ZURICH-KLOTEN – After winning a bronze in Turin and a silver medal a few weeks later at the 2006 World Championship in Riga, the Czechs have fallen into a slump. They finished a disappointing 7th and 5th in the last two World Championships and arrive in Kloten looking to regain some luster to their once flawless reputation.
Lukas Mensator, Martin Prusek, and Jakub Stepanek are the Czech goalies, but none of them has major international experience at the Olympics or Worlds. With lots of talent among the forwards, it will be up to this trio to protect its own goal with suitable ability. If they don’t, the Czechs can kiss a medal goodbye.
Two names dominate the defensive corps. Marek Zidlicky of the Minnesota Wild and Michal Barinka of Vitkovice lead the way. Both are highly capable blueliners, and it will be their job to log the minutes, face the opposition’s top line, and get the rest of the defence on board. The other members of the defence cast include Angel Krstev, Miroslav Blatak, Petr Caslava, Zdenek Kutlak, Karel Rachunek, Vladimir Sicak, and Ondrej Nemec. It won’t be the best corps the Czechs have ever sent to the Worlds, but it is a big (in size and stature) and impressive group all the same.
Appearing for his country for the first time since the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Jaromir Jagr dominates the entry list of Czech forwards. The former NHL star who played this past season in the KHL is appearing in his ninth Olympics/World Championship, and his role is simple: create offence. As his scoring and passing go, so goes the team’s chances of success. Most all of the forwards are from the NHL or KHL, Edmonton and Florida leading the way. The Oilers contingent includes Ales Hemsky and Ales Kotalik while the Panthers provide Michael Frolik and Rostislav Olesz. Jakub Klepis, a teammate of Jagr’s with Avangard Omsk, is here, as are two players each from Metallurg Magnitogorsk (Jan Marek, Tomas Rolinek) and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (Josef Vasicek, Zbynek Irgl). There is plenty of experience and skill up front, but this will clearly be Jagr’s team.
Vladimir Ruzicka is the national team coach for a second time. He first coached the team in 2005, inheriting the job after the death of Ivan Hlinka. Ruzicka had been Hlinka’s assistant, and the Czechs defeated Canada 3-0 to win gold in ’05. Ruzicka also coaches Slavia Prague in the Czech league, and his reputation and knowledge leave nothing to be desired. Win or lose, Ruzicka is a capable bench boss.
Getting through to the Qualification Round will not be a problem for the Czechs, nor will a date in the quarterfinals. This is a team with ample skill and talent, and perhaps only goaltending will decide whether the team can win gold or not. Regardless, a medal is a respectable expectation. The only unknown is its colour.