The Czech Republic has shown that it belongs in the conversation of top hockey nations. Perhaps its most impressive results of late have come at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, which has brought together some of the best under-18 aged hockey players in the world together each August.
Since 2001, the event has been held (at least in part) in the Czech Republic, usually split with neighbouring Slovakia. So the Czechs have been used to having the advantage when it comes to the home crowd. That has helped the Czechs win four medals in the past five years at the Hlinka event, including gold in 2016, when the event was split between Breclav, Czech Republic and Piestany, Slovakia.
This year, though, the newly-named Hlinka Gretzky Cup is taking place in Canada for the first time, in the cities of Edmonton and Red Deer through 11th August. The Czechs know they’re in enemy territory and this year’s task to medal will be as challenging as ever.
“Hockey is Number 1 in Canada so I expect everybody will be excited, a lot of spectators will come to the arena,” says Petr Studnicka, team manager for the Czech Republic. “For us, last year we played at home so a lot of people supported us (as we won silver). Now, it will be different this year … they don’t cheer for us.”
The Czechs got their first taste of being public enemy Number 1 last Saturday when they faced Canada in a pre-tournament game in Red Deer, a city of approximately 100,000 in the western province of Alberta. Red Deer is maybe most famously known as the area in which the famous Sutter family grew up. Six Sutter brothers reached the NHL in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One of the brothers, Brent, is owner/president/general manager and head coach of the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels. Brent has already been seen in the press box in Red Deer watching the Hlinka Gretzky Cup.
The Czechs survived and thrived in that first test on Saturday, besting the Canadians 4-3 before a large, raucous crowd at Red Deer’s Servus Arena. However, on Monday the Czechs dropped their tournament opener 6-0 to the United States.
Studnicka knows the Czechs are in tough in Group B, which also comprises the USA, Finland and Russia. Group A, meanwhile, includes host Canada, Switzerland, Sweden and Slovakia.
“We have pretty good size. We have speed,” he says when asked to describe his team. “Overall, I believe it’s a strong team and we are going to try our best. We didn’t come all the way here to have a bad tournament. We believe we can compete for top places. Obviously, the group in Red Deer is much stronger than the group in Edmonton so we will take it as it is.”
The Hlinka Gretzky Cup is a short tournament, with each team playing just three preliminary round games. The top two seeds of each group move on to the semi-finals on Saturday, with the bottom two in each group playing for 5th and 7th places.
Forward Filip Prikryl, a 6-foot-1 forward who plays for HC Skoda Plzen of the Czech Extraliga, says playing in Canada and trying to continue the strong results of prior years is driving him and his teammates this week in Canada.
“It’s a huge motivation,” says Prikryl. “Teams from the previous years had a little of an advantage because they played at home, so this year it’s a little bit different since we are playing in Canada. But after all, the goal and our desire to win stays the same.”
Prikryl says other motivation comes from the fact that the Hlinka Gretzky Cup is one of the few tournaments that bring together that many countries and talent during the U18 season until spring with the U18 Worlds. “This tournament is very special; it is so big for me,” he says.