PUCHOV, Slovakia – The IIHF World U20 Championship is an annual hockey fest that starts in the Christmas holiday season. It always provides plenty of action where fans can watch the future stars of hockey. Nevertheless history has shown that the race for the top spots has been limited to a selective group of countries.
Russia leads the list with 28 medals (12 gold, 9 silver and 7 bronze) followed by Canada with 25 (15, 6 and 4). But every now and then a surprise team pops up during the tournament. The most notable one was back in 1998 when Switzerland captured the bronze when the team coached by Bill Gilligan upset the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game.
Last year in Ottawa, the Slovak U20 team just missed out on a medal, but shocked the world eliminating both Finland and Team USA en route to the semi-finals. Eventually they had to settle for fourth after losses to Sweden and Russia. It didn’t make the joy any less for the young Slovaks as the result meant an huge difference compared to their relegation struggles in previous years.
Back in 2007 Slovakia needed a miracle to survive at the elite level. With help of other results and a lopsided 9-0 victory over Belarus proved enough cushion in the end to finish ahead of Germany and Belarus on goal difference. One year later they once again ended up in the relegation battle, this time along with Latvia, Switzerland and Denmark.
The near drama in 2007 forced the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation to think seriously about their development program. They decided to have the U20 squad play as a club team in their highest professional league. The idea wasn’t completely new as for example Finland and Switzerland already had such a program, but in these countries the team played in the second-tier leagues.
The U20 project gave the youngsters an opportunity to play at a higher level, facing the country’s top players rather than playing against junior opponents. The players also saw more ice time than they would normally if they had just dressed up for their club teams.
The team is coached by Stefan Mikes, who is now behind the bench for the third straight season. He is not getting carried away by the results from last season. “We only work for four-and-a-half months per year with the juniors in Puchov. We can not perform miracles in that timeframe,” he said realistically last year.
“Ever since we started, we’ve taken steps in the right direction,” Mikes said. “We’re working with this team now for two years and we try to eliminate some small mistakes. Moreover, we will continue the way we have been doing and proved to be successful, and change the things that didn’t work out well.”
Although the fourth place will be in the history books forever, Slovakia’s success shouldn’t be overestimated. After all, they only clinched a playoff spot on the very last day of the round robin, edging Finland 3-2 after – what is always considered a lottery by coaches – a penalty shootout. In the quarterfinals they were outshot by Team USA, but goalkeeper Jaroslav Janus played the game of his life, stopping 44 shots in a 5-3 victory.
“To be honest, I do not see the future so brightly, mainly because of financial reasons. There is no continuous flow of good players”, Mikes said. “In the Extraliga there are currently many older players. When they retire, the league level will go down. In the heydays there were 37 Slovaks in the NHL. That’s more players than there are ice rinks in Slovakia. Currently we have around 15 NHL players and they are getting older. There’s no one coming up to replace them it seems.”
His voice was silenced when five of his players found themselves drafted at the NHL Entry Draft. The most notable players, goaltender Jaroslav Janus, and forwards Tomas Tatar and Richard Panik, all decided to play in North America this season. A thorn in the eye for the Slovak Federation, but a dream come through for the players.
Stefan Mikes did not complain and started building a new team that needs to show the world last year’s fourth place wasn’t a fluke. He elected 49 players last summer to get a good grip on the material available to him. Initially, there were worries the club teams were no longer willing to loan out their junior players to Mikes’ team as the financial problems forced the Slovak clubs to rejuvenate their rosters.
“In the end this proved no problem at all. We made good agreements with the clubs,” Mikes said. “For example we were able to get Martin Stajnoch again from Slovan Bratislava as well as defenceman Matus Rais from HK Nitra. Both teams had large enough rosters to let the players go. Unfortunately, Adam Lapsansky decided to stay in Poprad, but in general the cooperation with the club teams went well.”
Going into the season, the coach was confident about his team that will eventually go to Saskatoon, Canada, to play the 2010 World U20 Championship. “Our squad is more experienced, has played more Extraliga games than the squad last year. I also think this team is somewhat more talented than last years’. We had to replace our defence, but I’m happy with how we’ve coped with that.”
Whether Mikes is also happy about the team’s results is not relevant. He doesn’t care for league results, he wants to see development and improvement in the players’ and team’s skills. After 24 games in the Extraliga, his team has won just three games and averages a mere two goals scored per game. That seems pretty marginal, but offence will be Slovakia’s strength later this month in Canada.
The team can once again rely on second-round draft picks Tomas Tatar (11 points last year) and Richard Panik (5 points). But apart from those two, Slovakia boasts a new wave of offensive weapons.
Slick winger Jakub Gasparovic has already scored 13 goals and 19 points in 24 games for the U20 team and seems a lock to make the team. Forward Libor Hudacek featured on the U18 team before and has taken the next step in his development. His 15 points rank second on the U20 team. Other pleasant surprises include forward Michal Vandas and hulking centre Andrej Stastny with whom the Stastny dynasty in Slovakia continues.
Defensively the team will rely a lot on Martin Stajnoch. Already a standout in front of Jaroslav Janus last year, Stajnoch has emerged as a leader of the U20 team this season and his +10 plus/minus rating is impressive considering the team’s record of 21 losses in 24 games.
