HELSINKI – Slovakia battled hard against Canada, but lost 3-2. They pushed Finland, but lost the game, 1-0. But with less than a minute to go in their game against the U.S., it was Slovakia who was up one goal, and when Miroslav Satan scored the empty-netter with 37 seconds remaining, the Slovak bench celebrated like there was no tomorrow.
“It’s a little frustrating when you lose by one goal, especially when you play well. But we never gave up, we knew we could win some games here and these were huge points for us. This will be a big help for us, especially mentally,” said Andrej Sekera, who scored the game winning goal.
Of course they were happy for the win, but it also looked like a team that’s having fun, a group of players who are playing for the coach, and for themselves.
This year’s Slovak team doesn’t have the superstars that, for example, the 2002 World Championship gold medal team had. There’s no Peter Bondra, no Zigmund Palffy, no Jozef Stümpel. The country made an incredible journey from the C pool to the 2002 gold medal, but it’s now, when the players that were born in Slovakia, not Czechoslovakia, are coming up that the country’s hockey program will truly be tested.
With Michal Handzus now on the roster, the Helsinki team includes two 2002 gold medalists. Satan, who was team captain then, is the other.
The first few games have showed the new Slovak national team, which like others is built on a great transition game, but has to rely more on sacrificing work in their own end. If they were sometimes considered a group of great individuals, the Helsinki team looks like a team.
“We have a great group of guys, even the NHL stars are good, down to earth guys, and we’re all equal in the dressing room. We have a lot of fun, but we also work hard,” Sekera said, smiling.
And they really do work hard, led by team captain Zdeno Chara who has totally played ten more minutes throughout the tournament than any other Slovak player, averaging over 23 minutes a game.
“The game is faster and simpler in the NHL, so [when we join the national team] we have to get used to the big rink but after a couple of practices we know how we play,” Sekera said about falling back to a Slovak style of hockey.
“We know we’d get our chances because our forwards are so fast so we try to play a simple and hard game in our zone, and score when we get a chance,” he added.
That sounds like the Slovakia we all know.
“Playing in the big rink is a little more difficult because there’s more space which means that the other team’s forwards are faster when they gain speed, we just try to slow them down,” Sekera said.
“The coach has stressed that we have to play like a team,” he added.
Yes, the coach. Vladimir Vujtek is the second non-Slovak to coach the national team, after Canadian Glen Hanlon, and the first Czech to get the job. Having a Czech at the helm of the national team is not a problem for the Slovaks. Especially when it’s somebody who’s had success and who can bring them success. Besides, Vujtek’s ties to Slovakia are personal as well, as his son-in-law is Robert Petrovicky, also a member of the 2002 gold medal team.
“He brings in a new structure and a new attitude. He’s proving to be one of the best coaches in Europe, having won a number of championships [in Russia], and he’s won in the Czech Extraliga as well,” said Chara.
“He’s smart and passionate about hockey,” he added.
Sekera smiles when talking about the coach.
“The coach? Oh, he’s great. He’s made a name for himself in Russia and Czech Republic, and if we stick to his system, we’ll be successful,” he said.
And he said something that may have a lot to do with the victory celebrations at the bench.
“He’s really a good guy on and off the ice. He’s always positive, and he makes everybody laugh and feel good,” Sekera said.