OTTAWA – The first three words of the Czech national anthem translate as ‘Where is my homeland?’ The words were written almost 180 years ago. Now a new generation hopes it has found a new home at the top level.
While the former Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic have been among the powerhouses in men’s hockey for more than half-a-century, on the female side the game has been slow to develop.
The first official season for women’s hockey in former Czechoslovakia was 1986-87, but international competition didn’t begin until 1991 at the European championship, where the Czechoslovaks finished 8th.
Competing in the World Championship for the first time in 1999, the Czech Republic placed 4th in the B Pool and fell as low as 7th in 2000. Then in 2009 the Czechs hit rock bottom, placing 5th in Division I and being relegated to the third tier of the program.
They bounced back with promotion to Division I again in 2011, then after winning the gold medal in the Division I Group A in 2012 were elevated to the Top Division for 2013 in Ottawa.
At the 2012 Division I Group A tournament in Latvia, the Czechs were seeded last but surprised their opponents by clinching the title on the last day with a convincing 6-1 win over Austria. The Austrians, Japan and Norway all had a chance to take all honours, heading into the final day of play.
Radka Lhotska, the oldest player on the team at 32, was selected best goalkeeper of the tournament with a 96.2 save percentage and GAA of 0.83 in five games. She plays in Germany for the Saltzgiter Icefighters and works there for a tax consulting firm.
This is an extremely young Czech team coming to the capital city of the birthplace of hockey, with an average age of only 20.8. In fact, eight players are still members of the country’s Under-18 squad.
The Czechs earned a bronze medal at the 2008 U18 Women’s World Championship in Calgary. At the Under-18 level, they have been playing in the Top Division for five years, and have three semi-final appearances and a bronze medal to show for it.
“Hockey is not a typical sport for women in the Czech Republic,” said GM Martin Loukota. “More of them participate in sports like figure skating, volleyball and basketball.
“Our goal here in Ottawa simply is to win two games, make it to the quarter-finals and avoid relegation.”
While the Czechs have faced Germany and Switzerland at tournaments in Europe, they have never encountered other top level nations like Canada and the U.S.
In January of 2012 the team did travel to the U.S. to play in the Ralph Vanetti Sr. Memoral Tournament and also played the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
In 2010, Alena Polenska was named captain of the 2014 Development Team, a group of players selected to work towards a spot in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
However, the Czechs placed second to Germany at the qualifying tournament in February and will have to wait another four years to try again. The Czech Republic also missed qualifying for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, finishing last in a four-team tournament in Shanghai, China, which the Chinese won.
A native of Kutna Hora, Polenska was co-captain of the Brown University Bears in Providence, Rhode Island, this season – her final one at the school. She led the Bears in scoring with nine goals and 19 points in 22 games.
She was the first female Czech player to receive a scholarship to an NCAA Division 1 university. At the 2008 U18 Women’s World Championship, she was team MVP of the bronze medal-winning Czech team.
In 2010, at the age of only 15, Denisa Krizova won the Golden Stick as the top player in Czech women’s hockey. Krizova, a native of Pelhrimov who now attends the National Sports Academy in Lake Placid, New York, made a smashing debut at the U18 Women’s World Championship in Chicago in 2010.
Defenceman Jana Fialova, a steady blueliner with a hard shot, plays at the Northern Alberta Insitute of Technology in Canada.
Before moving to Canada, she attended Rice Memorial High School in Burlington, Vermont, where she was a member of both the high school team and the Vermont Stars.
Lucie Manhartova, the daughter of head coach Karel Manhart, has just completed her freshman year at Norwich University in Montpelier, Vermont.
Klara Chmelova and Aneta Tejralova, neither of whom have reached their 18th birthday, are also rated very highly as Olympic prospects for 2018.
A few years ago the Czechs hired American Julianne Vasichek as their program's strength and conditioning coach. Vasichek was formerly the strength coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth where she helped that team achieve two national NCAA Division I titles.
As a player Vasicek was known as a tough defenceman who was twice named an All-American. In 2004 she was a member of the U.S. team at the World Championship.
In 2012 Melody Davidson, who has won a total of six gold medals coaching Canada at the Olympics and World Championship, visited the Czech Republic and gave a lecture about the different levels of hockey in the world and how the Canadian team operates.
Manhart was impressed.
"I have been to her lectures many times, but it is always a great experience," he said. "Melody Davidson is an icon in women’s hockey and we all should learn from her."
The Czechs sent 16 players to the first ever IIHF High Performance Camp in Bratislava, Slovakia, in the summer of 2011.
The Czech Republic has only about 800 active female players, but has 18 adult teams, four of them in the top league. All teams play at the amateur level.
Currently the Czech National Women's Program consists of three teams - senior, Under-18 and Under-16.
Part of the team’s development can be attributed to James Craig, an American who was hired as an assistant coach. Craig had worked in the AHL, WHL and BCHL.