BRATISLAVA – For Slovakia, there would be no better time than now to break a nine-year medal drought. It’s the first time this Central European nation has hosted the IIHF World Championship. Yes, the capital city of Bratislava staged some games in 1959 and 1992, during the Czechoslovakia era, but doing it as an independent nation is something special.
The question is whether the land that gave us superstars like Peter Bondra and Peter Stastny will rise to the occasion – or simply peter out. At the last three Worlds, Slovakia has finished 13th, 10th, and 12th respectively, belying its reputation as a premier hockey power. Due in large part to a constant drain of talent to the Canadian junior leagues, Slovakia also hasn’t developed as many World Championship-caliber young players as it did in the past. So now is the time to do something, while the current generation still has something to give.
Can the Slovaks kick up it a notch, as the far less talented Germans did last year en route to a fourth-place finish as the host country? Or will the pressure from fans and media get to them? It’s been a long time since now-team GM Bondra scored the late winner against Russia that brought Slovakia its only previous World Championship gold medal in 2002. Fortunately, the willingness of players to suit up on home ice this year has measurably increased Slovakia’s chances.
With no IIHF medals at the senior level to date, Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues lacks the international pedigree that previous Slovak netminding notables like Vladimir Dzurilla – or even Halak’s 2011 backup, Jan Lasak – have fashioned. But he’s certainly become the best Slovak goalie the NHL has ever seen. Think back to his heroic three-round run with the Montreal Canadiens last year, where he knocked off Alexander Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins before succumbing to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Halak didn’t set the world on fire with the Blues this year, although his 2.48 GAA and 91.0 save percentage were respectable during a season marred by injuries. Yet anyone who witnessed his excellent work at last year’s Olympics, taking the Cinderella Slovaks all the way to the bronze medal game, will appreciate that he could almost singlehandedly win this tournament for the host nation if he’s in top form.
The (literally) biggest player missing from the Slovak blueline is Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins. While the 2.06-metre, 115-kilogram perennial Norris Trophy candidate does battle with the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the NHL playoffs, the Slovaks will still ice a fine defensive corps.
Though reportedly still nursing an ailing shoulder, Lubomir Visnovsky of the Los Angeles Kings has shown up to represent his country. The 34-year-old led all NHL defencemen with 68 points this season, 34 of those coming with the man advantage. He’ll be expected to quarterback the Slovak power play.
Two other 2010 Olympians will make their presence felt, too. Third-year NHLer Andrej Sekera of the Buffalo Sabres flowered in the late stages of the NHL season, potting 15 points in 16 games in March. Milan Jurcina is no Chara, but the towering New York Islanders veteran still brings a solid physical element.
A solid cast of mostly KHL-based rearguards rounds out the mix, like Dominik Granak and Martin Strbak of Dynamo Moscow. Strbak also played for the golden 2002 team.
This is where the Slovaks truly have a chance to shine.
Pavol Demitra didn’t get much done for the Vancouver Canucks last year, but playing on the same home rink at Canada Hockey Place, the shifty centre emerged as the surprise leading scorer of the Olympics with 10 points. Coming off an 61-point season with the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, he’ll enjoy an opportunity here to reunite with an old buddy, the fleet-footed New York Rangers winger Marian Gaborik. After mustering just 48 points this season in 62 games, Gaborik will be looking for some redemption, especially since the Rangers exited the playoffs in disappointing fashion and his miscue in Game Four of the opening round gave the Washington Capitals a 4-3 OT victory.
It gets better. Just-eliminated forwards Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks and Michal Handzus of the Los Angeles Kings are on their way to join the national side. Both bring strong two-way play, and Hossa, a 2010 Stanley Cup champion with three trips to the NHL finals and 25 points in 15 Olympic games, should also add some timely scoring. For Hossa, it’s also a chance to play with his younger brother Marcel (Ak Bars Kazan) again.
Even some old favourites could have an impact. At the start of the new millennium, Miroslav Satan was genuinely the offensive go-to guy for Slovakia – he scored more than 10 points in each of Slovakia’s medal runs in 2000, 2002, and 2003. He played just six games for Dynamo Moscow this year, but if the onetime tournament MVP can summon up even half of his old magic at age 36, it’ll be enormously valuable. Playmaking centre Josef Stumpel was still relatively productive with Dynamo Minsk at age 39 (12-16-28 in 45 games), and also was part of those 2002 and 2003 teams.
Glen Hanlon knows that improving on the 12th-place finish Slovakia earned in his first go-round in 2010 is, well, absolutely essential. The Canadian’s success with Belarus, including an all-time best sixth place finish in 2006, is what prompted the Slovaks to hire him as their first-ever foreign coach. The 54-year-old former NHL bench boss specializes in implementing a solid defensive structure. He also will have to keep his team on an even keel, especially when the excitement and passion of Slovak fans is hitting a fever pitch.
This is a very difficult tournament to win – especially, it seems, for host teams. Anyone familiar with the recent history of the tournament will recall spectacular home-ice flops by Russia (2000), Finland (2003), and the Czech Republic (2004), to name just a few. In fact, no host team has claimed gold since the Soviet Union in 1986.
So what does this mean for Slovakia? While becoming the team that breaks the longstanding “home ice curse” is the ultimate dream, of course, a medal of any colour would be a great success, particularly in light of the Slovaks’ recent record. And that's doable. They are icing the majority of their top players, as they did en route to gold in 2002, so that provides realistic hope for their ever-enthusiastic fans.