BRATISLAVA – As a two-time Stanley Cup champion, Patrik Elias has nothing to complain about as an NHLer. But the 35-year-old Czech left wing still has some unfinished business internationally.
His IIHF résumé currently includes just one Olympic bronze medal (2006) and one World Championship bronze medal (1998). Elias, the all-time leading scorer of the New Jersey Devils with 816 points, is coming off an underwhelming NHL campaign team-wise, and Slovakia provides the opportunity to end his season on a positive note, as the Czechs seek to repeat their golden heroics of 2010.
The Trebic-born veteran set the tone with a goal and an assist in the first game against Latvia. IIHF.com chatted with Elias after the Czech practice at Orange Arena on Sunday morning.
What did you think of the way your team played in your opening 4-2 win over Latvia?
Obviously we’re happy with the win. There are certain things in our game that we’ve got to work on. You saw the first game for everyone, how tough it is to beat anybody. It’s all so even here with all the team. You can’t take anybody lightly. We knew that Latvia was going to be a tough team to play against. We’re happy we got the points.
Is it good to have a tight game like that to wake you up?
I think we were woken up against Canada at home [a 4-2 exhibition loss in Prague on April 27]. It was a tough, physical game. But we knew that the Latvians were a good skating team. And you know, tomorrow against Denmark, it’s no different. We saw what they did last year too [a best-ever eighth-place finish]. All the games are going to be difficult.
How did you like the chemistry that you, Martin Havlat, and Milan Michalek demonstrated as a line in your first outing?
We had a good game. I thought defensively we made one mistake that led to a goal [the Robert Bukarts goal that made it 2-1 Latvia in the second period]. But offensively we had tons of chances. We could have scored even more, but came up with a couple of good goals to tie it up and go ahead. We’re pretty happy with the chemistry.
Let’s talk about the coaching change. This isn’t the first time you’ve had Alois Hadamczik behind the bench, of course. But how different is his coaching style and personality from Vladimir Ruzicka?
There’s a slightly different approach to the game. He wants to make sure that we do certain things in the neutral zone differently, for instance. They’re different people, so the approach on the bench, in the locker room, and in terms of game preparation is different. But they’re both quality coaches. I’ve played for both of them in the past, so the transition is pretty easy.
Every year we see Jaromir Jagr at the World Championship now. What are your impressions of him early on?
He’s been solid. I don’t know if he had the best game yesterday, but we got a win. It doesn’t matter who scores the goals. We’re here to win, and his mental approach is great. He does everything for the success of the team. That’s all we can ask.
This is the first time in your NHL career that you’ve missed the playoffs. What did that feel like?
Disappointing. Especially the first half of the season was disappointing. But I’ve got to tell you, at the end of the season, we were happy and satisfied with the way we finished. It’s disappointing not to advance into the playoffs. It was too big of a hole for us to dig ourselves out of it. But we’ve got something positive to look forward to next year. I know we realize the way we’ve got to play, because our second half was just outstanding. I felt great after the season about the way our team battled back and approached the second half. Hopefully we can start off like that right from the get-go next year.
You really turned things around under Jacques Lemaire. Do you wish he was ten years younger and was coming back next year?
Yeah. He was great. I don’t think I’ve had a better coach, especially in terms of the way he approaches the game defensively. He’s so into details. I think he’s an ideal coach for guys coming in from junior, or over from Europe, to learn the system. It was the same guys on the ice [after the release of John MacLean], but you saw what he did with us. He gave the guys confidence. We had to pick up our work ethic. It’s too bad that it seems like every year we’re in the same situation of searching for a new coach in the summer. It’s unknown, and it’s disturbing a little bit.
One of your New Jersey teammates, Ilya Kovalchuk, is over here playing for Russia. Did you get in touch with him after that 2-0 German win over Russia?
[shaking his head] I don’t know if he would talk much then. We’re teammates. We respect each other. But he’s here to play for his country, and I’m here to play for mine. We might say hi to each other, but that’s about it.
On a different note, I know you’re a big football fan and enjoy playing too. If you could play for any club in the world, which one would it be?
[big smile] Barcelona! The way they play is the way any team sport should be played. For them, it’s all about ball possession. For us, it’s about puck possession and control. They’re amazing. Short passes all over the field. Xavi is an outstanding player. He’s so underrated. Or perhaps not underrated, but he’s not a flashy guy. But he gets the respect. Lionel Messi, obviously, he’s a god. It’s amazing. I wish I could see one of those El Clasicos [a club match between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona].
You and your wife Petra welcomed your new baby daughter, Sophia Gabriella, back in November. How has becoming a father changed you?
Tremendously, and for the better. She’s been great. She’s been amazing, actually. She’s a happy, happy, happy kid. We’re enjoying every moment of it. Even though you don’t get as much sleep, you don’t feel that. She just energizes you. During a tough first half of the season, I had something positive in my life. I could feel happy individually. Even my approach to the game is a little bit different, and I’m loving it.
Finally, getting back to tomorrow’s game against the Danes: they only had nine shots on goal against Finland. Are you expecting them to try to turn it up a notch?
I don’t know. I think they’re going to have to play responsibly on defence against us. They’re going to go for breaks, look for mistakes. It’s not going to be any different in that regard whether we’re playing Latvia or Norway or whomever. Obviously the Latvians are more skilled, but they were waiting for their breaks. We’re going to have to be patient against Denmark and wait for our chances too. We can’t get too antsy and give them odd-man rushes.