The area in which Slovakia will feel pain is between the pipes. National hero Jaroslav Janus is no longer eligible and there doesn’t seem to be an equal replacement. So far this season Mikes has opted for Marek Ciliak and Matej Kristin mainly although Kosice goaltender Tomas Halasz joined the frame recently. The pair of Ciliak and Kristin also tended the net for Slovakia during the 2008 World U18 Championship where neither of them could convince, dressing up three games each. At this moment, Ciliak seems to hold the advantage to be elected as the starting goaltender, but he will need to raise his game considerably in order to make Janus’ performances of last year forget.
In total Mikes can select seven players – five forwards and two defencemen – from the team last year. A number that is satisfactory to him. No short of confidence, Mikes was given a boost when his team won an exhibition tournament in Switzerland last month. Slovakia went 3-0-0 against Germany, Switzerland and Norway. Not exactly top nations in junior hockey, but interesting to the coaching staff nonetheless since Switzerland will be one of their opponents in Canada. Their 5-1 victory was more than convincing to Mikes, who realized this was the last opportunity to see his team play against other countries prior to the trip to Canada.
Being the second seed in a group with Canada, USA, Latvia and Switzerland, Slovakia heads into the tournament with some expectations on their shoulders. Is the team able to withstand that sort of pressure, whereas last year everything was a bonus?
The players will have to take that exam on the ice, but coach Mikes already runs ahead of things. If confidence alone would have you pass, Mikes would do so with flying colours.
“I’ve been in this business for 15 years and I learned that one takes on as many pressure as one allows himself to. In my job there’s no time to relax, you’re never taking things for granted. In contrary, you’re always trying to improve things where possible,” Mikes said. He considers the high expectations as a bonus. “It’s good when we get positive expectations from the crowd. Then we can be even more motivated to improve and go forward.”
Their first exam is a difficult one. On December 26, school starts for the Slovak youngsters with a game against Team USA in Saskatoon.
Preliminary Roster of the Slovak U20 national team
Goalkeepers: Mark Ciliak (HK Orange 20/Kometa Brno, CZE), Tomas Halasz (HK Orange 20/HC Kosice), Tomas Pek (Slovan Bratislava).
Defencemen: Peter Hrasko (HK Orange 20/HKm Zvolen), Henrich Jabornik (HK Orange 20/HK 36 Skalica), Ivan Jankovic (HK Orange 20/HK 36 Skalica), Adam Janosik (Gatineau Olympiques, CAN / QMJHL), Martin Marincin (HK Orange 20/HC Kosice), Matus Rais (HK Orange 20/HK Nitra), Michal Siska (HK Orange 20/HKm Zvolen) Peter Slimak (HK Orange 20/HC Kosice), Martin Stajnoch (HK Orange 20/Slovan Bratislava).
Forwards: Martin Bakos (HK Orange 20/Slovan Bratislava), Lukas Cingel (HK Orange 20/MsHK Zilina), Jakub Gasparovic (HK Orange 20/Dukla Trencin), Frantisek Gerhat (HC Litvinov, CZE) Maros Grosaft (HK Orange 20/HK Nitra), Libor Hudacek (HK Orange 20/Slovan Bratislava), Radoslav Illo (Tri-City Stoma, USA / USHL), Andrej Kudrna (Red Deer Rebels, CAN / WHL), Adam Lapsansky (HK Poprad), Samuel Mlynarovic (HK Orange 20/HK Poprad), Richard Panik (Windsor Spitfires, CAN / OHL), Andrej Stastny (HK Orange 20/Dukla Trencin), Jan Sykora (HK Orange 20/HC '05 Banska Bystrica), Tomas Tatar (Grand Rapids Griffins, USA /AHL), Martin Uhnak (HK Orange 20/HK Nitra), Michael Vandas (HK Orange 20/HK Poprad), Marek Viedensky (Prince George Cougars, CAN / WHL).
- The three Slovak players drafted in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft are all playing in North America this season. Goaltender Jaroslav Janus started with the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL, but has been sent back to juniors where he’s now playing for the OHL’s Erie Otters. There he meets Richard Panik, who has scored 15 points in 27 games with the Windsor Spitfires. Speedy winger Tomas Tatar made a good impression during the Detroit Red Wings camp this summer and made a successful jump to the AHL. In 15 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins he has scored five goals and twelve points.
- The Slovak U20 team’s participation in the Slovak Extraliga has been put to a hold until the World U20 Championship have concluded. They will resume play late January with 12 more games.
- Slovan Bratislava still leads the league with 61 points. They’ve opened up a six-point gap to surprise runners-up HC 05 Banska Bystrica.
- Former powerhouse Dukla Trencin’s horrifying season continues. After 24 games they rank last with just 25 points. They are nine points away for a spot that would save them from relegation.
- Zigmund Palffy has been given company atop of the scoring charts. Poprad centre Peter Klouda is red hot having scored at least one point in his last seven games. The pair has 35 points this season followed by Slovan Bratislava’s Martin Kulha (34 points) who recently recorded a league leading five-point peformance against Nitra.
- On Monday, HK 36 Skalica coach Jan Faith was dismissed by the team’s management. Faith led his team to a historic spot in the Extraliga finals last season, but their fourth place was deemed insufficient. From their last five games before the dismissal, Skalica managed just two wins. Faith, who had previously worked in Skalica between 2001 and 2004, has been already the sixth Extraliga coach that has been exchanged this season.