Vladimir Ruzicka is at once an old favourite and a new broom as the Czechs look to a new generation after the disappointment of a quarter-final exit in Sochi.
After an aging Czech roster disappointingly departed Sochi at the quarter-final stage it’s been all change for one of Europe’s most passionate hockey nations. Vladimir Ruzicka is back behind the bench, and he’s seeking a third World Championship gold to go with the big prizes he won in 2005 and 2010. Although Ruzicka is back for his third stint in charge, this is no old boys’ club – several familiar faces, including Petr Nedved, have gone and Lev Prague’s impressive run to the KHL final has swept several of its men into the roster.
Just five members of the Sochi squad will be involved in Minsk: Jaromir Jagr, Roman Cervenka, Jiri Novotny and goalies Alexander Salak and Jakub Kovar. There are still plenty of well-known names, though, including NHL firepower from Jiri Hudler, Vladimir Sobotka and Tomas Hertl. But it’s a line-up with 10 World Championship debutants, including Sobotka, whose Olympic hopes were halted by injury.
Alexander Salak of SKA St. Petersburg is likely to be number one between the piping, with Jakub Kovar expected to play the cover role. Salak established himself as Jukka Jalonen’s first choice, and kept his GAA below 2.00 all season even though his team fell disappointingly early in the play-offs. Kovar, meanwhile, was a huge factor as unheralded Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg made a rare post-season appearance. In the regular season he blocked 93.1% of the shots he faced, but found things harder in the play-offs as the Motormen were swept by free-scoring Barys Astana. Pavel Francouz of Litvinov completes the trio.
It’s an almost entirely new-look defence for the Czechs in Minsk, with only Roman Polak arriving with prior World Championship experience. A hard-hitting fixture for the St. Louis Blues, he and fellow NHLer Jakub Kindl (Red Wings) will bear much of the responsibility in front of the Czech net.
Lev’s success this season sees two of its players, Ondrej Nemec and Martin Sevc, called into the roster as well, while fellow KHL man Jan Kolar has made himself a fixture at Donbass Donetsk. While all of these men are noted for an uncompromising style, they lack big scoring contributions, a potential weakness which may hamper the Czechs against top opposition.
The ageless Jagr needs no introduction, but much of the rest of the offence arrives with a point to prove after being overlooked for the Olympics. Jiri Hudler, a bright if occasionally frustrating talent who lifted the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008, was perhaps the most controversial Sochi absentee. After a 54-point haul at struggling Calgary he’s back in his country’s colours here, making only his third World Championship appearance and will be expected to be a leader in an inexperienced roster.
Tomas Hertl, who was born three years after Jagr made his World Championship debut, is another NHL player who missed out on the Olympics, but unlike Hudler the San Jose Shark was robbed of a Sochi call-up by injury. A big, solid centre, happy to use his physique at both ends of the ice, his game has drawn comparisons with Martin Hanzal. A year ago he went pointless in eight games; this year Hertl might get his international breakthrough.
Vladimir Sobotka, of the St. Louis Blues, is a World Championship rookie. Like Hertl, injury wrecked his Olympic dream and the 26-year-old former Boston Bruin is linking up with his country’s senior team for the first time.
There are a few KHL names of note as well. Roman Cervenka is a survivor of the Olympic roster and is likely to play a big role, while Jan Kovar arrives off the back of a real break-out season that culminated in lifting the Gagarin Cup with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. He joins three players who finished as runners-up: Jiri Novotny, Jakub Klepis and young Jiri Sekac of Lev Prague.
Ruzicka’s return for his third spell in the hot seat was exactly what many fans were calling for after the team’s struggles in Sochi under Alois Hadamczik. As a member of 1998 Olympic Champion roster, he’s a hero of Czech hockey, and to him now falls the task of regenerating a team that looked a little past its sell-by date at the Olympics.
Much of the ground-work has been laid in this season’s Euro Tour contests, with the Czechs using the competition as a chance to blood potential stars of the future in a fairly low-pressure environment. But for many of these players the serious battle starts now, and that’s where Ruzicka’s World Championship know-how will make all the difference. His CV commands instant respect, and he can draw on a wealth of experience in this competition to ensure his team is in peak condition for the task ahead.
As befits a new-look roster, results have been unpredictable for the Czechs. Many of these players formed part of the youthful roster that stormed Sochi in December’s Channel 1 Cup, spoiling Russia’s pre-Olympic party by topping that four-team tourney. At times, though, the team has looked uneven: not even Ruzicka’s presence could prevent a miserable 0-6 reverse against Russia in Stockholm last weekend, although it’s worth remembering that the Czech team at the last stage of the Euro Tour was heavily affected by Lev’s Gagarin Cup exploits.
Playing in Group A, the team faces Canada and Sweden, the Olympic finalists, as well as neighbours Slovakia. That little local dispute kicks off the Czech campaign, and may well go a long way to determining whether Ruzicka roars into the quarter-finals in top form or sneaks in to face a potential last-8 examination against Finland or Russia. The other big hitters follow in quick succession, and a slow start might turn notionally straightforward missions against Norway, Denmark, France and Italy into fraught affairs with no margin for error.
Expectations, as always for the Czechs, will be high and home fans will be satisfied with nothing less than a medal. But to deliver that the team needs to gel quickly and that legion of newcomers needs to adapt fast to the rigours of World Championship hockey or face a perilously steep learning curve.