International Ice Hockey Federation

Will Slovaks Czech out?

Will Slovaks Czech out?

Brother nations seek to revive lost glories

Published 02.01.2015 14:19 GMT-5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Will Slovaks Czech out?
The last time these two neighbouring rivals met at the World Juniors, the Czechs beat the Slovaks 4-1 on December 31, 2013. Photo: Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images
As the Czech Republic-Slovakia quarter-final looms, it’ll be hard for some readers to believe that once these two nations frequently medaled at IIHF events.

The two halves of the former Czechoslovakia haven’t won anything in years at the World Juniors. The Czech Republic’s last medal was a bronze in 2005 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The Slovaks celebrated their lone medal in U20 history in 1999 in Winnipeg, Manitoba – also a bronze.

If you were to identify a golden era for both Czech and Slovak hockey in the post-Cold War era, it would run roughly from 1996 to 2003.

The crowning achievement for Czech hockey was winning gold at the inaugural “NHL Olympics” in Nagano, Japan in 1998. The Czechs also captured a medal at every IIHF World Championship from 1996 to 2001, including a run of three consecutive golds at the end. Playing a truly stifling brand of defensive hockey under coach Jaroslav Holik, the World Junior teams won back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.

Slovakia, after debuting at the elite Worlds in ‘96, proceeded to win silver in 2000 (losing the final to the Czechs), gold in 2002 (knocking off the Russians in Gothenburg), and bronze in 2003 (topping their Czech brothers in Helsinki).

But the well of talent has virtually run dry for both nations in recent years. The collapse of Communism may have benefited the ex-Czechoslovaks in terms of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Yet the downsizing or outright dissolution of state-sponsored athletic schools has hurt their hockey programs. Many families simply can’t afford the costs associated with equipment and training, and player development is an ongoing challenge for the federations.

So there aren’t a ton of future Jaromir Jagrs, Zdeno Charas, or Dominik Haseks on the horizon. If there is a glimmer of hope, it might be the Czech Republic’s silver medal run at the 2014 IIHF U18 World Championship under coach Jakub Petr. The ripple effect, however, is unlikely to be big enough to put the Czechs on the podium already now in Canada.

For this quarter-final, the Czechs are coming in on a high note after defeating enigmatic Russia 4-1 on December 31 to claim second spot in Group B. Several of their U18 silver medalists are making contributions, including team scoring leader David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins (1-6-7) and Jakub Vrana of Linkoping (2-1-3). But iffy goaltending and defence constitute a soft spot for coach Miroslav Prerost’s group. They’ve allowed 14 goals, second-worst in the tournament, with a cumulative save percentage of 84.9.

The Slovaks have less firepower than the Czechs. But at least captain Martin Reway has come alive (3-2-5), scoring a hat trick in the 5-2 win over Germany that put his team into the final eight. Linemate Peter Cehlarik (1-1-2) has also had his moments. And starting goalie Denis Godla has won the hearts of the Bell Centre crowd with his acrobatic heroics. Posting a 91.9 save percentage despite a 3.12 GAA is no mean feat.

Historically, the Czechs have the psychological advantage over their “little brothers.” They've won seven straight games against Slovakia, dating back to the 2004 tournament.

But the Slovaks should realize that they’ve actually played more consistently than the Czechs, game in and game out, versus elite opponents since stinking out the joint in an 8-0 opening defeat against Canada. They battled hard in both their 2-1 win over Finland and their 3-0 loss to the Americans. They can take heart from that.

Sure, the Czechs have just beaten Russia, but they didn’t sparkle in 5-2 losses to Sweden and Switzerland, and they needed overtime to edge newly promoted Denmark 4-3. In addition, they’ve struggled to stay out of the penalty box.

The upshot of Friday’s late game at the Bell Centre is that one of these nations will again be going home empty-handed. A top-four finish for the victor, though, will be a highlight, not achieved by either side since Slovakia’s Cinderella run to fourth place in Ottawa 2009.

Barring a truly miraculous Danish upset over Canada, the road to gold for either the Czechs or Slovaks will probably end in the semi-finals against the hosts. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One of the worst times to daydream about the future is during a quarter-final.


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