After 23 years of pro hockey, Olympic gold, World Championship gold and 830 NHL games, Robert Reichel has accepted a new challenge. As the coach of the Czech U16 national team, he wants to bring back Czech hockey to where it was when he played.
Just as Ryan Smyth goes under the nickname of “Captain Canada” Robert Reichel, who turned 40 this summer, is “Captain Czech”. Even if you include the Czechoslovak era, you need to go back to the days of defenceman Frantisek Pospisil, the skipper of the great CSSR teams of the 70s, to find a national team captain who had an impact and success that matches Reichel’s.
Robert Reichel’s record for the Czech national team is nothing short of amazing. During the era of best-on-best international hockey, with often the best performers playing in the NHL, being a consistent performer for your national team for an extended period of time is not easy.
Robert Reichel was just that – for 14 years.
He was only 19 when national team coach Pavel Wohl, prior to the 1990 IIHF World Championship in Switzerland, put together three youngsters on one line. Reichel, born 1971, found himself centering a line with Robert Holik (-71) and Jaromir Jagr (-72).
The line became the talk of the tournament. Despite being a rookie, Reichel had eleven points in ten games, and the team – still called Czechoslovakia – won bronze.
In his fourth World Championship (1996 in Vienna) he was named captain and this tournament began an astounding era for Czech hockey. By winning gold in the Austrian capital, Reichel and the Czechs touched off a five-year period where they were virtually invincible.
1996 – Worlds gold
1998 – Olympic gold
1999 – Worlds gold
2000 – Worlds gold
2001 – Worlds gold
Remarkable fact: During this period the Czechs played in five major international gold medal games and never lost a final. Reichel was the captain in 1996, 2000 and 2001. The only final which Reichel missed was in 1999 when he played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In Nagano, the first Olympics with full NHL participation, the “C” was given to veteran Vladimir Ruzicka.
“It was an incredible period,” Reichel admitted when IIHF.com got ahold of him just before his under-16 national team leaves for Salzburg, Austria for an international tournament. “The reason why we were so successful was that we had a group of 20-25 players, all basically the same age, who loved playing for the national team, and we had no individual goals. We only wanted to win for the team and for the fans back home.”
“The core group was guys like Jiri Dopita, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Patera, Dominik Hasek, Jiri Slegr and Martin Rucinsky. Before each final we said to each other that this could be the last gold medal game you could play for your country. We need to take this opportunity, we need to win for the fans back home. I think this was the main reason why we never lost a final. We wanted it so badly.”
When asking Robert what he remembers best from his international career, the answer was rather surprising. You’d think he’d say: Nagano 1998.
“My best memory was the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, my last tournament with the national team. I was the captain and we played in the semi-final against Canada at the Air Canada Center in Toronto. I had just concluded my last NHL season with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the same arena. I loved my time in Toronto and it was very emotional for me to play this game at the ACC.”
The core generation which Reichel mentioned above was now around 35. The new wave of Czech national team players did not have the same quality and grit as the ones born in the early 70s.
In his last game for the national team, Reichel and his Czechs lost this thrilling 2004 World Cup semi-final against Canada, 4-3, when Vincent Lecavalier scored 3:45 into overtime.
Although the Czechs would win yet another World Championship gold medal game in 2005, this was the period when the Czech magic started to wear off.
The hockey program which earlier produced wonderful players who could compete at every level started to decline. Where gold was earlier expected, Czech teams suddenly struggled to make it to the semi-finals. The Czech junior teams, which won U20 gold medals in 1999 and 2000, barely avoided the relegation rounds.
If any promising players came through the system, they routinely disappeared to the Canadian junior leagues where very few developed to a level one would expect from a top Czech talent. Fewer and fewer Czechs were drafted by NHL teams.
In 2007 the incredible happened; the Czech team finished ninth and was relegated from the top division of the IIHF U18 World Championship. Something had to be done.
Two years ago, the Czech Ice Hockey Association contacted former national team coach Slava Lener, who was coaching in the Swedish league at that time. Lener was asked to come back and assume the job of director of the national team program and player development.
Lener started to hire good people to lead the revamping program. When time came to select the coach of the under-16 national team program, Lener went to the guy who at the age of 39 had just retired from playing for his maternal club HC Litvinov in the Czech top league.
Lener and Reichel go way back. Reichel was with the Calgary Flames in the mid-90s when Lener was an assistant coach with the NHL club. Later, Lener could see first-hand what leadership qualities Reichel when they were both with the Czech national team.
“Reichel was always one of the best guys,” says Lener. “A real leader, both on the ice and in the locker room. He was focused on winning every game and he did everything for the team. That may sound as a cliché, but this is how he was.”
Needless to say: a perfect selection to lead the under-16 program.
“When the offer from Slava came, I was happy to accept it, I signed for one year and I may stay longer. I like that the players work hard and I feel that I am part of something new,” says Reichel.
“We want to change things in our hockey and give our young players such good development opportunities that they will decide to stay at home and develop here. We want to re-build our hockey to where it once was.”
Prior to the tournament in Salzburg, the U16 team (players born 1996) played their first ever international game, against Canada. The Czechs lost 3-2, but the new coach was satisfied.
“This was the first time those players wore the Czech national team jersey and they were nervous. But the longer the game progressed, they got better and better and skill-wise the teams were equal.”
And who knows, maybe in a couple of years Robert Reichel will be coaching his son. Christian Reichel is only 14, but those who have seen him say that he has the potential to be very good.
Here, the story could end, but we couldn’t leave Robert without making him reminisce about Nagano 1998. As most hockey fans remember, the biggest game for the Czechs wasn’t actually the Olympic final vs. Russia, but the sensational semi-final victory against Team Canada.
Defenseman Jiri Slegr had given the Czechs a 1-0 lead midway through the third period and Trevor Linden tied it up with 63 seconds to go. The 10-minute overtime was scoreless, shoot-out followed.
After Theo Fleury’s opening unsuccessful attempt on Dominik Hasek, Robert Reichel was the second player to have a go.
“I didn’t know what to do. I remember not seeing any net behind Patrick Roy, it looked as if he covered the whole thing. When I skated past the blue line, it was then when I decided that I will shoot, not deke.”
“To shoot into the lower left corner was something that I have done many times and I decided to go with the shot I had taken many times. The puck hit the inside of the post and went in. I was a little bit lucky.”
All the remaining shooters, both Canadian and Czech, missed their chances and Reichel’s lonely marker stood as the game winner.
“This and the gold medal is something that I will remember for as long as I live. This was the first open Olympics and the first time our country won Olympic hockey gold. When we came back to Prague, the country had gone crazy and the streets were full of cheering people. You play hockey for moments like these.”
After the interview, Robert Reichel boarded the bus for Salzburg. The coach is together with a bunch of kids who were two years old when he scored the goal on Patrick Roy.
How many of them know?
SZYMON SZEMBERGCzech captain Robert Reichel gives IIHF President René Fasel a champagne shower following the Czech Republic's 2001 World Championship victory. Photo: City-Press
Born: June 25, 1971 in Litvinov, Czechoslovakia
Olympic gold: 1998 Nagano.
Olympic participation: 2002 Salt Lake City (7th)
World Championship gold: 1996, 2000, 2001.
World Championship bronze: 1990, 1992, 1997, 1998.
World Championship All-Star: 1990, 1996, 2001.
59 points in 69 World Championship games.
40 points in 21 World U20 Championship games.
630 points in 830 NHL games (Calgary, NY Islanders, Phoenix, Toronto)
491 points in 504 Czech league games.
144 points in 67 German league games.