BRECLAV, Czech Republic – There will be no shortage of international tournament experience in the host’s locker room. Having represented Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic for nearly two decades, Milan Hnilicka is a valuable source of information for all players on the Czech U18 team currently active at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.
After an upbeat performance season that saw the hosts post a memorable victory over Russia and finishing fourth last year, the General Manager duties this year were passed over to Milan Hnilicka.
By accepting that position, the former goalkeeper continued his close ties to the red-and-white jersey of the Czech Republic. Having already represented his country in several junior tournaments, he first got his name in the books when he participated in the 1990 IIHF U18 European Championship in Sweden. It turned out to be start of a bright international career in which he was an undisputed selection between the pipes of the men’s national team until the 2008 IIHF World Championship.
The spell has been well decorated as well with Olympic gold in 1998 as the absolute highlight. Other than that the list is long and colourful with three World Championship gold medals and 12 medals in total. On top of that he was named Best Goalkeeper at the 2001 IIHF World Championship.
After Hnilicka hung up his skates in 2009, it didn’t take long before he was approached for an off-ice job. He led BK Mlada Boleslav as Sports Manager for two seasons before the national team appealed to him once again. Last year he managed the U17 selections and now he is active in Breclav where the best Czech players born in 1996 and 1997 are presenting themselves to the world.
“Tournaments like these are extremely important for these young lads,” Hnilicka told IIHF.com. “They provide a tremendous experience that these players do not get during regular-season play. They will also play against very good opposition with teams like Canada and Sweden.”
Asked about his time representing the U18 national team, Hnilicka fondly remembered those days: “It’s a long time ago, but I do still have good memories about that time. We played in front of a full house here and were successful. It was an emotional few days for sure.”
When the time allows for it, Hnilicka doesn’t mind picking up the occasional conversation with the players to share experiences.
“Of course I’ve been with the national team for quite some time so I can pass some lessons,” he said. “One thing is that I’ve always felt pride whenever I put on the national team jersey. Over here you are not just representing your country but you also play in a tournament named after Ivan Hlinka, a person who means a lot for Czech hockey and is still very respected.”
Milan Hnilicka makes a save in the quarter-final game between the Czech Republic and Sweden at the 2008 IIHF World Championship. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Although Breclav has been excellent hosts since 2002 (apart from 2007 to 2009 when they didn’t host), Canada was not to hand out any presents in their tournament opening game against the Czech Republic. The 4-0 defeat, however, did not demoralise Hnilicka.
“Canada is a really good team. We started quite well but were unlucky to concede two late goals in the first period. In total we lost by three power-play goals and a penalty shot.”
That result and the Swiss victory over Sweden on the opening day meant that yesterday’s game between the Czech Republic and Switzerland was already vital to keep up any medal hopes for Hnilicka’s team.
“To some the Swiss result comes as a surprise but not to me,” the GM acknowledged. “During the past 10 years, Switzerland has been really improving which shows in international results. They can no longer be underestimated.”
Heading into the crucial game, the game plan remains unchanged.
“We want to play our own system and do not adapt to our opponents. We like to play an active, attractive game and don’t want to sit back and play counter-attack hockey. Against Canada we were pushed back but I’m confident we can be successful.”
Less than fourteen minutes played in the game against Switzerland even the confident General Manager must have been feeling at unease in the stands. Still boosted by their victory on Day 1, Switzerland hit the ice with full momentum and took a 3-0 lead to stun the home crowd.
First Noele Trisconi found himself at the right spot to fire home a rebound before Damien Rat doubled the lead at 13:41. Paralyzed by that goal, the Czechs immediately suffered another blow when Denis Malgin set up Kevin Fiala in the slot, who rifled the puck into the top corner just 15 seconds later.
Czech coach Jakub Petr was forced to call for a time-out and a goaltender change. Having been on both ends of such a goaltending change himself throughout his career, Hnilicka knows the effect such a move can have on a team.
The stoppage of play had the Czechs back on their feet and they cut the deficit back to two when Jakub Vrana opened the scoring for the home team midway through the game and the crowd was getting behind the team. Goalie Vit Vanecek, who was brought in for Jan Pechek, made the necessary saves and the momentum started to shift.
Nevertheless, Switzerland seemed to be in control in taking their second victory until a minute of magic in Breclav occurred. With the clock having signalled the final minute of the game and the Czechs being short-handed after a delay-of-game penalty, Pavel Jenys watched a wrist shot end up in the net to set a frantic finish to the game.
Jakub Petr decided to pull his goaltender to even up the number of skaters on the ice in an all-or-nothing effort. The Swiss became nervous. With the puck in their own zone they failed to clear the puck and Filip Pyrochta scored the Czechs’ second shorthanded goal wristing home the equalizer with 23 seconds left in regulation time; 3-3.
Overtime had both teams play cautious and penalty shots had to decide about the winner. Jakub Vrana scored on the first Czech effort and for the first time in the game Switzerland was trailing. It was a deficit they didn’t recover from. The Swiss failed on two penalty shots of their own before Vaclav Karabacek scored via the goal post.
The Czechs stuck to their game plan and it paid off. They are still in a position to play for a medal but in order to do that they will have to beat Sweden today, while Switzerland will have to recover mentally from this loss before facing Canada.
To make it worse for the Swiss, Canada will also need points from this game to make the semi-finals since they surprisingly lost to Sweden, 4-3, in a physical contest on Tuesday.
Jared McCann gave Canada the lead early on, but Sweden came back strong with three unanswered goals. Robin Kovacs equalised quickly for Tre Kronor after which Kevin Elgestål extended the lead. Sam Bennett and William Nylander exchanged early third-period goals before an unlucky turn of events saw Jake Virtanen crash into Swedish netminder Jesper Eriksson. The goaltender was taken off the ice on a stretcher and eventually brought to hospital.
Spencer Watson brought Canada back to 4-3 with a power-play goal on Linus Söderström, who took over in net for Sweden. It was all Canada was going to get, also because any hopes of a late comeback where thwarted when Brendan Lemieux received a major penalty for kneeing late in the game.
Switzerland now leads the group with 4 points, followed by Sweden and Canada with three points a piece. Although ranked fourth and last, the Czechs are anything but out with the two points earned against the Swiss. A regulation-time win over Sweden would see them qualify for the semi-finals.
Finland impressed the crowd in Piestany in Group B. The team outclassed Slovakia and convincingly posted their second victory of the tournament defeating the home side 5-1.
The other game in the group saw Team USA beat Russia by a score of 4-2. The Russians had their fair share of chances but were denied by a brilliant Alex Nedeljkovic in the U.S. net. The game MVP turned away 32 saves for the Americans who now sit in second place behind Finland.
Group A in Breclav (CZE): Czech Republic, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland
Group B in Piestany (SVK): Slovakia, Finland, Russia, USA
Schedule & Scores:
Monday, 5 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): Finland vs. USA 3-2 OT
In Breclav (15:30): Switzerland vs. Sweden 3-2
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Russia 1-2
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Canada 0-4
Tuesday, 6 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): USA vs. Russia 4-2
In Breclav (15:30): Sweden vs. Canada 4-3
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. Finland 1-5
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Switzerland 4-3 SO
Wednesday, 7 August 2013
In Piestany (14:00): Russia vs. Finland
In Breclav (15:30): Canada vs. Switzerland
In Piestany (17:30): Slovakia vs. USA
In Breclav (19:00): Czech Republic vs. Sweden
Friday, 9 August 2013
Saturday, 10 August 2013
Bronze medal game
Gold medal game