Sunday, 20 May 2012

World Championships: Slovak delight. Czech heartache

Apologies for the lack of updates during the last month or so. University's been consuming most of my time.

It's always a shame that the IIHF World Championships always come smack bang in the middle of exam season, and whilst many fans have been bemoaning the ludicrous ticket prices which have left thousands of empty seats at every game, for the fans of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, this years edition of the World Championships have been on the whole positive ones. Whilst Slovakia, who have already guaranteed a medal for the first time since 2003, they go into the final hoping to repeat the great team of 2002, which managed to defy the odds to defeat the Russians 4:3, thanks to a Peter Bondra goal 100 seconds from the end. The Czechs, who fell to their next door neighbours in the semi final will look to pick up their second bronze medal in succession, following their third consecutive semi final appearance. It was a bitter blow for Alois Hadamczik's team, who went into Saturday's game with Slovakia as favourites, but it was another good performance from a Czech team still reeling from the loss of three stalwarts in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl tragedy in September.

Miroslav Šatan has three goals in knockout play
Photo: Jeff Vinnick -
Slovakian hockey has been in the doldrums for some time. Fourth place at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver was the anomaly on the last four years, as the national team failed to make the quarter finals in four successive years from 2008 to the home tournament in 2011. However, new head coach Vladimir Vůjtek appears to be just what the team needed, following the failure of the Glen Hanlon experiment. Vůjtek, who called Slovakia's run in Helsinki the greatest achievement of his coaching career so far, has the team playing a no nonsense counter-attacking style, no doubt in part due to the discovery of former Lev Poprad and future Donbass Donetsk netminder Ján Laco as the country's new #1 netminder for the World Championships. Granted, barring injury Jaroslav Halák will still be the go to guy, but Laco has been in imperious form throughout the tournament, with numerous comparisons being made to the role that Ján Lašák played in the 2002 gold medal victory in Sweden.

Slovakia face Russia in the final
Photo: Andre Ringuette -
There is no doubt that there is an incredible belief in the Slovakian camp, and they seem united in achieving success in the memory of one person in particular. Former national team captain Pavol Demitra. There was hardly a dry eye in Slovakia following the emotional scenes of his exit from the national team stage in Bratislava in 2011, and the loss of what many saw as a national hero following his incredible performances in the 2010 Olympics has seemed to galvanise the team. Captain Zdeno Chára said in an interview that the semi final win against the Czechs was for Demitra, whilst Branko Radivojevič, who has looked a brand new player in this years tournament, with 8 points in 8 games, proudly showed off his Demitra memorial t-shirt that he wears under his jersey following the game against the Czech Republic. Sport has a strange, almost mystical power at being to unite people during times of trouble, and seeing the celebrations following the victory, from Bratislava to Košice, Prešov to Čadca are truly remarkable.

The Czechs had their ups and their downs
Photo: Andre Ringuette -
While stories will be written in the weeks to come about the Slovakian team, whether or not they defeat the heavily favoured Russians, it would be unfair to overlook the Czech Republic, who played some great games in the tournament, and have no doubt missed a number of key players. The omission of Jaromir Jágr is a big one, whilst Roman Červenka, Filip Novak, Jakub Klepiš and Marek Kvapil all ruled themselves out of contention through injury or fatigue following a gruelling Gagarin Cup final in the KHL. It took a while for the Czechs, and especially Petr Nedvěd to get going in the tournament, and at times the team seemed to be rather disjointed, but a couple of players made a name for themselves in the World Championships this year. České Budějovice netminder Jakub Kovář, whose NHL rights are still held by the Philadelphia Flyers, emerged as a very solid netminder at this level. He still had a tendency to concede soft goals at inopportune times, but Budějovice may have a tough time keeping a hold of him if KHL or even the Flyers come looking, despite Kovář having a contract for next season.

Will Jakub Kovář stay with České Budějovice?
Photo: Andre Ringuette -
The Achilles heel for the Czechs was their inability to score goals at the key times, and their powerplay at times looked toothless. They had enough chances against Slovakia, and were desperately unlucky at times, hitting the post twice in the opening period of the semi final, but they struggled to put the puck against the net. They only managed one goal against the top two seeds, Russia and Sweden in the preliminary group stage, whilst they needed a shootout to defeat the spirited Norwegian team which also made the quarter finals. The quarter final against Sweden was a great performance in what was arguably the game of the tournament so far, as Milan Michálek's winner 29 seconds from the end sent millions of Czech fans into raptures following their capitulation in the middle of the game. However, it was another year of what could of been for the Czech Republic, as they bowed out from the semi finals for the second year in succession. No doubt questions will be asked following the poor performance against Slovakia, but considering they finished ahead of Sweden, Canada and the United States, they should not be too down following this tournament, and Hadamczik should be given time to build his team.

However, this tournament appears to be about Slovakia now. For a team which has five Czech Extraliga and five Slovak Extraliga players on their roster to make the World Championships final is an incredible achievement, especially following the losses of top pairing defenceman Dominik Graňák and forward Marcel Hossa. This tournament can't be a flash in the pan though, as the Olympics were, as youth hockey in Slovakia is struggling enough as it is. I know I tend to straddle both sides of the rivalry between the Czechs and the Slovaks, but there is nothing that I want more than for both teams to succeed, and to be great forces within ice hockey. The rivalry can be nasty at times, but for many people, Czechs and Slovaks are still like brothers.

The Czechs go into the bronze medal game against a Finland side that was humiliated against the Russians, and surely they will have more national pride than to play poorly again in front of their home fans. It is always difficult to get motivated for a bronze medal game, but the Czechs have their chance to bring back a medal for the third year in succession. It's going to be incredibly tough for Slovakia to defeat Russia this evening, but they've already shown against the U.S, Canada and the Czech Republic that they relish the role of being the underdog. History is often to said to repeat itself, and it is only fitting that ten years later, back in Scandinavia, Slovakia have a chance to pick up their second gold medal since becoming an independent country. The Czechs already have six, including an Olympic gold. The Slovaks see it as their chance to close the gap between the two countries and get their fair share.

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