Following a dramatic 6-5 overtime victory over Canada on the last day of the group stage of the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, Czechia has finished second in Group A. The win came thanks to a potent power play and four-point efforts from Jiri Kulich, Eduard Sale and defenceman Tomas Hamara, who was voted the team's best player of the game.
“He's the kind of defenceman I like,” head coach Jakub Petr said in the aftermath of the victory. “He's a two-way defenceman, very mobile, can handle the puck. It's gotta be tough for him, leaving Tappara in the semi-finals and suddenly jumping in and playing in the U18 World Championship, but he's handled himself so well and I'm very proud of him.”
“It was important to win the first game against Germany. That gave us some confidence and I think it was a good game overall,” Hamara, who is one of four returnees from last year’s team, said about the team's opening 4-2 win against Germany.
As for the second game, a 6-2 loss to the USA: “I think we started well. The first goal really helped us but unfortunately we weren’t able to continue that in the second period. After the first USA goal, we started playing a little bit different and they have the skills, so they scored the goals.”
Of the 12 goals the Czechs have scored so far, eight have come on the power play and another was on a penalty shot. Captain Kulich and 16-year-old Sale share the tournament scoring lead with seven points each, while Hamara leads all defencemen with five points, all assists.
“Our power play is going well, which is really good for us,” said Hamara, who plays on the top power-play unit. As for what the team needs to improve: “I think we need to be calmer with the puck and not respect our opponents too much, because I think we showed that we can compete with every team here. Maybe we’re underdogs against some of the teams but the difference isn’t so big that we can’t beat them. We also need to play better defence.
“We still have a lot of things to work on, but so far I think it’s been solid,” he said before the game against Canada, before adding somewhat prophetically: “It’s a little bit different team than last year. I definitely think we have a chance to surprise them and win.”
Yes, last year in Plano, Texas was quite different. The Canadian team was dominant and won the gold medal. And Hamara was the only 16-year-old on a stacked Czech defence that included Stanislav Svozil, David Jiricek and David Moravec. The team was optimistic about its chances but lost in the quarter-finals and finished seventh.
“We had a strong team and it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t get everything out of it that we had hoped,” Hamara recalled. “We were leading some games and let them get away. We lost in a shootout to the USA, Finland scored in the last minute to beat us. If we got some of those points, we could have played someone other than Canada in the quarter-finals and we might have finished a bit better, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.”
For Hamara, the worst part of all was that he broke his arm in the team’s second game against Finland.
“It was still a good experience but it was a little bit sad for me,” said Hamara. “It was difficult to just watch the tournament from the stands, but that’s motivated me this season and gave me a lot of positive energy.”
“It was very unfortunate for him as it is for any player who gets injured and has to leave the tournament,” said Petr, who also coached last year’s Czech U18 team. “He had a great season in Finland playing for the Tappara men’s team and I think he’s a prospect for the draft, and now he’s a very important part of this team.”
Hamara has now played in Finland for the last four seasons, starting with Tappara Tampere’s U16 team and since then has climbed the ladder right up to the pros.
“My father is a hockey coach and he got the idea, so I went there to train one summer when I was 13 and I liked the level of hockey there,” said Hamara. “So I came back the next year and I’ve played there ever since, and I’m glad I did.”
It was difficult at first, being on a team where nobody could speak Czech and he couldn’t speak Finnish. There was one other Czech in Tappara’s junior program, Martin Has, whom he had met before.
“That helped me that there was someone else there that I knew at least a little bit, but he’s three years older than me and we didn’t see each other that much,” Hamara said about Has, who’s now a 21-year-old Washington Capitals prospect. “We played on different teams, practiced in different rinks and both had busy schedules.”
Since then, Hamara has learned the Finnish language but studies in English and hopes to graduate this summer.
“He’s been in Finland since he was 14 years old so he’s a different person now,” said Petr. “I’m not even talking about his hockey skills, but leaving his country, leaving his parents at this age. He’s very mature in one-on-one meetings, he’s developing as a man and as a hockey player.”
As a hockey player, Hamara played in Finland’s top professional league – the Liiga – for 24 regular-season games and two in the playoffs. Tappara is now playing in the finals against TPS Turku, but Hamara left after the semi-finals to join the Czech U18 team.
“Of course it was a little bit disappointing because you don’t make the finals every year, and this was my first experience with professional league playoffs,” he said. “But I’m excited to be here and I hope that we can achieve something here.”
Whereas he would likely be watching the Liiga finals from the stands, Hamara is a big part of the Czech team at the U18 Worlds which will take on Switzerland in the quarter-finals on Thursday.
“I like to be on the power play and play big minutes,” said Hamara. “I think I’m a two-way D with offensive upside.”
His success has put him on scouts’ radars for this summer’s NHL Entry Draft, for which Hamara will be eligible.
“Sure, it’s a bit different,” he said about playing his draft season. “There’s a bit of pressure because you know that there are scouts watching, but it’s still just playing hockey, and I just try to focus on playing my best every game and enjoying it.”
While the NHL is the dream down the road, Hamara’s more immediate focus following this tournament is returning to Finland for next season and establishing himself as an everyday defenceman on Tappara’s top team.
“That’s the goal,” he nodded. “We’ll see how it goes after the summer.”