Passion behind the bench
by Lucas Aykroyd|03 MAY 2021
Czech Republic head coach Jakub Petr hopes to beat the odds and guide the national U18 team to its first podium finish since 2014's silver medal.
photo: Chris Tanouye / HHOF-IIHF Images
Some coaches don’t like to wear their heart on their sleeve, especially during a post-game media availability after a tough defeat. Czech head coach Jakub Petr, though, keeps it raw and real, as he did after the 11-1 loss to Russia to close out the group stage on Saturday.

The 47-year-old Ostrava native, who spent 2002 to 2005 on defence with the Sydney Bears of the Australian Ice Hockey League, has a palpable passion for the junior game. This is the seventh time Petr has stood behind the bench at the U18 Worlds as either a head or assistant coach.

He led the 2014 team – featuring David Pastrnak, Jakub Vrana, and Pavel Zacha – to an unexpected silver medal. This year’s squad doesn’t have such elite offensive talent. But for Petr, that’s no reason to just hang back and clog up the neutral zone like the Czech teams of yore – even with a scary quarter-final match-up against Canada coming up on Monday.

“There were so many things going around: ‘The Czechs, they changed their style of game.’ The Russians were prepared today and they scored very early in the first period and then after that they were unstoppable. I’d say it’s pretty easy for me as a coach to sit here and say, ‘Oh, our goalie and our defencemen, our system, everything was bad.’ Talking about my players, they were not in their skin today. But like I said two days ago, I’m still with my team. Everyone knows that the tournament starts in two days. I believe we’re going to be ready.”

What does this two-time World Junior coach (2016, 2017) expect the quarter-final against Canada to be like?

“Like against Finland or the USA. I watch all the games with our coaching staff, preparing for games. The only thing that makes me unhappy is the question of organization to play the best game. We organize our play defensively and offensively. The huge difference between our team and the top teams is execution. When we get the puck, we’re crossing the blue line, and, except in this game against Russia, we get so many situations with those small details – 2-on-1, 3-on-1, 3-on-2 – and we can’t execute. Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, they’re so skilled. We try to stick with our system, which works, except today. But we’ve still got to execute in those situations we get from our system. So that’s the thing I think we can build on in the quarters, but we know the power of Team Canada. Still, I believe we will stay here till the end of the tournament, and I mean on the ice, not in the hotel.”

Clearly, just going home and taking pride in a solid 3-1 win over Germany, plus having kept it close with Finland (a heartbreaking last-minute 6-5 loss) and the U.S. (a 2-1 shootout loss), is not on Petr’s agenda. In order to survive the quarter-final and go on to break the Czech Republic’s seven-year medal drought, it’ll take strong goaltending too.

In 2014, Vitek Vanecek, now the starting goalie for the Washington Capitals, came through with 25 saves to beat Russia 3-2 in overtime in the quarter-final. Will it be Oliver Satny or Tomas Suchanek between the pipes on Monday?

“That’s a good and tough question. With Czech teams, like when I got a medal in 2014, it’s always part of the history. You need a top guy in the crease. But I don’t know right now.”

As a coach, taking media questions after a U18 Worlds loss isn’t necessarily glamorous. This isn’t the bright glare of the NHL spotlight. You’re not pulling in $5 million a year like Joel Quenneville, Alain Vigneault, or Todd McLellan. You’re taking the heat because you love junior hockey and want to help mold these teenage players into successful young men. And you’re trying to provide inspiration because for some players, these games in Texas will rank among the biggest and most memorable experiences in their entire hockey careers.

It’s easy to hear the passion when Petr reveals what he told his underdog players during their darkest moments against Russia. There’s a little echo of the famous Herb Brooks speech –“Great moments are born from great opportunity” – from the 2003 movie Miracle about the golden 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and their 4-3 upset over the mighty Soviet Union in Lake Placid.

“I told my players, not after the periods, but during each commercial break, ‘Hey, the story of the quarter-finals starts here.’ You give them the message to get together as a team. There’s going to be hard work for me for tomorrow. Maybe it’s my coaching mistake, but I believed we can be successful with our style of hockey through the whole group stage. Maybe we should play more defensively. But I believe the team is going to be ready. We came here to bring back to [the Czech Republic] the light that we can play hockey. That is on our medals. Even in the tough time after this [expletive deleted] ‘double loss’ [to Russia], I still believe in the boys that we’ll stay here, even playing Canada. Other times, we beat Canada, Russia, Sweden, whatever. Well, the road is not always like this. You need to get some punches along the way. At the end of the tournament, I still believe we’re going to be the happiest in here.”