HELSINKI – Having fallen on hard times the last few years, the Slovaks will be trying to play their way to Sochi with a strong performance at the World Championship. They’ll have to leapfrog over at least two teams to get there, their current number 10 ranking not good enough.
It’s difficult to reconcile the fact that a year ago at the World Championship in Slovakia it was the smiling face of Pavol Demitra that was one of the most memorable images from that event. Then, last September, the Yaroslavl plane went down, taking with it Demitra’s life. In 2012, the team will be playing for a top finish without one of their top players of all time.
The three goalies for the Slovaks have a combined total of zero games played at the senior level. Peter Hamerlik, Julius Hudacek, and Jan Laco are all new to the World Championship, so it’s anyone’s guess which of the three might make the greatest impression – or the greatest difference – for coach Vladimir Vujtek.
While inexperience might be their downside, youth and the opportunity to achieve something special in Helsinki might override the former.
The misfortunes of the Boston Bruins are the fortunes of the Slovak national team. Boston’s great defenceman, the large Zdeno Chara, is here to lead the team. His importance, both on the ice and in the dressing room, cannot be over-stated. This is a different team with him than without him.
However, one man alone cannot win gold, and Chara has some valuable teammates on the blue line, notably Andrej Sekera of the Buffalo Sabres and Ivan Baranka of Spartak Moscow.
One interesting addition is Kristian Kudroc, who played in 1999 and 2000 at the U18 and U20 events, respectively, and after being unable to establish himself in the NHL has played a lot in Finland and Sweden. The 30-year-old is making his debut at the World Championship.
The biggest name among the forwards in surely Miroslav Satan, if for no other reason than he is the only player here who was on the 2002 gold-medal winning Slovak team. He’ll be joined by Juraj Mikus, Marcel Hossa, and Branko Radivojevic as those with plenty of experience.
But there are some other players whose inclusion is worth following, starting with Tomas Tatar. Drafted by Detroit in 2009, he’s being groomed by the Red Wings in Grand Rapids of the AHL. The 21-year-old left winger will learn plenty here in Helsinki, and he might just contribute more than a little bit as well.
Milan Kytnar went to the WHL as a teen, but after being drafted by Edmonton in 2007 he’s had little success in making the NHL. He played one game with the Oilers this past season but ended up in Finland halfway through the season.
The roster also includes a few players from the KHL and most others from Czech and Slovakian league teams. Tomas Surovy and Martin Cibak are well-known skaters who need to score some goals if the team will advance.
Vladimir Vujtek had some success as a player with the Czechs, but with the Slovaks he is trying to get the team into the top four of the Helsinki group of eight. The team has plenty of experience and skill, but the goaltending will be the biggest contributing factor if the team is to improve upon its number 10 pre-tournament ranking and qualify directly for Sochi.