In a small village nestled among the mountains of the Hostýnské vrchy range in Moravian Wallachia stands the modest hall of a big name in the business. Since 1994, the Gufex family firm has been producing the ice hockey pucks now being hounded round the rink by the sport’s top dogs at the World Championship and the Olympics. “The company itself was set up back in the early 1990s, just after the Velvet Revolution. Gufex was founded by my stepfather, Karel Mráček. He must have got in early, because when he first registered as a business, he was handed the region’s trade authorisation number one,” says Kateřina Zubíčková, who spearheads the company these days.

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Kateřina Zubíčková

executive director of Gufex

Yet the road to supplying pucks for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, which ŠKODA has spent 26 years sponsoring as the event’s general partner, was long and meandering. “The company started out making mechanical rubber products – various seals, spatulas, stuff like that. Then, in 1994, the ice hockey team from the nearby town of Vsetín was promoted to the top-flight extraliga. So we said to ourselves, how about we try to make a puck?” smiles Zubíčková in recollection.

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Vojtěch Zubíček

the Gufex boss’s husband and the mayor of Kateřinice

It was way back then that we came up with our unique patented compound, which has remained virtually unchanged ever since. “The ingredients must be kept at the same proportions. Only about five people in the world know the exact recipe,” says Vojtěch Zubíček, not only the Gufex boss’s husband, but also the mayor of Kateřinice, where the company produces its hockey pucks. “What makes the compound we use unique is that our pucks are demonstrably more resilient than the competition when they’re battered against the boards around the rink, plus they won’t break the plexiglass,” explains Zubíčková.

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HOW TO CREATE A HOCKEY PUCK FOR THE IIHF ICE HOCKEY WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

What, then, are the individual stages in the production of a puck for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship? “It all begins with this black lump we call the ‘charge’. It is crucial to get the composition and mass exactly right. An external supplier does this for us,” says Zubíčková. “The charge is then placed in a mould and inserted into a press. Everything is baked here at around 170 °C for 12 minutes,” she explains as she describes the process of vulcanisation.

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Just why is a hockey puck so black? “It’s the soot that provides the colour. However, the main ingredient is rubber, accompanied by various vulcanising agents and other additives,” explains Vojtěch Zubíček, adding how vital it is for everything to be precisely proportioned according to the recipe. “We have had several goes at developing cheaper alternatives, but in light of the test results we have always ended up deciding to make pucks only of the very highest quality. Sure, they’re more expensive, but that way we can guarantee their good-quality composition – backed up by numerous certificates from the companies that produce rink boards and plexiglass,” he adds.

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But let’s backtrack to production: “Once the pucks are out of the press, we have to ‘deflash’ them. Flash is the excess material that has spilled over during vulcanisation,” continues Zubíčková. After this stage, during which employees pick up every single hockey puck and can tell immediately if anything is off, it is time to trim the sharp edge so that the puck is smooth across its whole circumference. “We say, rather wryly, that making hockey pucks is a manual job because each and every puck has to pass through our employees’ hands several times,” says company co-owner Zubíčková.

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Once the puck is perfectly smooth, we’re ready to print. There are two technologies to choose from, but only one is applied to the hockey pucks used in matches at events like the World Championship in Denmark. “Official regulation pucks always feature a full-colour digital print. This is an open field – we can print photos, logos, pictures, just about anything,” explains Vojtěch Zubíček. “And, at the same time, these pucks will survive being battered during the game. The IIHF (the International Ice Hockey Federation) requires all hockey pucks to last for at least one third. The puck itself is practically indestructible, but the print gets scuffed when it is hit by sticks or run over by skates,” adds Zubíček.

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The second technology is foil stamping. Just three colours are available (white, silver and gold) and the printed pucks are intended only for promotions or collectors, not for actual game time.

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With ice-hockey a national sport in the Czech Republic, ŠKODA’s 26-year sponsorship of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is entirely logical. “Ice-hockey is an exciting game that commands the attention of people all over the world. What’s more, as a sport it is dynamic, down-to-earth, and fair – these are the same attributes underpinning ŠKODA’s corporate culture and visions,” explains Bernhard Maier, Chairman of the ŠKODA Board of Directors. Find out more about ŠKODA's passion for ice-hockey in older article here.

