QUEBEC CITY, Canada – The golden age of Czech hockey kicked off ten years ago when Dominik Hasek backstopped the Olympic team to a surprising gold medal at the Nagano Olympics. It extended through three consecutive World Championship titles (1999-01). But since then, the Czechs have only managed to top the podium once, in 2005 in Vienna. Currently fourth in the IIHF World Ranking, they’re not the favourites heading into Canada 2008, but they’re certainly right there in the mix. Finishing seventh in Moscow is a misstep they don’t plan to repeat. With a solid blend of NHL talent and European league stars, it’s conceivable they could outdo the Russians for top spot in Group D in the Preliminary Round if they play it smart and rely on counterattacking rather than running and gunning.
Interestingly, both Czech netminders on the tournament-opening roster saw action with HC Liberec of the Extraleague last year. Milan Hnilicka has backstopped the national team to World Championship gold (1999, 2001) and silver (2006), and surprisingly got into the goaltending rotation in Turin when Dominik Hasek got injured and Tomas Vokoun faltered. The 34-year-old jumped to Salavat Yulayev Ufa in November, although it would be Alexander Eremenko who ultimately carried that club to the Russian championship. When Hnilicka departed, Marek Pinc was acquired from Vitkovice to replace him and put up very creditable numbers (a 2.30 GAA and .928 save percentage in the regular season, improving to 1.88 and .943 in the playoffs). Experience weighs heavily in a tournament like this, though, so expect Hnilicka to get the big games. (Vokoun, although available after the Florida Panthers missed the NHL playoffs, is having surgery on a hernia rather than suiting up.)
Tomas Kaberle of the Toronto Maple Leafs headlines this group of rearguards. The savvy 30-year-old puck-mover recorded a goal and five assists in Riga 2006, and will be expected to drive the Czech power play. Minnesota’s Filip Kuba will provide a physical element, and Jan Hejda has just signed a three-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets, reflecting his solid two-way play. Overall, this has the potential to be one of the tournament’s most reliable blueline corps.
With the announced withdrawal of longtime captain David Vyborny from the national team, the Czechs will have to look elsewhere for leadership up front. The top line of Patrik Elias, Martin Erat, and David Krejci will need to provide much of the scoring. Radim Vrbata is coming off a breakthrough season with the Phoenix Coyotes, his fourth NHL club, scoring 27 goals and 29 assists to place second in the club derby. Russian Super League veteran Zbynek Irgl, who scored the overtime winner versus Russia in the 2006 semi-finals, should be hungry to go all the way after losing in the RSL finals to Ufa as a member of Salavat Yulayev Ufa. Lots of skill and smarts here.
Head coach Alois Hadamczik has led the national team in IIHF competitions since 2006, garnering bronze in Turin and second place in Riga that year. The 55-year-old also brings an extensive history of coaching in the Czech Extraliga in the mid-1980’s. Don’t expect any surprises here in terms of implementing the traditional Czech left-wing lock system.
When the Czechs were favoured to win on home ice in 2004, they fell apart due to overconfidence and wanting too much to impress their fans with dazzling offensive creativity. That shouldn’t be a problem in this tournament. This time, nobody is touting them to win, but if the goaltending holds up, they could easily come away with a medal.