UFA – When the players of the 2013 Czech and Slovak U20 national teams were born, they were born in separate countries. On this day 20 years ago, the Velvet Divorce – the split-up of Czechoslovakia – became reality.
Because the countries were split during the 1993 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship in Sweden, it caused the organizers, the team and its players a trivia-worthy situation.
The team went into the tournament representing Czechoslovakia, with juniors coming from both parts.
The offence was led by David Vyborny, born in the Czech city of Jihlava, and the late Pavol Demitra from the Slovak city of Dubnica, who died in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl plane crash in September 2011.
The team’s top defenceman was Jan Vopat from the Czech city of Most. His promising career in the NHL ended early due to a rare skin illness. He has worked as an NHL scout since 2005. Frantisek Kaberle just had one point, but kickstarted a long and successful career on the blueline. Igor Murin from the Slovak city of Trencin was the goalie.
After losing to Finland 5-2 and defeating the United States 6-5, the Czechoslovaks lost the third game in Gävle to host Sweden 7-2. A 1-1 tie against Russia on 30 December 1992 was the last international hockey game for Czechoslovakia.
When the players gathered for New Year’s Eve, it was not a normal celebration. Although they continued the tournament as one team, the players were from two different countries from then on.
“That was very tough. At that time, we had a very tight group,” the late Demitra told IIHF.com in an interview published in May 2011. “I remember after the New Year, we’d won a couple of games, and then they didn’t play our national song anymore. That was very weird.”
With the Velvet Divorce, politicians from then-Czechoslovakia wanted to separate the two brotherly nations and leave the Czechoslovak past behind them. It had brought glory in hockey, but it was also mentally connected with tough decades for the people under communism and Soviet control.
It was a self-determined separation that ended the more-than-six-decades-long history of a country that was created following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The peaceful way it was done makes the people speak proudly about the separation, especially in comparison with other post-communism break-ups like the wars in former Yugoslavia or the casualties during the Baltic nations’ movement to restore independence from the Soviet Union.
On January 1, 1993 the same team called “Czech and Slovak Republics,” as of that day, defeated Japan 14-2. It continued with wins over Germany (6-3) and Canada (7-4) to end the round-robin event in third place and claim the bronze medals behind Canada with Paul Kariya and Sweden with a record-setting Peter Forsberg.
But something was different. The Czechoslovak anthem was not played anymore. Instead the Czech/Slovak team was honoured without a flag and the IIHF anthem was played.
“I remember that after we won the bronze medal, everybody sang the Czechoslovakian national anthem all together, and that was very special,” Demitra said.
While the 1993 World Juniors in Sweden marked the beginning of a professional career for many players, it was also a kickstart for two new countries that have caught up in prosperity and openness in the two decades.
Not all players became superstars, but eight Czechs and four Slovaks from the 1993 U20 team went on to represent their new nations at least once in another IIHF tournament.
Their national teams went in different directions from then on. The Czech Republic was the formal successor of Czechoslovakia in the sporting world, while Slovakia started as a new country.
The Slovaks had to start from bottom in the World Championship system in ice hockey and work their way up. They did so with success. At the 2000 World Championship in St. Petersburg, the two brotherly nations even met in the gold medal game, which the Czechs won 5-3.
Two years later the Slovaks won their first and so far only gold medal at the 2002 World Championship in Sweden. And just last year in Helsinki, Slovakia ousted the Czechs 3-1 in the semi-finals before settling for silver against Russia, followed by a huge welcome by tens of thousands of fans at home in Bratislava.
Over the last 20 years, life in the two countries has become different. Daily news doesn’t alternate in the two related languages anymore like it did in the past, which was leading to passive bilingualism.
While many Slovaks still understand Czech nowadays, it’s more difficult the other way around. It’s that kind of drifting apart that led politicians in 1992 to believe that a separation would be better than a closer federation.
But many things have stayed the same. Products are still traded a lot between the countries and brands are shared across the border. For four years following the dissolution, the countries even continued to share the same country code, before phone calls between the Czech Republic and Slovakia became international in 1997.
Long after the split, there have also been initiatives for closer co-operation, mostly from the side of Slovakia. With roughly five million people, its population is half that of the Czech Republic.
For example, the countries’ version of the casting show “Pop Idol” was merged in 2009 to determine the “Cesko Slovenska SuperStar”.
Similar things have happened in sports, where, for instance, the Slovak hockey league lacks in competitiveness and money compared to the big European leagues. But plans for a merged Czech-Slovak hockey league fell through in the very early stages due to lack of interest from the Czech clubs. As a result, the famous Slovak team Slovan Bratislava turned towards Russia and joined the KHL this season.
The Slovaks also proposed a co-hosted World Championship in Prague and in Bratislava, just like during the Czechoslovakian era in 1959 and 1992. But a few weeks ago the Czechs said “ne,” and they will host the 2015 tourney within their borders in Prague and Ostrava as proposed in the original bid.
In hockey terms, the rivalry will continue without a closer partnership off the ice. But for the Czech and Slovak players in Ufa born in 1993 and later, that’s exactly what they have known for their whole life: a brotherly rivalry between two neighbours. It’s one that will not be celebrated on the ice in Ufa this time, since the Czechs made it to the quarter-finals, while the Slovaks have to play in the Relegation Round.
Both the Czechs and Slovaks were able to win World Championships over the last two decades with their men’s national teams. But at the junior level, they haven’t been able to repeat their past success in the last few years.
In the 17 years that Czechoslovakia played in the U20 World Championship, it won 11 medals. In the 20 years since, the Czech Republic has medalled only three times (although it won two golds in 2000 and 2001, a colour Czechoslovak U20 teams never achieved), and Slovakia has won one U20 medal, the bronze in 1999.
A downward spiral of decreasing competitiveness in domestic junior leagues and juniors leaving the country has hurt the two nations’ programs. It’s a crucial time, since veteran stars like Jaromir Jagr or Miroslav Satan will need to be succeeded by new Czech and Slovak superstars.
But unlike in pop music, in hockey a casting show won’t be enough.