The Czech connection
by Adam Steiss|29 JUL 2022
Klara Peslarova instructing the goalies at the 2022 IIHF High Performance Camp. 
photo: Adam Steiss
When you think of some of the best international hockey teams to play the game, Czechia has to be considered among the top nations of the modern era.

The teams that produced back-to-back-to-back IIHF World Championship titles from 1999 to 2001, an Olympic gold in Nagano 1998, and stars like Jaromir Jagr, Robert Reichel, and Dominik Hasek are embedded in the country’s national consciousness.

However, with women’s hockey one of the fastest- growing sports in the world, Czechia has not yet made an impact in the female game, nor has the women’s’ team received nearly as much media or public attention within the country as the men’s.

But the 2021/22 season marked a major milestone for the Czech women’s program. For the first time in history, Czechia’s women’s national team qualified for the Olympic Games. It is the latest step in an upward trajectory for the program, which has also seen the senior team compete at the top division of the IIHF Women’s World Championship for four straight years and now will add a fifth when it takes to the ice in Denmark for the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.

“We had a great past season, that’s for sure,” said Czechia Women’s Program Manager Tereza Sadilova. “We achieve history and built momentum by qualifying for the Olympics. On one hand the publicity for that success was great, but on the other hand we are not where we need to be.”

There is a sense of optimism and excitement in Czech women’s hockey, and a desire to use this momentum to build towards the future. That is why three of the Czech women’s national team’s top players: captain Alena Mills, forward Katerina Mrazova, and goaltender Klara Peslarova, were in Vierumaki, Finland this month, participating in the 2022 IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp along with six of the country’s top U18 players.

“Just being here this week, I realized that we are so lucky to have so many great people involved in Czech women’s hockey, both our new players coming in, and the current players on the senior team here learning and acting as mentors to the younger ones and being roles models,” said Sadilova.

Among the players in attendance was 16-year-old Tereza Plosova, who led the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship in scoring with 10 points (3G+7A) in five games. Arriving a month later to Finland for the HPC, she was placed with the red team aka Team Mills, named after her countrywoman Alena Mills, the current senior national team captain who took up head coaching duties at the camp.

“I am enjoying the camp very much, I’m so happy that I could be here, this is a big camp and I love the girls I am with,” said Plosova. “Having Alena, she tells me everything, how to learn better play better and improve my skills on ice. Alena tries to show me how to hide my shot with my skate for example, it’s something new and she’s given me a lot of good advice like that, she is a good coach.”
Czech national team captain Alena Mills coaching U18 forward Tereza Plosova. 
With Plosova and other such as goaltender Michaela Hesova considered to be the next generation of Czech female hockey stars, current senior team players like Mills and Peslarova want to ensure that the younger players are able to develop their careers with a higher level of support than they themselves received growing up.

Mills emphasized the importance of having new players coming into the pipeline and competing with the older ones. Roster turnover can happen a lot in women’s teams, and can be a program killer with countries that that have a small recruitment base.

“I love their attitude, (Plosova) is really fun to have on the team and she brings great energy and is really receptive to feedback,” said Mills. “It’s a lot of fun to watch that the U18 girls are growing up to be competition for us older players too. They will create competition for us players at the senior level and that will only improve Czech hockey.”

For Mills especially, there is a desire to continue her career after hanging up the skates, and coaching is a logical next move for the Czech captain. Which is why attending the High Performance  Camp was important, to start gaining that experience needed to work behind the bench.

