HALIFAX – On any given day, the best 20 Slovakians can beat any team in the world. However, the talent thins out somewhat quickly after these top 20 players, and this is what Slovakia has to work with in Canada this year because many of the top names are still in the NHL playoffs or have yet to commit. The team that appears on paper today might be quite different in the coming days as players consider invitations. Slovakians, more than any other nation, are devoted to playing for their national team when the chance presents itself, so hopefully several top names will be added to the roster in the coming days.
The fortunes of the team might well rest on the shoulders of Jan Lasak, the goalie who led the Slovakians to their only World Championship gold medal, in Sweden in 2002. The HC Pardubice netminder will be joined by another veteran in Karol Krizan and newcomer Julius Hudacek, but it will be to Lasak whom the majority of the workload falls (unless he proves otherwise capable).
Two members of that 2002 gold team are here in Canada—Martin Strbak (who played in Russia this past season) and Lubomir Visnovsky (of the L.A. Kings). They will anchor a defence that includes two other NHLers, namely Branislav Mezei of Florida and Buffalo’s Andrej Sekera. Ivan Majesky and Rene Vyardeny also have plenty of experience and will ensure this is one of the better defences in the tournament this year.
Only two forwards from 2002 are in the fold this year—Radovan Somik and Robert Petrovicky. Several other members of the forward contingent are not the top-flight Slovakians one would have hoped for, and they might have to play above their expectations if the team is to go deep into the playoff round. Marcel Hossa is playing, and he’s the only other NHLer on the roster to date. There are other notable names such as Juraj Kolnik (in Switzerland this year) and Andrej Podkonicky, but the lineup is filled out with lesser lights such as Peter Fabus, Tibor Melicharek, and Juraj Mikus. This will be a team that might have trouble scoring goals, but with a strong blueline they will still have high expectations.
Julius Supler is in his second year with the team and has plenty to do to make this a winning team. Last year the Slovakians finished sixth after losing 7-4 to Sweden in the quarter-finals, and this year’s lineup might not be as strong. Supler, however, has plenty of experience on which to rely. He coached the national team from 1993-96 when they made a meteoric rise from C pool to B pool to A pool, and he led the team at the 1994 Olympics as well. He later coached HK Riga 2000 in Latvia.
There are many big names still available to Slovakia, starting with Zdeno Chara, captain and defenceman of the recently-ousted Boston Bruins, as well as three big names from Minnesota Wild—sniper Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra, and reliable national team member from the past, Branko Radivojevic—all available. Chara is hurt, though, and likely won’t play. If the team can get a little Wild, though, it will, as always, have a shot at a medal. If not, it will likely be a quarter-finalist and not much more.