How did the Czechs do it?

Not a shock that the country won, but a very surprising roster

26-05-10
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Thousands of fans celebrate the Czech team on the old town square in Prague. Photo: Michal Cizek / AFP Photo

Any time a hockey team from the Czech Republic wins a tournament people are not surprised. After all, the nation is among the big seven in international hockey, a country that loves the game and has many of the world’s greatest players.

When the Czech national team returned to Prague on Monday, they were celebrated with the usual accolades that come with winning a major world hockey tournament. People jammed the streets, the players were paraded on a bus and it all ended with the heroes on stage presenting the World Championship to their fans.

But this time it was different. Although the city of Prague has celebrated 12 World Championship titles and one Olympic gold team, the 2010 title was by far and away the most unexpected.  After almost four years of basically no success, the Czechs were suddenly back on top of the world.

The most surprising thing is that the team that won the World Championship in Germany just a few days ago was comprised of mostly unknown players, young players from the Czech league and other European leagues, almost entirely bereft of NHL players and superstars. Indeed, after the team lost games to Norway and Switzerland in the early going, both by 3-2 scores, it seemed pretty clear this was not the usual top-notch World Championship team from the Czech Republic.

Yet, two weeks after the tournament began, it was the Czechs who won gold. Even more incredible, they beat a Russian team loaded with many of its Olympic players from two months ago in Vancouver. The names of Ovechkin, Malkin, Kovalchuk, Semin, Fedorov, Gonchar, Afinogenov, and Datsyuk are the stuff of modern Russian legend.

Yet, for all intents and purposes, the Czechs had exactly two star players from their Olympic roster (i.e., best of the best) – Jaromir Jagr and Tomas Vokoun. The second and third goalies were also at both events, but Ondrej Pavelec didn’t play in Vancouver and appeared only once in Germany, and Jakub Stepanek didn’t play a minute of either tournament. Other than that, the only other players were Roman Cervenka, Miroslav Blatak, and Tomas Rolinek, hardly names to rely on for a gold medal.

So how did the Czechs do it? How did they win gold? How did they beat the Russians? The answers are many.

Goaltending
Almost any time a team wins a big tournament, it does so with big-time goaltending. Although this Czech team lacked stars, one of that small number was Tomas Vokoun. And, not only was he a star name — he played like a star. No soft goals, no nervous moments. When a team sees it can rely on its goaltender, it plays with greater confidence. In the gold medal game, it took like two minutes to realize that Vokoun was “in the zone”.

System Hockey
This Czech team recalls the late 1990s and early 21st century when it was the style of play more than the names on the sweaters that mattered. This team played defence with exceptional poise and commitment to coach Vladimir Ruzicka’s plan. It kept the top guns to the outside of the wide ice, avoided odd-man rushes off the counter-attack, and got in the way of passes all over the ice. Not surprisingly, it did so at a sacrifice of offence, scoring only 25 goals in nine games.

The Speech
Jaromir Jagr first played a top-level tournament for his country in 1990, at the World Championship. Since then, he has played in seven Worlds, four Olympics, and two World Cups. He is the hockey God of the Czech Republic, the greatest player in the country’s history (with the possible exception of goalie Dominik Hasek). Yet there he was, at age 38, showing up to play for his country yet again. In the opening days of the tournament, he publicly blasted the many players who declined invitations to represent their country. Just as Phil Esposito did in 1972 for Canada, this speech rallied the players who did show up, gave them a goal and greater purpose. It brought these individuals who traveled around the world together as a team — all for one and one for all.

Mastering Desperation Hockey
Often the problem for a team quickly assembled is that it doesn’t have time to come together quickly. Practise is the key to creating a team out of individuals, and experience is the greatest form of practice. Vokoun noted after the final game that the Czechs had been playing desperation hockey longer than any other nation in Germany. Consider this. After losing to Norway in the Preliminary Round and Switzerland in the first game of the Qualifying Round, the Czechs faced the embarrassing reality that they might miss the quarter-finals altogether. They needed to win their next game against Latvia, which they did, 3-1. The final game against Canada was even more important. A regulation loss would have sent them packing. They rallied for a 3-2 win, however, and then had three more elimination games in the playoff round. In short, they learned to play desperation hockey early in the tournament, and this made them a stronger and more experienced team.

Luck
As Vokoun noted, no team wins gold without a little luck, and the Czechs used all their luck in 14 seconds in one game at the most critical time. They trailed the Swedes in the semi-finals 1-0 in the first period and 2-1 in the third period. With only 14 seconds left in the game and Vokoun on the bench, the Swedes missed an empty-net goal by inches and instead were called for icing. On the ensuing faceoff, the puck was in behind the Tre Kronor net with a large scrum of players, but it somehow came out to the high slot where Karel Rachunek ripped a shot passed goalie Jonas Gustavsson to tie the game with 7.5 second showing on the clock. In the shootout, Jan Marek’s deke saw the puck squirt through Gustavsson’s pads, off the post, and slide slowly and barely over the goal line for the most improbable victory. Incredibly, it was the shocked Swedes who went home and the Czechs advance to the golden game.

One Game
Every Czech player who skated off the ice after winning gold acknowledged the same thing. In an NHL-style, best-of-seven playoff series, they would have little chance against the mighty Russians. But the World Championship gold-medal game was one game, 60 minutes. They had the confidence that if they executed their defensive strategy, they could win once, if only once. They believed. They executed. They won.

Russia Wasn’t Ready
You often hear a player say that his team didn’t play a full 60 minutes. This usually refers to a blown lead or a late-game collapse. In the gold-medal game, though, it was the opposite. The Russians were not ready from the opening faceoff. The result was a stunning goal just 20 seconds into the game by the Czechs, a goal from which, in truth, the Russians never recovered. The speed and surprise of the goal shocked them, and although they had the only three power-play goals of the first period, they did little damage and were lulled into submission by the Czechs.

Frustrating the Opponent
By the third period, trailing 2-0, the Russians were at a loss for answers to questions they hadn’t been prepared for. Alexei Emelin took a five-minute major and game misconduct halfway through to virtually end the team’s chances for a comeback, and they took two more minor penalties later to make sure a tying goal was pretty much out of the question. Coach Vyacheslav Bykov had no response to the Czech style of play, and the Russian stars were all of a sudden mere mortals.

Who Are These Guys?
Every hockey fan knows the names of Jagr and Vokoun, but who were the other players on the team? There were only four NHLers, and one was the backup goalie Pavelec, who wasn’t a factor in the tournament. The others were defenceman Michal Rozsival of the New York Rangers, forward Jakub Voracek (Columbus), and Vokoun (Florida). The Czech league provided several newcomers and unheralded players such as defenceman Ondrej Nemec of Karlovy Vary, who averaged nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game and was sensational. Captain Tomas Rolinek led the team with four goals and was one of eight KHLers in the lineup. The team also had players from the Finnish league (Lukas Kaspar) and Swedish league (Tomas Mojzis). In all, players from five leagues from around the world came together, and within two weeks won World Championship gold. Was it a miracle? No. Was it, as Jagr said, the most unlikely result in the tournament’s history? Likely.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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