International Ice Hockey Federation

New belief for Czechs

New belief for Czechs

After mediocre years juniors ready to move on

Published 26.12.2014 17:22 GMT-5 | Author Joeri Loonen
New belief for Czechs
Jakub Vrana (left) and the Czechs want to make a step forward at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Photo: Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images
It has been ten years since the Czechs last medaled at the World Junior Championship. The emergence of young talent seemed to have come to a halt.

Yet in 2015, the Czechs look destined to start a new chapter. And they’re not the only ones who think a semi-final spot in Canada is a realistic target.

Coach Miroslav Prerost is never lacking in confidence, and his attitude is being mirrored by the hockey pundits of Canada, the host nation. The Hockey News has penciled in the Czechs to make it to the medal games, which is a clear indication that Czech junior hockey is being taken seriously again.

And why shouldn’t it be?

Unlike previous years, when there was just the occasional star player, this year Prerost can put some tantalizing talent on the ice. Enjoying a strong core of returnees from last season and buoyed by the addition of players from the silver winning U18 team last season, the coaching staff has had some tough choices to make.

“We held off making our final roster cuts until after our last pre-tournament game,” Prerost said. “This was needed because we haven’t had such a competitive roster to choose from for a long time.”

A quick glance over the team roster verifies that the majority of the selected players are no longer playing overseas. Only five players play junior hockey in Canada, while the rest play either domestically in the Extraliga or in Scandinavia.

This turnaround is the result of some drastic changes applied by the Czech Federation some years ago.

With increased attention on youth development, measures were put in place to provide better opportunities for up-and-coming talent in the once world-leading hockey country.

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Results at various international tournaments have already showed that the Czech Republic has succeeded in bucking the trend. Playing their games in Toronto, this squad has all the ingredients to become a fan favourite.

Offensively the team can boast a budding NHL star in David Pastrnak, as well as a Swedish Hockey League regular, Jakub Vrana. Meanwhile, potential 2015 NHL first-round draft pick Pavel Zacha will be looking to make an impression in his second World Juniors.

Patrolling the blueline will be the captain of last year’s silver medal winning U18 team, Dominik Masin. He has quickly adapted to playing in North America and has impressed with both his offensive and defensive play.

If there’s a weakness to be addressed, then goaltending could be the Czech Republic’s Achilles heel. The team has travelled to Canada with three goalies. Vitek Vanecek has the best odds to be the designated starting goalie.

“The first step to take is to make it to the quarter finals,” said Prerost. “After that we should finally make it to the final four.”

The Czech Republic won consecutive gold medals in 2000 and 2001 but last medaled in 2005. This tournament marks the fifth time Prerost will be behind the Czech bench. The past three years, the team couldn’t get past the quarter finals. This should be the year to take the next step.

“We will not be looking for excuses,” said Prerost. “We could select from all the players we wanted to, and now it’s up to us to get the maximum potential out of this group.”

Pastrnak has already made his NHL debut during his first season in North America, notching one assist in five games with the Boston Bruins, and big things are expected from him. “This is the first time for me I have an NHL player on my team,” Prerost admitted.

Despite having to take a break during a successful pro season, Pastrnak is happy to represent his country. “It’s the best players in the world under 20, and it’s really fast. I think it’s really close to the NHL, so I think it’s going to be really good for me,” he said.

Last year, as a 17-year old, Pastrnak earned a goal and three points in five games for the Czechs. There is no doubt the flashy forward will be looking to build on the impression he’s left so far in North America.

While Pastrnak’s arrival gave the whole team a boost, there were also some surprising omissions. Most notably, forward Vaclav Karabacek was one of the final cuts. The Buffalo Sabres draft pick is enjoying a successful season with the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques and was one of the major contributors with last year’s U18 team.

“I normally would have made the team but last Saturday afternoon I overslept and missed a team meeting,” Karabacek said. “I can only blame myself for this and I truly regret this happened.”

Captaining the squad will be Plzen HC left wing Dominik Kubalik, who played two OHL season with Sudbury and Kitchener. But when it comes to tournament experience, Jakub Vrana is the go-to guy.

Having represented his country at the U18 World Championships three times, the 18-year-old will now also hit the ice for the third time at the U20s, with a fourth looming next year.

After a little taste of SHL action in Sweden last year, Vrana has enjoyed a breakthrough this season with Linköpings HC. He has scored nine goals and 16 points in 23 games so far.

“I realize my responsibility in terms of being a veteran on this squad,” said Vrana. “I will try to share my experiences with my teammates to make sure everyone is well-prepared for what’s coming.”

Playing in Group B with Sweden, Russia, Switzerland and Denmark, the Czechs like their chances.

“We should aim to win the group, not just to avoid facing Canada, but simply for the fact that if you want to win a medal you need to be able to beat everyone,” Vrana said.

It’s been a while since the Czechs have been so vocal about their chances at an IIHF World Junior Championship. Winning a U18 silver medal last year played a crucial role in the renewed belief that hangs around the squad like an aura.

Averaging under 18.5 years, this Czech team is still very young. But they’re not afraid of the challenge that the team faces.

“The medal surely helped us,” Vrana said. “We have learned what it’s like to win again. At this tournament, we need to take the next step in our development.”


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