Odd man in
by Andrew Podnieks|17 FEB 2022
Slovakia's Juraj Slafkovsky #20 celebrates after scoring a goal on Team USA in the quarter-finals.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
The year 2002 was the worst year in Slovakia’s hockey history—until it was its best. The hockey mad, hockey proud nation was supposed to assemble its “dream team” for the Salt Lake Olympics only to discover the NHL schedule and various rules prevented that from happening. The result was a thoroughly disappointing 13th place finish that every Slovak player knew was not indicative of their country’s place in the world hockey order.

So when the chance came again a few months later at the World Championship in Sweden, every top player accepted the invitation and produced an historic gold medal, a gold medal for the ages that announced there was a new hockey power. Goodbye “Big Six.” Hello “Big Seven.”

But in the 20 years since, Slovakia has gone into a period of decline. The great stars from 2002 have retired, and a new generation never took hold. The national program had also delivered a bronze medal at the 1999 World Juniors and soon after won another bronze at the 2003 U18, but those victories didn’t produce enough talent to develop a “Big Seven” team after 2002.

Parts of the golden team in ’02 helped Slovakia win another medal at the next year’s Worlds, though, a bronze in Helsinki, with a 4-2 win over the Czech Republic, but it was nearly a decade before they reached the podium again, winning silver in 2012 with something of a miracle run. Since then? Nothing. At the Olympics, they made it to the bronze-medal game in Vancouver in 2010 but lost to Finland, 5-3, and to this day Slovakia remains without an Olympic medal. 

The numbers speak volumes. In 2005-06, there were 32 Slovaks in the NHL. Last year there were 10. In the last three years, a grand total of four Slovaks have been drafted into the league. Four. In the early 2000s they were in double digits many years.

How bad did it get? Well, Slovakia didn’t automatically qualify for Beijing. Instead, it had to play a round robin last August in Bratislava against Belarus, Austria, and Poland. Slovakia won all three games, but it wasn’t an outrageous romp by any means. They opened with a 2-1 win over Austria, beat Poland handily, 5-1, and then had their hands full against Belarus in a qualify-or-go-home game. The score was 1-1 late in the third period, until Libor Hudacek scored the game winner with less than three minutes remaining. 

The Olympic roster is similar but not identical to the one that took the team our of the qualification. Some 13 skaters and both goalies are in Beijing along with coach Craig Ramsay, who has been in charge of the Slovak program since 2018. The most notable difference in names is Juraj Slafkovsky. He was playing in the junior and then senior league in Finland during last year's qualification, but at age 17 he hardly seemed like the piece of the puzzle most critical to the team’s success. Slafkovsky has been on scouts’ radar for a while and will go very high in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, but he came to Beijing as a kid.

So, at the start of the Olympics, Slovakia wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a top-four team. Two losses to start didn’t improve their reputation much. Finland handled them easily, 6-2, and 24 hours later Sweden took them down with a 4-1 win. But on the last day of the round robin they beat Latvia, 5-2, their best performance, and then in the qualifying game they built on that momentum with a convincing 4-0 win over Germany. Along the way, guess who the dominant player was? Slafkovsky. He scored four goals in four games, including both against Finland and the only goal against Sweden, two of the top countries in the world. The 17-year-old was becoming a man before our very eyes.

That win against Germany set up an unenviable showdown with the U.S. which had won its three round-robin games impressively and were the clear favourites. Guess who opened the scoring? Slafkovsky. The Americans tied the game and went ahead, but the Slovaks got the miracle ending they were praying for, tying the game with 44 seconds remaining and six attackers full throttle in the American end. The Slovaks then won in a shootout to move on to the semi-finals against the Finns, looking to avenge that earlier loss but feeling their team had come a long way in the interim. 

Everything has fallen into place for Slovakia in a way Ramsay could never have anticipated but always hoped for. Patrik Rybar, who is now 28 years old, has established himself as the team’s number-one goalie, allowing only four goals in as many games. Simon Nemec and Samuel Knazko are two other teenagers contributing. 

Nemec just turned 18 on 15 February and had an important year last year, playing in the World Juniors, the Gretzky-Hlinka Cup, and the World Championship. Knazko is 19 and has a wealth of junior experience as well as the 2021 Worlds to his credit. This trio has energized the Slovaks and given them a dimension that centres on speed and skill.

Ramsay's roster is mostly older and veteran, though. Of course, winning breeds confidence and confidence breeds winning, and the Slovaks have both right now. They will have a tough fight on their hands against Finland, but just think—if they win, they’ll be playing for Olympic gold.

Indeed, their run here in Beijing might be the start of something new, something exciting, something podium-worthy.