The Czech referee is at his third year in the League, and his strong values and an excellent command of the Russian language allows him to be perfectly adapted to the KHL. Being part of the Kontinental Hockey League isn’t always easy for international players and officials, mostly because it is often needed to spend a lot of time away from home. “I spend in Russia about three weeks in a month,” Frano explains. “My schedule is pretty simple: game – plane, game – plane, game. If I have two consecutive games in the same city, well, I’m lucky. This means that I’ll have a free day and get on the plane later.” However, things improved on this plan for him: “I have to say that the League really helped me this year. When I just started working for the KHL, my trips would last 12-13 days, while today it’s just about one week. I even manage to get back to the Czech Republic for some three days, but not more.”
In spite of the long trips, the Czech official is not interested in getting closer to his workplaces and move to Russia. “I haven’t found myself a wife yet,” Frano explains with loud laughter. “Moreover, in the Czech Republic, I manage to have a better rest from hockey, as in Russia you get the game going even during the weekends. At home, I also have more chance to do various activities in my spare time, even if I mostly watch hockey on the TV.”
For any person, having their family nearby is of the utmost importance. This is probably one of the reasons why it is easier to move for unmarried people. “If you live abroad with your wife, what will she do if you are away for a week? She’ll be alone, in a foreign country, without her friends,” the official explains. “My colleague Antonin Erabek, when he was working in the KHL, had the same problem. Having your wife staying in the Czech Republic is not the best idea either. Is it possible to have a true family life if you get back home once or twice a week? That’s why probably it’s easier to unmarried people.”
A veteran of two and a half seasons in the KHL, Frano is now fully acclimated to his new reality. According to the official’s words, his adventure in Russia started well before he actually moved. “I have started negotiating with the League quite early, and the KHL was so interested in hiring me that I started studying the Russian language in good advance,” Frano remembers. “If you want to achieve something, you need to prepare yourself.”
When moving to another country, learning the local language should be a priority, and such it was for Frano. “I didn’t learn Russian at school, as after the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Russian language stopped being a mandatory subject.” He then needed to find other ways to learn the main language of his new workplace. “I needed to hire a teacher and attend courses once a week. I studied Russian starting from scratch for one year. I can’t say that I started talking fluently right away, but this way I started understanding people around me with much more ease. I can say that the decision to attend language courses was a great one.”
Of course, being a hockey official, he is expected to have plenty of interactions before, during and after a game. “There is another aspect to consider, the psychological plan. All the people at a game know that the ref is a foreigner, and they respect your attempts to talk and express in the local language. In Russia, it brings you some extra respect. Neglecting local habits or traditions has never helped anyone. But personally, in my life, there were many cases when openness, communication, and the desire to understand other people brought nothing but great benefits.”
However, it wasn’t always easy. Every people find new challenges at home, and it was no different for Frano. “The biggest challenge for me is to talk with my colleagues through the communicator. It’s hard to perceive what other people say in the confusion of a hockey game. Especially so if you don’t know all the hockey terms.” The ref goes on and makes examples. “I had no clue about the word ‘pyatak’ (slot). In the Czech language, you have the word ‘oborot,’ which roughly translates into ‘the area in front of the crease’. But ‘pyatak’… my God, what does it mean? No one taught me these words in Prague, I needed to ask for clarifications and then study these words one by one.”
Just as most of the other people living and working abroad, swearing is what he learned first. “Isn’t swearing what you always learn the first day?” – Frano laughs again. “I am now swearing more in Russian than in Czech. However, I want to clarify one thing. In the KHL, usually, players behave very correctly. Of course, there are some moments where emotions get the best of people; they can scream and get you understanding that they don’t like something, yet they almost never cross the line. The players respect the officials, and I’m just doing the same.”
Being a referee, Frano often confronts with coaches. Especially when he started working in the KHL, but it has never been a problem for the Czech official: “Of course, people tried to understand what they can allow themselves when I work on their games. Especially the coaches, and especially when you’re new,” Frano explains.
Coping with the different situations isn’t always easy, especially when a ref makes a mistake. “You always have to admit your mistakes. If the error was an ugly one, you have to find the guts to get to the bench and say ‘Sorry, my mistake.’ A referee cannot see everything. If players start pushing and shoving in front of the crease, we aren’t always able to see every hit from behind. Usually, the officials try to understand whether the goalie froze the puck or not. Often, the coaches have a good reaction, and they give you no bad words in return.”
