At this point, we're all struggling to find new things to watch on Netflix or whichever streaming service you subscribe to. But for hockey fans, a new documentary has arrived on iTunes that can scratch the itch for ice action.
Factory on Ice follows the Czech team Litvinov through the 2019-20 campaign and it's a really fun behind-the-scenes look at a small town that is passionate about its home team.
Along with hockey, Litvinov is known for its chemical plants and while it is one of the smaller markets in the Czech League, the team can count on big support from the locals - one of whom gets to ring a bell on the ice after every home victory. One of the driving forces behind the film is former NHLer Radim Vrbata, who is now back in his home country where he has been the sports director for another Czech League club, Mlada Boleslav, for the past few years.
"We thought, 'let's show the athletes and the sport in a different way than it has been covered before - more detailed, more in-depth,' " Vrbata told me. "Something I was used to in the U.S. with The Players' Tribune or HBO 24-7. I thought there was a window in Czech media to exploit."
The project started a couple years back and initially, was to focus on both small-town Litvinov and powerhouse Sparta Prague, with the climax being an outdoor game between the two in Germany. But things didn't work out with Sparta, so the film company focused on Litvinov, which was hosting the outdoor game in nearby Dresden, because they didn't have a stadium big enough for the match that would ultimately break the Czech League attendance record.
What makes the film truly compelling (other than the fact Litvinov is known to have the best concession stand sausages in the country) is the fact the team struggles to find its footing during the campaign. There are numerous ups and downs and the climax comes in a lose-and-you're-relegated game against Kladno, led on the ice by Czech icon Jaromir Jagr.
From blistering dressing room lectures by coach Vladimir Kyhos to light-hearted moments like Canadian import Patrick Kudla revealing his history of playing cup-free, Factory on Ice is very entertaining and fascinating. And for NHL fans, you'll see a lot of familiar names: Jiri Slegr is the team's GM, while alumnus Martin Rucinsky drops by for a visit at one point.
And while the culture is still strong in Czechia, Vrbata is still wistful for the old times, when the national squads were able to hang with the best in the world.
"Overall, Czech hockey is not what it used to be," he said. "You think 20 years ago, we won the world juniors two years in a row, there was the Nagano Olympics and three straight world championships. We had so many players in the NHL. We're in a totally different place right now - not as many players, not as many getting drafted. The Czech League is pretty good overall - we get players from all over - but Czech hockey needs to get better."
With three sons, Vrbata is busier than ever and he's even coaching his eldest this season. He plans on stepping back from his managerial job with Mlada Boleslav into more of an advisory role, but it sounds like being in the documentary film business has kept his interest as well. For his next project, he'd like to turn the lens on a Czech soccer team. If it's anything like his first project, it'll be well worth the journey.
Factory on Ice is available on iTunes now