23 players, all from KHL or Czech Extraliga teams that have been eliminated from their respective playoffs, arrived at camp in Prague on Tuesday, 30 March. With everybody wearing masks, keeping distance and having to test for COVID-19, there’s no mistaking the cloud that the entire season has been played under. That point had been hit home the day before, when head coach Filip Pesan announced via Twitter that he had recently recovered from a particularly tough bout with the dreaded virus.
“It is definitely not advisable to underestimate this disease and I thank all the healthcare workers who took care of me for those few days in the hospital. Since last week I’ve been back in the process and I'm really looking forward to tomorrow’s meeting and beginning preparations for the World Championship,” he tweeted.
Pesan is in his first season as head coach of the Czech national team, taking over for the late Milos Riha, who passed away in August. Previously, Pesan had coached the Czech U20 team to fourth place at the 2018 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo – the team’s only semi-final appearance in the last 16 years. Since then, he has been involved in the Czech Ice Hockey Association as head of the youth national team program, and his experience in player development is evident by the list of young players that have been invited to camp.
Of the 23 that hit the ice in Prague that first day of camp, only one – 24-year-old defenceman David Sklenicka of Jokerit Helsinki – has World Championship experience and 12 had never suited up for the national senior men’s team. In fact, most of the players currently in camp are showcasing themselves for future seasons rather than for a spot on this year’s team. Eventually, most of them will be replaced by KHL and NHL players, as well as Czechs in other leagues, when they become available.
“We looked at the age and potential of these players, and now we want to see them at work and for them to get to know our coaching staff,” said Pesan, whose staff includes assistants Jaroslav Spacek and Martin Straka working together with general manager Petr Nedved. “I believe some of them will compete for spots on the World Championship roster.”
As for who the next arrivals will be: “We contacted all the KHL guys whose seasons have finished,” Pesan explained. “Or rather, my colleagues did, because I was in poor health. Almost everyone, with a few medical exceptions, said that they would like to compete at the Worlds. We offered them a choice of participating in this first camp or taking a week off. Several KHL guys will be joining us next week.”
Everybody went home for the Easter long weekend but camp resumed today with five more players: defencemen Dominik Masin and Michal Jordan and forwards Hynek Zohorna (who recently became a father), Robin Hanzl and Lukas Radil, which adds a fair bit of experience to the group overall. Hynek’s brother Tomas Zohorna is expected to join next Monday.
Perhaps the most prized Czech from the KHL is winger Dmitri Jaskin, who has had 137 points in 133 regular-season and playoff games combined for Dynamo Moscow over the past two seasons. Jaskin, who will turn 29 during the World Championship, has also performed well for the Czech national team in the past.
“He hasn’t been able to travel from Russia yet, and he’s also dealing with a health issue,” Pesan said about Jaskin.
As for players from the NHL, Pesan and Nedved had hoped for an overseas scouting trip, which would have also been a chance for face-to-face meetings between national team staff and potential players, but of course, things are different this year.
“That’s not gonna happen now because of the conditions for travelling, not only to North America but also within it – especially between the U.S. and Canada – have has resulted in our trip almost making no sense,” Pesan acknowledged. “Petr has been communicating with the players by phone. They know that the journey makes almost no sense and they understand it.”
According to Pesan, everyone that Nedved has been in contact with has been at least receptive to the idea of going, including Boston Bruins’ star David Pastrnak, who is expecting a baby soon. However, due to the late finish to the regular-season – just 10 days before the start of the World Championship – and the quarantine rules, the usual practice of adding players mid-tournament will be less easy this year and the Czechs will mainly focus on players who don’t make the playoffs.
Looking at the NHL standings with about six weeks to go, Czechs that could potentially become available at the end of the regular season include forwards Jakub Voracek, Dominik Kubalik, Filip Zadina and Tomas Hertl, defencemen Filip Hronek, Radim Simek and Libor Hajek, and goaltender David Rittich.
“Over time, the team will only be composed of players with a chance at the World Championship and the number of younger players will decrease,” said Pesan, adding that players will remain on standby should they be needed to replace others that have to be removed for COVID protocol reasons.
The Czechs are scheduled to play nine pre-tournament games starting on 22 April: two each against neighbours Austria, Germany and Slovakia, followed by the fourth and final leg of the Euro Hockey Tour against Finland, Sweden and Russia, which the Czechs will host in a bubble at Prague’s historic Tipsport Arena, 12-15 May. Immediately following their last game in Prague, they will fly to Riga for the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship where they will start Group A play at the Olympic Sports Centre on 21 May against Russia.