Other than admitting their mistakes, the refs must also find a way to try and have a high-quality work for the rest of the game. “If you insist on telling others that you are right, you are just aggravating the situation. Today, any match is played in front of a high number of cameras. You can watch any game episode from a variety of angles. After the game, the coaches are going to check whether the ref was right or wrong. And what will he think about you?”
However, technology is now helping refs like never before and, differently from other sports, the hockey welcomes this kind of help in shedding light on dubious events. “Today refs get significant help from cameras,” Frano agrees. “Watching replays is a great way to keep the fair play in the game. Another thing is changing your decisions after an erroneous whistle; this is not the best option. You cannot compensate for your mistakes. If you try to return the team what you mistakenly took from them in another episode, it won’t end well.”
Starting to work in the Kontinental Hockey League wasn’t only a challenge on the personal plan for Frano. He also needed to blend in a well-established team. “Obviously, no one directly told me that he was suspicious or similar things, but I don’t have illusions about it. If a foreigner referee started working in the Czech Republic league, it would just be the same. It’s a question about the kind of relationship that you can establish with your colleagues. At first, everyone is looking at you suspiciously, almost waiting for a mistake. But over time the situation changes and you become part of the team.”
Frano fit well within the KHL officials. “I have to say that Russians are very cordial people. If necessary, my colleagues are always ready to help. Not once was I denied a helping hand. To become a part of the team, you need just one thing: to be open and not to separate from the other persons. It would very bad if after a game, all the officials went to the restaurant for dinner and I would have stayed in my room, pretending that I’m tired. Such behavior would only lead to self-isolation.”
The veteran official has now a good idea about Russia as a whole, having worked in more than 180 KHL games. “Generally speaking, even in the outer regions there are good living conditions,” Frano explains. “The only thing is that there is a significant difference between cities. It’s quite clear: in the province, you can hardly find the same hotels as what you can find in the center of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other big cities. I see fewer variations in the level of the kitchen. In the end, you can cook a delicious meal in any place. However, for a referee, having a good night of sleep is more important.”
Since its establishment, the League has seen many Czech persons, in the form of players, coaches, and referees. One of the most popular referees in the KHL, Antonin Erabek, left the League last summer. In spite of not working often together, the two had good relationships. “We worked together only a few times. However, when we could not sleep, we played together online,” Frano says. “Antonin helped me a lot in my first steps in the League. He explained to me how to book tickets, showed me many other important things. Now, I am more autonomous and can do everything on my own. We are still in touch and, in need, we call or text one another. But right now, we are both focused on our careers.”
Frano also confirmed that being a Czech player or coach is not enough to receive favor treatment: “If I meet them at a game, I’m always happy to exchange a couple of words with them. But we do not have any other contact. You won’t see Czech players that, getting to the arena, as the first thing they get to the referees’ locker room. And I don’t drink beer with Czech players after the game. It’s not like it’s prohibited, but it would look very unprofessional. This is why I avoid certain behaviors.”
In the last two couple of seasons, the KHL started organizing games outdoors. Frano is not new to such events, as he worked in the Karjala Cup game between Finland and Russia at the Olympic Stadium of Helsinki. It wasn’t an easy feat for the refs. “It was cold,” the official remembers. “The thermometer was at -10°C, and even more. To save ourselves from the cold, we put warming patches on our feet. We also wrapped the whistle with tape so that it would not stick to the lips. Among other impressions – in such matches, the stands are far away from the ice. At the Olympic Stadium, it was about fifty meters. Because of this, the atmosphere was not as emotional as usual. But still, I will always bring with me the memories from that unique game.”
As much as players prepare for a game, so do referees: “Usually, before a game, I learn the names and patronymic of all the coaches. For me, as a foreigner, this is not an easy task. You need to know twice the names. However, in this way I show my respect for the coach. Earlier, when I first came to Russia, I called everyone by name. But over time, I realized that this was probably not correct. No one showed that he did not like it. But what about learning how to do it right? It is much better to call the person by name and patronymic, than simply ‘Hey, you!’ I can say that this approach helps me a lot.”
Born on December 8, 1981, in Pribram, Czech Republic
He had his Kontinental Hockey League debut in the 2010/2011 season, where he worked in two games.
He is a full-time KHL official since the 2016/2017 season. He worked at more than 180 games in the League.
Frano also officiated at many IIHF World Championships.