Serious concerns for Slovaks

Do they still qualify as a “Big Seven” hockey nation?

26.05.2009
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Zurich  SWITZERLAND

Slovakia struggeled against Hungary in the 2009 Worlds. In the World Ranking they were overtaken by Belarus, falling down to 9th place. Photo: Jukka Rautio / HHOF-IIHF Images

In 2000, rockers Limp Bizkit and Creed ruled the record charts, Al Gore was a US presidential candidate, and Slovakia won its first IIHF World Championship medal (silver). How times have changed.

Since going on to capture Worlds gold in 2002 and bronze in 2003, the Slovaks have done anything but make sweet music in international hockey. They have been the victims of (with apologies to Mr. Gore) massive climate change. Here, a bit of history is in order.

In the 1990's, it was generally accepted that the “Big Six” hockey nations were Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. In other words, only these six had a legitimate shot at finishing first in the Olympics, IIHF World Championship, or World Cup.

But at the dawn of the new millennium, most agreed it was time to expand the “Big Six” into the “Big Seven,” thanks to the emergence of Slovakia.

In the post-Czechoslovakia era, this young Central European nation quickly gained promotion to the elite division of the World Championship in 1996. Steady improvement was Slovakia's watchword. It ended up in 10th place that first year, improved to ninth in 1997, and recorded back-to-back seventh-place finishes before memorably marching to the finals in St. Petersburg 2000, falling 5-3 to the neighbouring Czechs in the gold medal game.

At one level, that loss was heartbreaking for coach Jan Filc's squad. Slovakian goalie Jan Lasak beat himself up in a post-game interview with IIHF reporters: “My life is about hockey. It was the biggest game of my life and I lost it. My job is in the crease. I have to stop every puck and win the game. You may get this chance just once in your life, so you have to use the chance.”

Yet at the same time, getting silver was a moral victory. It was similar to the 1976 movie Rocky, where the titular boxer “goes the distance” against world champion Apollo Creed and takes pride in what he accomplished despite not claiming the title.

So in 2000, it was clearly time to convert the “Big Six” into the “Big Seven.” Welcome, Slovakia!

The peak of Slovakian hockey power came in Sweden 2002 with the historic gold medal. It wasn't simply that the Slovaks came first; it was also how they did it.

Their lone tournament loss came in the Preliminary Round versus Finland (3-1 on April 30). In the playoffs, they managed to rally from a 2-0 deficit versus Canada to win 3-2 in the quarter-final. With tremendous resilience, they knocked off the Swedes 3-2 in a semi-final shootout, Zigmund Palffy and Richard Lintner scoring the only goals in the game-winning shots competition.

And then, a dramatic Peter Bondra blast from the wing in the final versus Russia sent an entire nation into ecstasy, as he tallied the late 3-2 winner at Gothenburg's Scandinavium. Three major traditional hockey powers proved unable to subdue Slovakia, which had finally earned the respect it craved.

The Slovaks could boast plenty of electrifying NHL snipers, such as Bondra, Palffy, and Miroslav Satan. In shootouts, they were particularly deadly. Defensively, they could look to gifted offensive rearguards like Richard Lintner, or lean on the towering presence of Zdeno Chara. The goaltending of Lasak and Rastislav Stana was often good enough to get the job done in the compressed framework of an international tournament.

But things swiftly went downhill. There have been no medals whatsoever since 2003's bronze. Highlights? Getting to the bronze medal game and losing to the Americans at the 2004 Worlds, perhaps. Or the five straight wins Slovakia earned at the 2006 Olympics before losing 3-1 to the Czechs in the quarter-finals. These things, however, are not exactly the stuff of which international hockey legends are made.

Worse yet, in the past four years, the Slovaks have earned a top-seven finish in only one World Championship. Last year in Halifax, they suffered the indignity of playing in the Relegation Round, and had to go to a shootout versus Slovenia in the deciding game to secure their elite division spot. Coming 10th this year was a marginal improvement.

What has happened to Slovakia, the country of Peter Stastny, Vladimir Dzurilla, and Jozef Golonka?

For a good analogy, look at the logging industry. One of the most destructive, ecologically harmful forestry practices is known as “clearcutting,” where every tree in a given area is felled indiscriminately. Dr. E.C. Pielou, an ecologist at the University of Lethbridge, has stated: “Clearcutting causes two kinds of fundamental damage, one long-lasting, the other permanent. The long-lasting damage is to the soil, the permanent damage is to biological diversity.”

Now, of course, the Slovaks still have a few fine top-end forwards, such as Detroit's Marian Hossa and Minnesota's Marian Gaborik (when healthy), although others have aged or retired. They can still look to the likes of Chara and Lubomir Visnovsky on defence, and may yet see Jaroslav Halak develop into an elite netminder.

Their problem is that overall, they are talent-thin. Why? Their young talent has been rapaciously “clearcut” by recruitment from North American pro and junior leagues, as the IIHF documented in a 2006 study (PDF).

Recently, the nation of 5.5 million has seen dozens of promising juniors leave home in hopes of NHL employment. Most have failed to make the big time, and their departure has also damaged the “soil” (or foundation) and “biological diversity” (or depth of talent) of Slovak hockey.

In other words, if the first-liners of tomorrow don't stick around to compete against the prospective second-liners, you end up with a lot of third-rate players.

There has to be an adequate level of domestic competition in Slovakia. Otherwise, there is no foundation, no continuing tradition, no honing of skills. An entire hockey culture can wither away. You can't expect much when you plant saplings in the middle of a clearcut.

Only those who are truly locked into short-term, gotta-make-a-buck-now thinking can fail to care about what is happening here.

The crisis in Slovakian hockey was not an overnight development. Looking at the nation's results at the World U20 Championship, for instance, it's been apparent for some time that Slovakia would have difficulty continuing to produce the kind of talent it did in the era of the state-sponsored sports clubs prior to the fall of Communism.

Slovakia has won just one medal (1999's bronze) at the World Juniors. Results have been similar at the World U18 tournament: a bronze in 1999 and a silver in 2003.

Whatever statistical benchmark you choose, the current picture isn't pretty. In 2009, just 16 Slovaks played in the NHL, compared to 30 in 2002, that now-so-distant year of World Championship gold. In the annual NHL draft, Slovakia has fallen off the map. Ten Slovaks were chosen in both 2003 and 2004, but shockingly, in 2008 not a single one was taken.

Countries like Belarus, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Norway appear to be outstripping Slovakia as suppliers of hockey talent.

This year at the Worlds, Slovakia barely edged the Hungarians and Norwegians, lost to Belarus in a shootout, and also took an 8-0 walloping from the Czech Republic. No wonder it now sits ninth in the 2009 World Ranking, behind both Switzerland and Belarus, whose heavy investments in their domestic programs are paying off. Without all (or nearly all) its best players in the lineup, Slovakia has proven to be extremely vulnerable.

So is Slovakia still a “Big Seven” nation or not? Barely.

Keeping more young players at home, building more rinks, and achieving success as the host of the 2011 IIHF World Championship (Bratislava and Kosice) will be key factors in maintaining that status in the big picture.

In the short term, finding a way to win a medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver would be an enormous boost to national prestige. That's a tall order, with most observers already projecting that the medals will be divided among Canada, Russia, and Sweden.

Then again, we've seen a different pair of finalists at each Olympics since 1998. And apparently Limp Bizkit and Creed are reuniting. So anything is possible.

LUCAS AYKROYD

Aykroyd is the IIHF.com's Vancouver-based correspondent. He has covered all World Championships and Olympics for the website since 2000.

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