Czech mates in goal
by Derek O'Brien|05 AUG 2021
Klara Peslarova in the net at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
The next few months are pretty busy on the women’s international hockey calendar and the Czech Republic has a couple of big tournaments – the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Calgary in late August and the Final Olympic Qualification tournament on home ice in Chomutov in November. The team has a strong roster but there’s no question that in order to have success, the Czechs will need strong goaltending from Klara Peslarova and Viktorie Svejdova.

Peslarova, 24, is the incumbent starting goalie and already a veteran of six Women’s World Championships. After winning a bronze medal and being named the tournament’s Best Goaltender at the 2014 IIHF Ice HOckey U18 Women’s World Championship in Budapest, she became the starting goaltender of the senior women’s national team three months later at the Women’s World Championship Division I Group A in Prerov, just 80 km from her hometown of Ostrava. 

“It was really big for me at that age. I was 17 and the coach said, ‘You’re gonna be the first goalie,’” Peslarova recalled. “I think I showed my best there.”

There she was Best Goaltender again as the Czechs won the gold medal, and repeated both feats the following year to help the Czech women advance to the top division, where they have remained ever since.

Svejdova, 19, is the understudy and expected backup. This past season she made her senior women’s national team debut but played in seven games over the two most recent U18 Women’s Worlds.

Home away from home

The two play together not only on the Czech national women’s team but also on Swedish club MODO Ornskoldsvik in the SDHL, the top Swedish women’s league. They have both been in Sweden for a few years now, with Peslarova first going at age 18 and Svejdova when she was 15. 

“We just started playing on the same team this season, because before that I was on the junior team for three years and Kaki was there before, already on the senior team,” said Svejdova. “I think it’s important for the goalies to be buddies but also to be able to compete on the ice. For me it was a really nice season that I could learn from Kaki because she’s older and more experienced than I was.” 

In the 2020/21 season, Peslarova played in 27 games for MODO and Svejdova played 10. Of the 18 goalies in the league who played at least 10 games, Peslarova’s save percentage of 92.9 ranked third and Svejdova’s 92.1 ranked fifth for a team that finished sixth out of 10 teams. Peslarova played in both playoff games as MODO was bounced in the quarter-finals, but goaltending was clearly the strength of the team. 
“I think it went pretty well during the season, right?” Svejdova asked her partner in net. 

“It’s really nice to play with someone who you can see developing, and not slowly developing,” Peslarova said about her understudy. “Each week was a big step for Viki, so it’s really nice that in the end you can see someone that is competitive and trying to beat you. That motivates me to work harder, so it’s good for both of us and good for the team.”

In addition to the two goalies, there is a third member of the Czech women’s national team on the team – defender Daniela Pejsova.

“There’s the three of us there, so it’s nice that we can speak Czech so we don’t forget the language when we’re away for so long,” said Svejdova.

While Ornskoldsvik is a town of just over 30,000 in a rather remote area of Sweden, it is a huge hockey town that is well known to hockey fans for the famous players its club MODO has produced. Famous players such as Anders Hedberg, Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Victor Hedman all hail from the area, and the two Czech goalies enjoy the atmosphere.

“It’s a pretty small city. There’s nothing there – just the hockey rink and a factory,” said Peslarova, who noted the closeness between the fans and the players on both the men’s and women’s teams, even in a season where fans weren’t allowed to attend games. 

“None at all,” she said. “Maybe our bus driver and some players who were injured but otherwise there was no one (in attendance).” 

“It’s pretty nice to be there because the fans and the people in the city live by hockey,” said Svejdova. “So on game day, everyone is involved and you can see it when you’re passing the streets in the city, all the shops have flags and stuff, so everyone’s cheering for MODO and it’s pretty nice to see how a small place can be such a huge community.”
Svejdova has especially integrated into the community, having learned the Swedish language and gone to high school in Ornskoldsvik the past four years, graduating this spring. 

“It’s a huge difference when it comes to mentality and culture,” she said about the difference between Sweden and the Czech Republic. “One thing I personally like about Sweden is it’s a bit calmer. In the Czech Republic, we hurry for everything. But they both feel like home to me.”