“It’s still fresh in my mind, having the perspective of a player that is still active or just finished playing, you know what players feel like, you can help them gain confidence and build up on those good moments. You see how the players blossom and become better versions of themselves,” said Mills. “That’s what I really enjoyed here, and that’s why I am interested in coaching…I find it rewarding. I didn’t realize how difficult it can be which is what I learned here.”
Mills managed a camp team that included female U18 players from 13 different countries. 
photo: Adam Steiss
“They want to be involved and change the women’s game in Czech,” said Sadilova. “I can already see them being involved in the Czech U18, U16 staff, so we’re trying to prepare them for that role. I say this all the time, they’ve been through so much as female ice hockey players, they have so much experience, who else is there to take on this kind of role? I’ve been telling them for the past few years: ‘Get ready, you’re about to get that pressure on you! (laughs)’”

Whether aspiring to be a better player or coach, IIHF camps offer the chance for these and other athletes to take the next step in their careers. During their careers Mills, Peslarova, and Mrazova have each attended either a Women’s High Performance Camp, a Hockey Development Camp, or both.

They now have returned to the 2022 camp as Athlete Ambassadors, learning the ropes about coaching and running practices for a new generation. Mills recommends anyone that is able should attend, whether as a player, aspiring coach, or administrator.

“100%, from the admin side It’s a safe environment to learn and grow, you’re going to be put into situations where it doesn’t matter if to make a mistake. This is not a championship game, and you are getting a lot of feedback, both positive and where there is room for improvement.”

“I remember coming here as a camper, it was a lot of fun,” said Mills. “I learned about some of the obstacles that are faced by girls coming from other countries some of them were similar to ours, some were different, actually seeing the girls come together at this camp reminded me of when I was here as a player.”

“I learned a lot too, because back then there wasn’t a lot of information about nutrition, strength and conditioning, so I had an opportunity to learn about what else comes with hockey.”

The IIIHF High Performance Camp is designed not just to provide training and playing opportunities to the campers, but also give coaches, trainers, physiotherapists, and other support staff and administrators the chance to learn more about their craft in a relaxed environment with colleagues from other nations. This is the kind of training that Mills and others hope to use someday in the future when they hang up their skates.

“There are girls here that I can see the next generation, especially in goaltending,” said Peslarova, the starting netminder of the women’s national team. Peslarova was helping a group of 28 goaltenders in Vierumaki, including her younger colleague Hesova who is billed as her potential replacement between the pipes.  

“I see myself in her, I think the future is there, which we need to have because I’m getting older!”
Peslarova (left) attended the 2013 High Performance Camp in Sheffield, UK as a player. 
photo: Adam Steiss
Peslarova believes that there needs to be more female representation within the women’s game in Czechia, and is pleased with the direction the team has taken. Last April, the Czech Ice Hockey Association has named Carla MacLeod as new head coach of the women’s national team. It will be the first time that a female head coach will lead a Czech women’s team at either the senior or U18 level.

“We need more women’s coaches, staff and trainers in our country, because the players feel more comfortable working with them,” said Peslarova. “I know because that was my own experience, and I think it’s better for them to develop than doing the “old-school” male coaching approach.”

The team is now gearing up for its next test: the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, the first ever to be held in an Olympic year.

“There is a long way ahead of us,” said Sadilova. “Part of it is hiring Clara Macleod, and I think she is going to help push the program to another level.”

There have been other positive developments this year, as more people in the country are noticing what the Czech team is doing in women’s hockey, especially the most important ones: young girls.

“Our federation is now organizing events where you spend a day with the national team players, we are now doing it in the summer for the first time and Tereza informed me that it filled up very quickly,” said Mills, who spoke . “So I think this is the momentum that we should use after the Olympics to spread the word about women’s hockey and say that it’s OK that you’re a female hockey player. It’s a mindset that’s been broken in Czech but it’s still not the norm.”

For the Czech women’s program, what these leaders do on the ice in 2022 and beyond may one day be equaled by what they off of it, whether behind the bench or in the board room.

“I can’t wait to see what they do with Czech women’s hockey…players like Alena, Katerina, Klara…they are the ones who are going to change the women’s game in Czech,” said Sadilova. “We’re not quite there yet, but the future is bright.
Czechia brought a contingent of three Athlete Ambassadors, a Team Leader, and six players to the 2022 Women's High Performance Camp. 
photo: Adam Steiss