1959 – a 50th anniversary and an international debut
When the 1959 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship went to Czechoslovakia, it was a big occasion for the host nation. The event marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Bohemian Hockey Federation, one of the flagship members of the IIHF before World War I. By 1918, the Kingdom of Bohemia was no more and the new Czechoslovak hockey authorities represented an enlarged nation that included Bratislava and Slovakia.
With a half-century of hockey to celebrate, the Czechoslovaks pushed the boat out. At a time when World Championships were usually played in a single city, they took the show on the road to stage games in Prague, Brno, Ostrava and right here in Bratislava. The Slovak capital hosted the Czechoslovak national team for the opening group phase and home fans celebrated two big wins to get the tournament started. A 9-0 success over Switzerland was followed by a 13-1 drubbing of Poland before Canada, represented here by the Belleville McFarlands, dampened local pride with a 7-2 win in the decisive group game. Visiting defenceman Al Dewsbury, who stood 192 cm and weighed in at 105 kg, made an impact in that game, spending 18 minutes in the penalty box and earning the disapproving nickname of ‘a terrorist on ice’ from local journalists.
The action left Bratislava after just three days of group phase action and would not return until 1992, but the city had enjoyed its first taste of top-level international ice hockey. All the games were played out in front of a capacity crowd of 12,000, while the arena got an upgrade that included new locker rooms and goals that detached from the ice on impact, reducing the risk of player injury. What had been, 20 years earlier, a fairly basic open-air facility was now an impressive arena for its era. On the ice, Canada went on to win the title, Czechoslovakia took bronze thanks to an empty net goal late in its 5-3 victory over the Canadians in the last game of the decisive group. Three Slovaks were on the medal-winning roster: Karol Fako, Jozef Golonka and Jan Starsi.
1992 – Farewell to Czechoslovakia, congratulations to Finland!
When the championship came back to Bratislava in 1992, the world was a different place. While the 1959 tournament was a Cold War battleground marked by a famous clash between East and West Germany, the early 90s ushered in a new era following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Communist regimes of Central Europe. Those changes would have a profound effect on Czechoslovakia, which was preparing for its ‘Velvet Divorce’. The 1992 championship, staged in Prague and Bratislava, would be the last time the old country competed in IIHF play: the following season the Czech Republic would continue in the Elite Pool as the approved successor state, while the newly-independent Slovakia would begin anew in the third tier.
The tournament format in 1992 meant that part way through the group phase the competing teams swapped venues, moving from Prague to Bratislava and vice versa. Thus, fans at the Ondrej Nepela got to see all the competing nations and witness something of a hockey wind of change along the way. This was the year that Finland won its first ever World Championship medal. The Finns first entered the Worlds in 1939 and went through a painful 1970s sequence of sixth consecutive fourth-placed finishes, but finally got on the podium in ’92 with a silver medal. Penti Matikainen’s team played twice in Bratislava on its way to the final, defeating Sweden and Italy in group-phase play.
Europe was adapting to a geo-political wind of change and suddenly there was a new nation among the leaders of World hockey. The 1992 tournament saw Finland reach the podium for the first time in its history. The Finns played twice in Bratislava along the way, defeating Sweden and Italy. Czechoslovakia signed off from international play with bronze. The roster featured two Slovak players who crossed the Atlantic. Presov-born forward Igor Liba traded Kosice for the NHL in 1988/89 and made 39 appearances with the Rangers and Gretzky’s LA Kings. Defenceman Robert Svehla was drafted by Calgary after his World Championship performances in 1992 and went on to make 655 NHL appearances, mostly with the Florida Panthers. Forward Peter Veselovsky added to the Slovak contingent on the team, while Czech-born coach Jaroslav Walter spent many years as a player at Slovan and later coached Dukla Trencin to the Slovak title. He was inducted to the Slovak Hall of Fame in 2005.
1995 – the Slovaks are back!
One consequence of Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet divorce’ was Slovakia’s abrupt loss of hockey status. From forming part of an elite level nation, it now had to start out on its own at the foot of the rankings, alongside a host of former Soviet republics. But it could also call upon a world hockey legend to help restore former glories.
Peter Stastny had played for Czechoslovakia in the 70s before defecting to Canada and playing in the NHL for the Nordiques. Along the way, he represented his new home in the 1984 Canada Cup – but when his true homeland came calling, he was ready to respond. He helped the fledgling Slovak team buck the odds to reach the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 before finishing his career in his home town at the 1995 World Championship (Pool B).
Slovakia won Pool C on home ice in Poprad and Novy Vess the previous year and was out for a repeat in Bratislava. Victory would complete the quickest possible journey from pavement to penthouse in international hockey and Stastny, now 39, was fired up to ensure his career ended on a hometown high. He amasses 16 points in six games as Slovakia powered to the summit. Much of the tournament was a blow-out – Slovakia scored 10 on Poland and 13 on the Netherlands – but the promotion issue was settled in a tense 4-3 win over a similarly free-scoring Latvia. Interestingly, four of the eight teams in that tournament – Slovakia, Latvia, Denmark and Great Britain – are competing in this year’s tournament in Slovakia. Stastny could retire on a high note, Slovakia was at the top of the hockey tree in its own right.
2011 – Granlund announces himself
Slovakia, of course, always enjoys playing in Bratislava. However, Finland is developing a special relationship with the city as well. After claiming its first ever World Championship medal after playing here in 1992, the Finns won gold here in 2011 as Slovakia hosted the main event for the first time as an independent nation. And, along the way, a teenage star was born.
Mikael Granlund, then a 19-year-old prospect with HIFK Helsinki, scored a memorable ‘lacrosse’ goal. The move wasn’t exactly new – Mike Legg famously pulled it off in college hockey and others had done it in less high-pressure environments. Granlund himself, earlier that season, had executed it in a Finnish youth league game. But this was a World Championship semi-final, Finland was tied 0-0 with Russia in the third period and the stakes could scarcely have been higher. Maybe it was the impudence of youth, maybe a flash of inspiration, but after Granlund evaded Dmitri Kalinin and Dmitri Kulikov behind the Russian net he managed to scoop the puck onto the blade of his stick before circling the net and shovelling it high over Konstantin Barulin’s blocker. Nobody could accuse Granlund of lacking chutzpah and his high stakes gamble brought the greatest reward – a place in the World Championship final.
Since then, the Finn has matured into a key figure in international play. By 2014, as an established part of the Minnesota Wild, he had 7 (4+3) points in six games as Suomi took Olympic bronze in Sochi. In 2016 he made the team of the tournament as his 12 (4+8) points helped Finland to World Championship silver in Moscow. Overall, he’s collected 38 points from 41 World Championship appearances – and picked up a handy 322 points in 477 NHL games for Minnesota and now Nashville. And that journey all began behind the net at the Ondrej Nepela.