Last season the Czech U18 national team eliminated Russia from the quarter-finals at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, this season the Czechs annoyed the Russians again with an 11-2 win at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, the biggest U18 event prior to the U18 Worlds. Photo: Jana Chytilova / HHOF-IIHF Images
Czechoslovakia was once a superpower in European junior hockey but its successor countries have suffered in the last years with fewer youngsters being able to follow in their former idols’ footsteps. But the Czech U18 national team’s 11-2 triumph over Russia at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup on Wednesday is symbolic for a turnaround in the host nation of the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
There were many reasons for the decline of Czech junior hockey in the last decade but one notably written about was a negative spiral of juniors leaving the country too early for North America where they may enjoy a new environment with a new language and more games but where only few succeeded in their development. The lack of talent in the domestic development system as a consequence worsened the situation at home leading to more players leaving.
Only few players who left to play in North American junior leagues early became highly rated draft picks in the last few years such as Radek Faksa. Even fewer had their NHL breakthrough. Players like Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas and Tomas Hertl were the exceptions and not the rule among the 27 Czechs drafted by NHL teams between 2009 and 2013.
In fact, no player drafted in 2013 has played an NHL game yet and only two from the 2012 class played in the NHL. Both of them, Hertl and Marek Mazanec, went the traditional Czech path through the own development system and after becoming a professional player at home.
The Czech junior system had the worst years around 2007 to 2009. The U18 national team was relegated in 2007 and ranked behind countries like Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and Belarus. NHL teams drafted only three Czechs in 2008. In 2009 again only three Czechs were drafted and only one rookie was signed by an NHL team. There was no Czech first-round draft pick for four years during that development crisis.
While the NHL Entry Draft doesn’t guarantee a good hockey career, even not if a player is picked in the first round, these numbers along with the results in IIHF competition are a good overall indicator of the situation.
Slavomir Lener, a former Czech coach who also worked in the NHL and Sweden, became the Czech Ice Hockey Association’s man in charge of national teams in 2010. But the biggest trouble he saw was the development of junior players that eventually influences the men’s national team.
Back in those years many teenagers went to Canada each year already as 16- and 17-year-olds. For Lener it was devastating the Czech development system and its clubs.
In 2010 Lener said at the World Hockey Summit in Toronto: “We have been losing hundreds of players into junior hockey in Canada. Many times, it is the result of the European agents not telling the player the full story. As well, the idea of a European having to go to the CHL to get drafted is very popular, but the numbers tell a different story. The majority of CHL Europeans do not get drafted, and only four per cent ever become established NHL players. The CHL is a great league for North Americans, but it is not the best league for Europeans in general.”
“The effect is that the entire development system in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is getting weaker every year, and there is a decline in the quality of players every year.”
“There are no more players coming from our countries, no one like Jagr, Hejduk, Elias, Gaborik. All the players come through the CHL, but none of them are of the same star quality as these players.”
“If you look at career numbers, 22 Europeans have played 1,000 games in the NHL. Not one came from the CHL. Of the more than 100 players from Europe who have won the Stanley Cup, exactly eight have CHL experience. Our players must develop at home, and when they are ready, fine, then they can go to the NHL.”
That was said four years ago. Since then the mentality in Czech hockey has changed. The picture is not as apocalyptical any more, neither are the results. But there is still a lot to do especially at the grassroots level. Since the Czechs had won the world title in 2005 the number of junior and youth players has gone down from 38,408 to 22,302 this year but the number has become stable and the work with the country’s top talents has changed for the better.
Figures involving the top junior players of the country suggest that the Czechs may have overcome the development crisis and are on the way back to where they want to be: a top-4 nation.
The coaching education improved and coaching a junior national team has become a full-time job. The various junior national teams play more exhibition games. Hockey academies started similarly to what Lener had seen in Sweden. It takes year until changes in developing players become fully visible but it looks like the first results can be seen already now.
The draft class of 2014 showed a considerable change of the Czech pattern of the last few years back to the more successful ‘90s and early 2000s. Eight players were drafted including two first-round picks – the best Czech class since 2006. And the best Czech junior players put more trust in the European development system with more focus on skill, practice and seamless integration into professional teams compared to the many players in the years before who preferred a different route with playing more games, being in a different environment and in more exciting and better followed junior leagues such as the OHL, QMJHL and WHL in Canada.
Of the four Czech top-40 picks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft all four played in Europe last season: Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak in Sweden, Dominik Masin and Vitek Vanecek in the Czech Republic. Two of them already got the chance to play games on the professional team of their club in addition to games in the U20 league.
The Czechs did not only have the best draft class in eight years but NHL clubs also signed seven rookie players in the off-season including some undrafted players who turned pro in the Czech Extraliga. The last time the number was higher was in 2007 with nine Czechs.
After yesterday’s impressive win, Czech U18 national team coach Jakub Petr praised the mentality of the players who wanted to send a message to the world and never set back despite the high lead against Russia. It looks like the pride in the Czech hockey culture and system is back.
The results already improved last season. At the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Finland last April the Czechs made the final round for the first time in four years and the semi-finals for the first time in eight years. The final result was silver – the biggest success ever at the U18 Worlds that became global in 1999. And the biggest success in junior hockey since the U20 national team won back-to-back World Junior Championships in 2000 and 2001.
The graphic below shows the year-by-year development of junior indicators for the Czech Republic with the positions in the U20 and U18 World Championships, Czech players drafted overall and in the first round, and rookie players signed by NHL clubs. Also the number of players drafted by teams from the Canadian Hockey League (OHL, QMJHL, WHL) is shown and has gone down considerably with more talented juniors staying in Europe to succeed there before trying to make the NHL.