About to Czech out?

Sub-par outing in Germany reflects overall Czech woes

16-05-10
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SAP Arena Mannheim  Germany
Now is not a good time to be a Czech hockey player. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

MANNHEIM – Did you hear the Czechs beat Germany 4-3? Unfortunately, it was in a game of table hockey between two IIHF.com writers at the media centre at SAP Arena today.

Right now, the Czechs probably wish table hockey points counted in the IIHF World Championship standings. They haven't won a medal since 2006's silver, and haven't topped the tournament since 2005's gold.

In a worst-case scenario, they could even fail to make the quarter-finals this year. The Czechs have never finished lower than seventh before at the Worlds (1994, 2007).

“We have no choice other than to win the next two matches,” said Jan Marek, alluding to the upcoming confrontations with Latvia and Canada.

The disturbing thing, if you're a Czech hockey fan, is that seeing your team lose to Norway and Switzerland by identical 3-2 scores just doesn't seem so shocking anymore.

The Czech Republic has lost its international hockey swagger. It feels like a million years ago that this nation captured Olympic gold (1998) and followed that up with three consecutive world titles.

In the old days, if the Swiss had upset the Czechs, shots on goal would probably have favoured the Czechs 50-11. Switzerland would have scored a couple of weak goals: a banked shot off a Czech defenceman's skate, a wrister from the corner that squeezed between the netminder's pad and his post. The Swiss players would have celebrated as if they'd won the Stanley Cup, the Olympics, the Nobel Prize, and the World Cup of Soccer all at the same time.

Now instead, the Swiss are playing the Czechs on relatively even terms. Much like at the Olympics, where the Czechs were seventh and Switzerland eighth.

It's a far cry from the 1972 IIHF World Championship in Prague, where Czechoslovakia thrashed Switzerland 19-1.

The most impressive goal last night wasn't a Czech masterwork. It came in the first period, and saw Andreas Ambühl crunching Jiri Novotny in the Czech zone and then converting a great three-way passing play with Thibaut Monnet and Damien Brunner.

“If it wasn't for our goalie Tomas Vokoun, it could have been 6-0 after the first period,” said Marek.

Of course, this is a tribute to the progress Swiss hockey has made. But it reflects the decline of Czech hockey even more powerfully.

As Jaromir Jagr pointed out early in this tournament, it's disappointing to see the failure of top Czech NHL talents to suit up for their country again here in Germany after participating in the Olympics in February.

Yet the Czechs used to triumph internationally with heavy reliance on Europe-based players, many from the Extraliga. For instance, the '98 Olympic roster featured skaters like captain Vladimir Ruzicka (Slavia Praha), Jan Caloun (HIFK Helsinki), Josef Beranek and Jiri Dopita (HC Petra Vsetin), Milan Hejduk (Pardubice), Frantisek Kucera (HC Sparta Praha), David Moravec (Vitkovice), and Pavel Patera and Libor Prochazka (AIK Stockholm). That trend was even more pronounced on the golden Worlds squads.

Ruzicka, now coaching the national team in his final go-round in Germany, must be wishing that the current crop of Europe-based talent was as deep as it used to be. It's simply not.

Decimated by reduced funding in the post-Communist era and by the defection of innumerable young, unripe talents to the North American junior leagues, Czech hockey is paying the price right now.

There is a ton of work to be done if the Czechs ever hope to produce a new generation of successors to Jagr and Dominik Hasek and return to the summit of international hockey.

In the short term, a strong finish to the Qualification Round versus Latvia and Canada is essential.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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