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10 EMPLOYEES MAKE OVER 1.2 MILLION PUCKS A YEAR

Gufex has been producing ice hockey pucks since 1994. In 1998, this small Czech business supplied pucks to the Olympic “Tournament of the Century” in Nagano, where the Czech team sensationally won gold. “We are very pleased that we are able to make pucks for such major tournaments,” admits Zubíčková.

With ten employees working a two-shift regime, the company can produce roughly 1.2-1.3 million hockey pucks a year. These Moravian Wallachian puck-makers have been supplying the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship since 2000, so next year’s tournament in Slovakia will mark their twentieth anniversary. “Obviously, we have something up our sleeves, but we need to get the green light from the IIHF first,” says Zubíček, hinting that we may be in for a surprise.

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It is not “merely” for the Olympics and the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship that the company supplies its pucks. “We export pucks worldwide, including North America, Russia, and Europe – especially the Nordic countries. We have even shipped to countries you might not expect to play ice hockey, such as Mexico, South Africa, and Taiwan,” says Zubíček, adding that Russia’s top Kontinental Hockey League relies on Czech pucks. In North America, they have yet to reach the NHL, but are popular in lower or junior competitions. 

Asked how many countries they have exported to, the Zubíčeks have to have a little think. “We’re talking around sixty countries,” they finally agree, noting that about 80% of hockey pucks are exported and the rest stay in the Czech Republic.

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CLOSE DOWN? SELL UP? NO WAY!

With business booming today, the company is considering expanding production. Yet the picture has not always been so rosy at this family firm in Kateřinice. “Our low point was in 2004 and 2005. Sadly, the founder – my stepfather, Karel Mráček – fell seriously ill and passed away very suddenly in 2004. It was his great wish for the company to keep going, so we did our best to make it work. Though my sister and I had grown up around ice hockey pucks, we still had a lot to learn. I was still a student at the time, so my sister took on the lion’s share, but my husband and I helped out whenever we could and after graduating we went back to Kateřinice. My mother had contacts with her associates and business partners, so we all teamed up and somehow pulled everything together. It took a while,” recalls Kateřina Zubíčková.

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Another tough time was the period around 2010, when the world was in the throes of crisis. “There was a massive problem with the dollar’s exchange rate. When the deals had been struck half a year before there were 22 crowns to the dollar, but when the dollar slumped to 15 crowns we were really hit hard. Just as bad, there was less demand for pucks during the crisis. Though we had previously built up reserves we could draw on, it was still a matter of trust and leveraging the sound relations we enjoyed with suppliers and employees to get through this time,” says Vojtěch Zubíček.

Gufex official game pucks are made from a high-quality rubber compound developed over several years. Its unique patented composition, known to just five people worldwide, guarantees minimal scuffing while maintaining high elasticity. Gufex pucks are the only ones in the world that will not break plexiglass, even at 180 km/h.

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But in these difficult moments, they never seriously considered quitting the hockey puck business. “No! The mission couldn’t have been clearer – we must not destroy the work that had been begun by Mr Mráček. Kateřinice’s Gufex was the maker of pucks for the Olympics, the World Championship, there’s no way we could have turned our backs on that. Problems are there to be solved. The goal is to keep going, to be a credit not only to our village of Kateřinice and the broader Zlín Region, but also to the whole of the Czech Republic,” explains Zubíček. He also refuses to sell the business now it’s successful. “There have been several offers, but we will never sell. This is a company steeped in family tradition and that’s how it will remain,” concludes Vojtěch Zubíček.

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Mirroring their pride in the company’s family tradition and Czech provenance, the Zubíčeks have been driving ŠKODAs for years. “It all began with the first-generation FABIA. We had one each. Then I progressed to an OCTAVIA and my wife opted for the second-generation FABIA. We subsequently bought an OCTAVIA SCOUT. We won’t hear a bad word about it. We’ve thought about buying something new, but the wife says there’s nothing else she’d want,” says Vojtěch with a smile, as Kateřina nods. “For us, ŠKODA as a brand has always been an obvious choice. No other make of car has even crossed our minds. And I’m serious about that; I’m not just saying it just because we happen to be talking together now,” says Vojtěch Zubíček as we round off our chat.

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The event all ice-hockey fans have been waiting for has arrived! National teams from sixteen countries worldwide are converging on Denmark to compete, first in groups and then the play-offs. You can study the tournament schedule and download it in the attached list of fixtures:

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