CALGARY – “The next game is the most important one.” It’s a quote coming from head coaches that journalists can dream and condemn. Slovak U20 coach Ernest Bokros preaches them as well, but this time there is more than just a cliché behind it.
Slovakia opens its 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship campaign on Tuesday with a game against newly-promoted Latvia. For the Slovaks, it is listed as a must-win game if they want to have any chance of progressing in the tournament.
“If we do not succeed in winning we will put ourselves under immense pressure,” Bokros says. “The whole preparation is aimed for winning our first game. As a coach I’m glad we open against Latvia.”
For the 17th consecutive year Slovakia will participate at the elite level of the U20 competition, but opposed to the men’s team, the juniors are less successful on the world stage. Their best achievement to date has been a bronze medal in 1999, while three years ago the team finished a surprising fourth.
Since then the team has been fighting relegation in recent years. The U18 squad was relegated to Division I last year, enough cause for Bokros not to feel too comfortable heading into 2012.
“If we compare ourselves with other top ice hockey nations, we have to take into account that we have far fewer players and kids involved in hockey,” Bokros tells IIHF.com. “The relegation of the U18 team last year mobilized a new group of people taking charge of Slovak hockey. They will try to get junior hockey in Slovakia back to where it belongs.”
One of the things Bokros immediately did was adding mental coach Peter Bielik to the staff. His role is a new one for the U20 team.
“As soon as I took on the job I added a mental, conditioning and video coach to the team staff,” the head coach explains. “Peter’s role was to analyse and prepare the players for such an important and tough tournament and can even be called upon via Skype to assist during the event.”
Another notable trend change is the number of selected players playing overseas. In the past these players were often criticized for leaving Slovakia too early and not playing with their heart while donning the dark blue and red jersey. Almost half of this year’s squad, however, will feature players who play abroad. With the tournament being played on a smaller ice surface in Calgary and Edmonton this can be seen as an advantage over teams with fewer players familiar to the North American ice size.
Bokros is indifferent to it though. “Even if the tournament was held in Europe I would select these players,” he admits. “If the player is good enough to play in an elite junior hockey league he can help the U20 national team with his experience. However regardless of the league he plays in, it is vital the player is fully committed to represent the nation.”
The remainder of the squad travelled from Vienna to Calgary to meet with the other players and start the final preparations for the round robin games against Latvia, Russia, Sweden and finally Switzerland on New Year’s Eve. The selection of the thirteen domestic players has been the result of a long and careful process that started already this summer with the Slovak U20 team participating in the Extraliga and the tier below, 1.Liga, under the name HK20 Orange Puchov.
The team played each Extraliga squad once and finished with nine losses and one overtime victory. Against second-division opposition the team did better with 5 wins from 13 games.
But winning games isn’t the prime objective for the team. More important is the fact that they can practise and play together and give the coaching staff a good overview of the available quality among Slovak junior hockey.
Ernest Bokros is only with the U20 team as of mid-November, but is fully committed. “I believe in this project because it helps to develop young players on the long term providing lots of talented players an opportunity to play against tough senior opposition.”
While the head coach has a good view on the abilities of the HK20 Orange players, Bokros has not had the chance to get a close look to the players playing overseas.
“This is really difficult but also very challenging due to the short time we have together before the tournament starts. One of the negative aspects from a coaching point of view is that we can’t influence the physical part of the preparation for these players. We are forced to rely on the coaching staff of the teams they play for.”
Slovakia got through the complete selection process virtually injury-free. Three players were not considered fully fit to play four games in five days and were told to stay in Slovakia. What’s left is a team that is ranked fourth in its group but could surprise on any given day.
On defence five of the seven defencemen play in the tougher CHL whereas up front Slovakia is hoping for a break-out tournament of Detroit Red Wings prospects Tomas Jurco and Marek Tvrdon. Much like three years when Tomas Tatar carried the team’s offence to another level, both Jurco and Tvrdon are having career seasons and will have every reason to continue to impress the Detroit scouting staff.
The biggest question mark of the team is once again the man between the pipes. No matter how good the players are, goaltending does make the difference between reaching the quarter-finals or ending up in a relegation battle. The decision on who will be the starting goaltender is not yet announced but it will be a choice between last year’s starter Dominik Riecicky and in-form Juraj Simboch. If one of the two can mirror the magical performances of Jaroslav Janus during the 2009 tournament in Ottawa, Slovakia could well be in for a nice treat.
Although reaching the knock-out round is a team objective, Bokros is clear about the team’s primary goal.
“Since our U18 relegated last year our ultimate goal is to do whatever it takes to stay at the top level.” Anything else can be considered a bonus. “People can expect a determined squad that will try to be a tough opponent for any team,” Bokros says to the fans having acquired tickets for the Slovakia games.
The fans in Calgary can warm their hands for a potential new Slovak star player in the mold of Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Jaroslav Halak or Tomas Tatar. Although the nation is no longer among the top nations it still carries those little unpolished diamonds in the rough that suddenly come to full blossom at the U20 World Championships.