Becoming goaltenders

“I started to be a goalie when I was six or seven,” said Peslarova. “I saw women’s hockey for the first time at the Winter Olympics in Turin, and I really looked up to Kim Martin. It was nice to play against her in Sweden. 

“When I got older, I started looking up to all the high-level goalies and taking small pieces from each of them. At the last World Championship in Finland it was Noora Raty. It was so cool to see how she worked and did the small things that you can’t really see if you’re not closely studying.”

It’s interesting to note that Martin and Raty are the only two female goalies not from Canada or the USA to backstop their teams to an Olympic or World Championship final. That’s some elite company that Peslarova would like to join some day. 

“I was a player before and I hated to skate,” Svejdova laughed. “My dad was really strict and wanted me to skate so fast and work hard. I thought it would be easier as a goalie but then I realized it wasn’t. 

“Now I’m a goalie and I love it.”

Representing the homeland

Czech women’s teams have had success at the U18 level, claiming two bronze medals and consistently staying in the top division. It’s been a different story with the senior women, who for years were mired in lower divisions and have never finished higher than sixth, but that might be starting to change now that the team is made up of players that have had U18 success, like Peslarova and Svejdova.

“Now we’ve got a team for it, to stay in the group,” said Peslarova. “Maybe we can move to Group A, but we will see. Now we’ve got a new coach (Tomas Pacina) and we’re still working on things, but I think it will be really interesting to watch our games.”

“Right now at camp, it feels like a really good team and I think it’s the team spirit that’s going to make us play well and score,” said Svejdova. “Everybody’s good at something. We have good shooters, good passers, good skaters and they all work together to help the team, so I’m not going to say any single player.”

The 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, scheduled for 20-31 August in Calgary, has been a long time coming. It was first scheduled to be played in Halifax and Truro in the spring of 2020 when all IIHF tournaments were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then the spring of 2021 when the government of the host province of Nova Scotia cancelled the event at short notice. Now the teams are set to fly to Calgary, Alberta on 10 August.

“The night before we were supposed to fly to Halifax, we were informed by our GM about the cancellation of the World Championship,” said Peslarova. “Of course, it was devastating and everyone had so many questions.”
Players hoped that a World Championship would be played as soon as possible, which brings us to August with new dates, a new venue and another province of Canada. Of course, that brings a new set of challenges. 

“It's hard to tell if it’s an advantage in this timing or not,” said Svejdova. “But I think that it was good for many people since we had more time for preparation and we also had more time to come together as a team and we could get know each other better. I believe that everyone also had more time to relax after the last season, which was for many players exhausting and now we are in full power again and ready to rock it.”
In the Women’s Worlds, the Czechs play in Group B with Denmark, Japan, Hungary and Germany. At the last Women’s Worlds in 2019, the Czechs won all four group-stage games and the two goalies believe they can do that again. Peslarova played three of the four games. In fact, since 2014 in Prerov she has played 22 of 26 World Championship games for the Czech Republic. How many will she play this year? 

“It’s up to the coaches but I can say that I want to play all of them,” said Peslarova, who then added somewhat grimly: “But I don’t know, maybe I’ll get injured and it’ll be the other goalie.”

Then coming up 11-14 November is Group D of Final Olympic Qualification for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. The Czech Republic has never qualified for women’s ice hockey at the Olympics, but this time, they will play on home ice in Chomutov against Hungary, Norway and a team still to be determined, they will be favoured. 

“Everyone is pumped for the Olympic Qualifying,” said Peslarova. “We go step by step, first the Worlds, then the OQ. It might help us with all of the preparation and games. We can work on our mental and physical preparation.”

Between those two events will be the start of the new SDHL season with MODO, where both goalies are returning for another season. 

“I hope it’s gonna work perfect,” said Svejdova. “While other players will be trying new equipment at the beginning of September, we will be game-ready. Our first pre-season game where me and Klara will attempt is on 4 September, shortly after our championship is over, so in my opinion it is the best way to come back to our club and show how prepared we are.”