Czechs return to glory
by Andrew Podnieks|05 JAN 2023
Czechia will be looking for their first gold medal since 2001 and, win or lose, will have their highest U20 finish in 22 years.
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
Although the Czechia men’s team finished a disappointing 9th at the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, the last eight months have been a time of significant upturn and success for the once great hockey nation that has fallen on hard times.

The men’s U18 team went to the bronze medal game and finished 4th. The men’s senior team won a bronze at the World Championship in Tampere last May. And the women won their first ever medal, a bronze, at the Women’s Worlds in Herning last August.

But surely this is the most important of all. “This” meaning Czechia’s playing in today’s gold medal game of the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship. A gold they last won in 2001, after having won the previous year, the only two gold they have won at U20. A gold they covet tonight.

You could almost have predicted the Czechs wouldn’t do well at the World Juniors during the last 22 years just by looking at the draft history of Czech players into the NHL. In the period 1990-2005, the Czechs had between 11 and 31 players drafted every year, and six times had more than 20. Between 2006 and 2022, they hit double digits only three times, and only barely, at that (10 in 2011, 11 in 2015, and 11 again in 2018). 

That World Championship bronze in Tampere last May was their first in a decade, an unheard of fallow period of frustration and lack of success. Consider that between 1996 and 2001 they won gold, bronze, bronze, gold, gold, gold. 

But look at the Czech roster for the 2021 U18 in Plano, Texas, and compare it to today’s roster that will skate onto the ice against Canada looking for World Junior gold. They are almost identical! No fewer than 15 players are on both rosters, and that mediocre 7th-place finish in Texas has now reaped greater rewards at the U20 level.

But what’s shocking about this 22-year gold-medal drought – and 18-year medal drought – is that they never came particularly close in that time. Only once did they play for bronze, in 2018, but they were hammered by the U.S., 9-3.

In 1999, the team finished a disappointing 7th at the U20 in Winnipeg, and a year later there were only two returning players – Petr Svoboda and Michal Sivek. There was a new coach, too, Jaroslav Holik replacing Vladimir Martinec, and Holik essentially had to put together an entirely new roster. Yet, despite this challenge, he created a winning team. They went undefeated in the preliminary round (two wins, two ties), and charged through the playoffs to face Russia for gold. 

These were the years of “dead puck” hockey, so it’s not surprising that the teams played 60 minutes of regulation and 20 more in OT without scoring a single goal. It took a Milan Kraft goal in the shootout to give the Czech Republic a 2-1 shootout win and 1-0 game win for the nation’s first U20 gold. 

The next year, Holik was back behind the bench having to do exactly what he did in 2000 – build a team from scratch. Only three players returned: goalkeeper Tomas Duba, and forwards Vaclav Nedorost and Michal Sivek. This time they had a perfect 4-0 record in the round robin before eking out three one-goal wins in the playoffs: 4-3 over Switzerland, 1-0 over Sweden, and, finally, 2-1 over the Finns for a second straight gold.

And then nothing. Holik was back in 2001, but the team lost to Finland 3-1 in the quarter-finals and finished 7th. That was the start of 22 years of disappointment and under-performing, years when many Czechs moved to Canada to play junior for NHL scouts, hoping to realize their pro dreams in North America. 

But now in 2023, the players going for gold tonight in Halifax remember the bitter disappointment of losing 3-1 to Sweden in the bronze-medal game in Edmonton last August. Some 16 players from that team are back, and they have been playing like a team on a mission, beating Canada, 5-2, in the first game and winning every other game except a 3-2 OT loss to Sweden in the preliminary round.

Yes, they are playing Canada in Canada, but it doesn’t feel like Czechia are the underdogs. Far from it. No player on the team was alive the last time their country won U20 gold. Tonight, they are very much alive, hoping to bring new memories for their country’s next generation of teenagers.