To understand why people are skeptical about the Czechs’ chances at the 2014 Olympics, look no further than the list of current NHL scoring leaders.
First, back in 1998 when the NHL first fully committed to Olympic participation, Jaromir Jagr was the top-scoring Czech forward. Cut to 2014, and Jagr is still vying for top spot among his NHL countrymen.
It’s a testament to the 41-year-old right wing’s greatness, but it also shows the Central European nation is no longer producing young talent at the clip that enabled it to win Olympic gold in Nagano in 1998 and follow that up with three straight World Championship titles from 1999 to 2001.
Second, considering that the Czech offence doesn’t look turbo-charged compared to other medal contenders, it came as a surprise for many that aces like Jiri Hudler of the Calgary Flames and Radim Vrbata of the Phoenix Coyotes were not chosen for Sochi by head coach Alois Hadamczik and his braintrust.
Neither has what you’d call a storied history with the national team, but Hudler did score four goals and an assist in eight games at last year’s World Championship, while Vrbata (a 2005 World Championship gold medallist) had two goals and an assist in Stockholm.
Will 42-year-old Petr Nedved, playing his sixth straight year with Bili Tygri in his hometown of Liberec, be able to contribute more than Hudler or Vrbata? We will see.
“Obviously I don’t think people give us any chance,” said Coyotes defenceman Zbynek Michalek, who will play in his second Olympics. “Nobody takes us too seriously. There are the top four teams [Canada, Russia, Sweden, and the United States], and then there are other teams behind them. I think we are in a good position. Nobody expects anything out of us. We can kind of sneak from behind and surprise people.”
That’s similar to what happened when the Czechs last won the World Championship in 2010. Their roster had just four NHL regulars, and one of them, goalie Ondrej Pavelec, played only one game as Tomas Vokoun carried the load.
This time, the 26-year-old Pavelec will be the starter despite posting average numbers with the Winnipeg Jets. The defencemen in front of him, while capable puck-movers, have mostly seen their best years already. Michalek, Tomas Kaberle (Kladno) and Lukas Krajicek (Dynamo Minsk) are typical examples.
With that said, though, power-play quarterback Marek Zidlicky (New Jersey) is on pace for his most productive NHL campaign since the last Olympic year of 2009-10, when he tallied 43 points for the Minnesota Wild. Radko Gudas (Tampa Bay) and Ladislav Smid (Calgary) will add an element of physicality as needed along the boards and in front of the net.
Ultimately, captain Tomas Plekanec (Montreal) and his teammates will need to be smarter than their opponents, playing gotcha in the neutral zone, allowing few chances. That was the road to success when the Czechs stunned a Russian team featuring 14 Olympians from Vancouver with a 2-1 win in the 2010 World Championship final.
“The strength of Czech hockey, I’d say, is playing more with the puck, making plays, being smart on the puck,” said Vladimir Sobotka of the St. Louis Blues, making his Olympic debut.
Plekanec knows that game well, like Jagr, his New Jersey teammate Patrik Elias and the other wily veterans on this roster. So do younger stars such as David Krejci (Boston Bruins), Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia Flyers), and Martin Hanzal (Phoenix Coyotes). It’s basically encoded into the Czech hockey DNA.
Will they execute the plan? The Czechs have a great chance to top Group C if they can surprise Sweden in the Olympic opener on February 12. A victory over lowly Latvia is likely to warm their hearts two days later on Valentine’s Day.
However, while every Czech fan surely realizes that beating Sweden will be tough, they may not realize their national team actually defeated Tre Kronor more recently (4-3 on May 17, 2012 at the IIHF World Championship) than their last Group C opponent: Switzerland.
At the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Switzerland stunned the Czechs 3-2 with a 40-save performance by goalie David Aebischer. Since then, the Czechs have beaten the Swiss just once in four World Championship games. Their current string of three losses includes two at last year’s Worlds as the Swiss marched to the silver medal.
So if the Czechs get cocky at all, they could very easily find themselves in third place in the group – or fourth. After all, they needed an overtime winner from Krejci against Latvia to prevail 3-2 and advance to the quarter-finals in Vancouver four years ago.
Logically, the Czechs are unlikely to go any further than the quarter-finals. They’ve been going to the well for years with the same core players, and when the likes of Robert Reichel or Martin Rucinsky have left the international scene, they haven’t been replaced with guys of equal quality.
But you can’t underestimate the emotional pull the Olympics have for the Czechs. Memories of the 1998 gold in Nagano will spur them on, possibly inspiring them to play over their heads.
“As a small kid, I was in elementary school back then, and I remember the whole country was excited,” said Michalek. “With the time difference, we were supposed to go to school, but nobody went to school. We stayed home watching games. Everybody was pulling for the team. Czech hockey went up, and a lot of our players took advantage of that and started playing in the NHL.”
Jaromir Jagr: Enjoying a front-line role with New Jersey this season, the Kladno-born legend is achieving new NHL milestones on seemingly a daily basis. In Sochi, if the Czechs improbably win gold, Jagr could join Vyacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Peter Forsberg in the “double Triple Gold Club”. Those three are the only players who have won two or more Stanley Cups, two or more Olympic golds, and two or more World Championships.
David Krejci: Is there a more unsung star in hockey than Krejci? The assistant captain of the Boston Bruins is the only active NHLer to have led the Stanley Cup playoffs in scoring twice (2011, 2013). The 27-year-old, who also played in Vancouver, notched three goals and four assists en route to World Championship bronze in 2012. But Krejci, with his smarts and puck management skills, has the potential to give much more on the international stage.
Tomas Plekanec: It’s not entirely surprising that Plekanec will wear the “C” in Sochi. The savvy Canadiens centre played on all three World Championship medals Hadamczik has won (silver in 2006, bronze in 2011 and 2012), and clearly he enjoys the coach’s trust. Although 2014 has started off slowly for Plekanec, the Czech power play could benefit if he and Jagr rekindle their chemistry quickly.
Ondrej Palat: If American forward Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings hadn’t injured Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks with a knee-on-knee hit on December 19, the 19-year-old Hertl might be the Czech dark horse. Noted for scoring four goals against the New York Rangers in October, he was a bona fide Calder Trophy candidate at that point. But regardless, Ondrej Palat has been quietly forging a nice rookie season for himself with the Lightning (he played 14 games in 2012-13). Never having suited up previously for the national team at any level, the 22-year-old left wing (a 2011 seventh-round pick) has proved himself dependable enough to play on the Lightning’s top line with 2013 NHL scoring champion Martin St. Louis. Could that translate into something special in Sochi?