MUNICH – For national teams competing in Sochi 2014, time is running out to scout players ahead of the Games.
The best opportunities to observe if players might fit into the Olympic team or not are during the scheduled seasonal breaks, when European pro leagues release their players to compete in small international tournaments. Slovakia recently competed in the Deutschland Cup in Munich with Germany, Switzerland and a U.S. selects team. For the Slovaks, who have to rely on a mix of NHL and European players, tournaments like these are integral to gauge the fitness of their Olympic prospects.
“It’s definitely different. This tournament is important for the players in Europe because of the Olympics. We have 12 players in the NHL and have open spots for players in Europe,” said Igor Nemecek, the President of the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation and an IIHF Council member.
“The Deutschland Cup and the tournament in Arosa in December are the last chances for players to earn a nomination for the Olympics. The best players from these teams will make it to the Olympic Games.”
For players like Chicago forward Marian Hossa, Columbus forward Marian Gaborik or hulking Bruins defenceman Zdeno Chara, their Olympic nomination is carved in stone. Only an injury can prevent stars like these for participating when the world’s best players convene in Sochi.
With the players in the NHL the Slovaks essentially have a complete goalie tandem – St. Louis’ Jaroslav Halak and Montreal’s Peter Budaj – and two complete lines. The remaining players are auditioned from European clubs.
“The Deutschland Cup was very important for us because up to ten players from this team will make it to the Olympics,” head coach Vladimir Vujtek said.
The Czech-born coach has many players to choose from among the top leagues in Europe. Roughly 30 Slovaks are regular players in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League. Many play for Slovan Bratislava, which joined the KHL one year ago, and others are spread among 14 other teams in the league.
And since there are also good players elsewhere in Europe, Vujtek has put a lot of effort into watching additional candidates. The roster at the Deutschland Cup also included five players from the Czech Extraliga and three players from the Slovak Extraliga in view of the Olympics and the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
“We had a lot of new guys,” said Vujtek, who spent most of his coaching career with clubs in the Czech Republic and also coached for six years in Russia.
“The Olympics will definitely be the highlight of my coaching career.”
In Munich Vujtek iced not just fresh faces but also experienced players such as Branko Radivojevic, Milan Bartovic or Marcel Hossa. The latter played in Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010 along with his brother Marian and hopes he’ll be able to do the same in Sochi.
“It’s always nice to get together with my brother. It was most special in times when my father was still coaching and we played together,” said the 32-year-old, who described coach Vujtek as calm and experienced.
The Deutschland Cup wasn’t an easy tournament for the Slovaks. After defeating the U.S. selection in a shootout, they lost to Germany and Switzerland and finished in last place. Hossa was one of only three goal scorers on the team together with Radivojevic and defenceman Michal Sersen, who netted two goals from the blueline.
“We have to go step to step. The Olympics is still too far. The Deutschland Cup is the first tournament of the season,” Hossa said.
“Everyone wants to go to the Olympics but everyone starts at zero. We have so many good players here. Life goes on and we will see what happens.”
Hossa is one of the KHL players competing outside of Bratislava. He returned to Dinamo Riga, the Latvian KHL entry, for this season where he says he feels comfortable.
“It’s going well hockey-wise and life-wise and the team has been doing well so far,” he said.
The Slovak entry in the 28-team league has been a story with mixed success. Commercially the club stepped up and has an average attendance of 9,975 fans. Eight of ten home games have been sold out so far this season.
The club also has managed to recruit some of the best Slovak players outside of the NHL, but on the ice there’s room for improvement. The team has a 10-13 record through 23 games and is ranked in second-last place in the Eastern Conference. The team needs to step up if it wants to reach the playoffs like last year, when it reached the conference quarter-finals where it was swept by eventual Gagarin Cup champion Dynamo Moscow.
For the national team the increased Slovak presence in the KHL has its advantages.
“When Slovan Bratislava joined the KHL it was terrible for the Slovak league but for the national team it’s good because we have several players on the team,” Nemecek said.
“Our coach can watch the players in Bratislava and also see other KHL players from teams like CSKA Moscow or Avangard Omsk.”
In the last 15 years the Slovak national team has been on a rollercoaster ride. It won the 2002 IIHF World Championship and claimed three medals in four years in that era. Then the results went down and Slovakia missed the World Championship quarter-finals four consecutive times between 2008 and 2011.
Like many smaller hockey nations, the Slovaks have struggled with consistency and depth. But recent successes such as a near-upset of gold medalists Canada in the semi-final of Vancouver 2010 and a silver medal the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship have the needle pointing upwards in time for Sochi.
“Ice hockey is the most popular sport in Slovakia and we have more than 9,000 registered players. It was fantastic for our country to win the silver medal at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and to compete for a medal in Vancouver 2010,” said Nemecek.
“For all players and staff the Olympics (in Sochi) will be a fantastic tournament. We performed well with the fourth-place finish in Vancouver 2010. We led 3-1 after two periods against Finland and were 20 minutes away from winning the bronze medal,” Nemecek said.
Nemecek compares the ups and downs in the performance curve with Switzerland, which missed the quarter-finals two times before winning silver last spring after decades without a medal. One of the reasons he sees it that the teams’ level of play has come closer together and competition has increased.
As for Coach Vujtek, his Sochi team will be nominated after the pre-Christmas Arosa Challenge in Switzerland. It will also be the last showcase of Olympic hopefuls for host Switzerland and Norway, who will be playing in Arosa along with Belarus. Not too long after, the Olympic teams for all three nations will travel to Sochi.
“We have to go step by step in Sochi. We are in a very strong group with Russia as the home team, the U.S. with its NHL players and also Slovenia is definitely a good team,” said Nemecek while at the same time thinking about the future beyond the Games.
The 2011 IIHF World Championship in Bratislava and Kosice was – apart from the team’s 10th-place finish – a success to promote ice hockey in the country, and the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation announced its intention to bid for another World Championship sooner rather than later.
“It’s something we are discussing in Slovakia now. After the Olympic Games we want to move forward an application for the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in 2019 or 2020, although 2019 would be the better year for us,” Nemecek said, adding that the host cities are still to be determined.