all the top sport clubs belonged either to large factories or the army. The establishment of the steelworks in Košice in the early sixties brought rapid growth to the city, its infrastructure and population. The majority of the city’s inhabitants depended on the factory for work and wages. The massive popularity ice hockey came to enjoy in Košice can thus partly be explained by the identification of the sports club with the industrial giant and vice versa.
The club never suffered from a shortage of fans: tickets to the club’s games and season tickets were given out by the plant’s unions to their members. Low attendance at matches was thus never an issue for the club. In turn, the club did a lot to make the playing of the sport, which can be quite expensive, an easily available option in the city, by providing ice hockey equipment to youngsters, establishing specialized courses of study in the city’s sports schools and organising regular recruitment drives. In this way the Košice club nurtured hundreds of players, a number of which went on to play in the Czechoslovak national team. Apart from the international and national, individual and collective successes, the forty years of the sustained support for the sport has resulted in a situation where three independent amateur ice hockey leagues are played in the city (one of them played purely by the employees of the steelworks) and thousands of amateur players play the sport and its derivates (such as in-line hockey, streethockey or floorball). Local sport patriotism is supremely well developed, and ice hockey is sure to keep the conversation going even when all other topics have dried up.
In the mid-1990s the Košice club dominated the country’s league tables. Following its 1996 victory, work started on the dismantling of the old stadium and the building of a new one in its place. However, the club’s sponsor, VSŽ, was hit by near-fatal financial difficulties, forcing it to terminate all activities not related to factory production. Without the backing of a strong sponsor, the Košice club soon faced relegation (it remains a matter of pride that to this day the team hasn’t been relegated once). The precarious situation was resolved few years later when VSŽ was overtaken by US Steel. However, it took the company a good few years before it established itself in the city. Throughout this time the construction of the stadium was on hold, its torso towering over the Old Town for almost ten years, until construction work resumed again in 2005. When the new ‘Steel Arena’ opened in 2006, the event marked the end of the process which saw the transformation of the stadium, the sports club, the factory as well as the city as such (which, despite a gradual diversification of employment opportunities, still depends on the steelworks as the chief job-provider in the area).
The original Ladislav Troják stadium was built in the 1960s on the edge of the Old Town. It came to be popularly known as ‘Stodola’ (‘the Barn’) thanks to its shape and the generous use of sheet metal. The new arena that replaced it managed to retain this character, though the place is now surrounded by dense traffic. However, unlike the old stadium, Steel Arena also offers a programme of events not related to hockey. The highlight of the programme consists in performances by pop stars who are on average twenty to thirty years past their best. Given the acoustics of the steel construction, it appears to the be case that managers send musicians to Košice either as a warning or as a punishment
US Steel, with the wages and salaries it pays its employees and their subsequent expenditure, keeps a good number of professions in business in the city. Tickets for Košice home games are by far the most expensive in the country, yet the club prides itself with the highest number of season tickets sold each year and an average attendance at matches that is the highest in the country and the twentieth highest in Europe. The situation resembles that of the English Premier league football: no matter how high the cost, to the people of Košice their sport is not so much a pastime as a religion.