Slovakia's home ice meltdown

Only Russia’s nightmare showing in St. Petersburg compares

08-05-11
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Ondrej Nepela Arena Bratislava  Slovakia
Slovak players salute their fans as they exit the ice following a qualification round loss to Finland. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

BRATISLAVA – It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a favoured host team go down in flames at the IIHF World Championship the way Slovakia has this year.

Sure, you can point to the devastating one-goal losses by Finland (2003) and the Czech Republic (2004) in pre-medal elimination games. Memories of super-stacked host rosters settling for medals they didn’t want, like Sweden (2002, bronze), Russia (2007, bronze) or Canada (2008, silver), also come to mind.

But none of those teams played poorly from the start of their tournament until the end. In fact, they all looked like strong title contenders until they had one bad game that destroyed their hopes.

Not so with the Slovaks. They’ve been weak since Day One.

In fact, if you analyze the history of the “home ice curse” at the Worlds (no hosts have won gold since the 1986 Soviets), there is only one collapse that could be deemed as cringeworthy as Slovakia’s.

The year was 2000 and the place was St. Petersburg, Russia.

It was this writer’s first IIHF World Championship, and what happened seems so long ago and so epic in its magnitude that I can’t help thinking of Elrond’s speech in The Fellowship of the Ring when someone mentions that tournament to me: “I was there, Gandalf. I was there three thousand years ago...I was there the day the strength of Men [or Russia, in this case] failed.”

I, along with just about everyone else, expected the Russians to demolish the competition in their first time hosting since ‘86. Their roster featured a who’s-who of Russian stars.

Forwards Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin, Alexei Zhamnov, and Valeri Kamenski. Defencemen Sergei Gonchar, Andrei Markov, and Alexei Zhitnik. True, the goalies weren’t such hot stuff – Yegor Podomatski and a then unknown and unrefined Ilya Bryzgalov – but the Russians had still managed to win tournaments since the retirement of the unequalled Vladislav Tretiak. Surely this team would be super-motivated to win Russia’s first world title since 1993.

Instead, what ensued was the hockey equivalent of St. Petersburg’s Neva River overflowing and submerging the Winter Palace.

Sluggish and unable to convert on their chances, the Russians managed to lose to countries they’d normally beat with ease: Switzerland (3-2), Latvia (3-2), and Belarus (1-0). Russia had never been defeated at an IIHF World Championship by either of the two former Soviet republics before.

Enraged fans threw bottles on the ice during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” when Robert Esche backstopped the USA to a 3-0 win over Russia at the brand-new Ice Palace. Russian press conferences turned into verbal lashings of head coach Alexander Yakushev by angry journalists, rather than normal Q&A situations.

Even the IIHF web site got caught up in the controversy when reporter John Sanful did an interview with Sergei Gonchar to find out how things could have gone so wrong. Our headline, using a direct quote from the star Washington blueliner, read: “Gonchar: ‘We weren’t motivated.’”

Likely, something was lost in translation there. Nonetheless, “motivated” was the word Gonchar had used, as the audio tape confirmed. The Russians came to us in a fury, insisting that he’d said “concentrated” instead. It all blew over soon, though, as they had bigger things to worry about than the optics from one interview.

Now, get this: after all these shenanigans, the Russians finished eleventh that year. But the Slovaks, pending the result of their tournament closer versus Denmark, are sitting in twelfth place with zero Qualification Round points.

That’s how bad it’s been.

Like the 2000 Russians, Slovakia brought its big scoring stars this year, like Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra. Yet all were outpointed by Ladislav Nagy (three goals and two assists). No offence to Nagy, but when he’s Slovakia’s most productive forward, you know things can’t be going well. It’s the same as if Maxim Afinogenov is outplaying Alexander Ovechkin for Russia. Going 2-for-20 on the power play is another sad indictment.

The defence, lacking Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara and young stud Andrej Meszaros, wasn’t invincible-looking before the tournament, but appeared to be on par with the blueline corps that helped to win Slovakia’s lone Worlds gold in 2002. Nonetheless, the Slovaks have surrendered three or more goals in every game in Bratislava, except against Slovenia and Finland.

Goalie Jaroslav Halak was neither bad nor brilliant for most of the tournament. But the indelible image of his performance that’ll remain is the winning goal he let Tuomo Ruutu score from the left side in Finland’s 2-1 victory on Saturday. It was the game Slovakia had to have, and it was the goal Halak never should have allowed. Certainly, the Halak of Montreal’s 2010 playoff conquests versus Pittsburgh and Washington would have stopped it.

The sad thing is that Slovakia is unlikely to get another shot at gold for years to come. Their player development has stalled. There are few candidates to replace the aging likes of Miroslav Satan, Jozef Stumpel, and Lubomir Visnovsky, who played key roles on the 2002 gold medal team and were still expected to carry the load here nine years later. No fresh legs came to the rescue.

As a result of this home-ice collapse, Slovakia’s tenuous status among the “Big Seven” hockey nations looks more imperiled than ever. The Slovaks haven’t made the World Championship quarter-finals since 2007, and last month, their U18 team was demoted to Division I.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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