Tomas Halasz of Team Slovakia stops the puck during the World Junior Championship relegation game against Team Czech Republic. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
SASKATOON – It was a clash of archrivals, but one that should have taken place on a weekend night with a full crowd, not at Monday’s lunch hour to sparse attendance.
But that’s where the Czechs and Slovaks found themselves at the world juniors, after narrowly avoiding relegation and missing the medal round altogether thanks to poor showings in the round robin.
The Czechs won the game 5-2 on the strength of a hat trick from HC Plzen’s Jan Kovar, but the fact the game had no meaning in the grand scheme of things certainly put a damper on the meeting.
Both countries are in a down cycle right now and development of elite prospects isn’t what it used to be. The Slovaks boasted Richard Panik, Tomas Tatar and Marek Viedensky (their dominant top line), while the Czechs countered with the undrafted Kovar and Stepan Novotny, Michal Jordan (Carolina pick) and Andrej Nestrasil (Detroit pick).
With the exception of Kovar, all those players are skating in North America this year. So is there a crisis in Bohemia?
“I just think they’ve gone through a lot of changes in the past few years,” said Tampa Bay GM Brian Lawton, watching Panik, a Bolts draft pick. “They’re getting their priorities straight now.
“Sweden had a problem (developing) a few years ago and it wasn’t that long ago – in the early 1980s – that Hockey Canada didn’t have any money. The athletes are there.”
Perhaps the problem is those athletes aren’t necessarily concentrating on the ice as much as they once were.
“Soccer is so big in Europe and I think a lot of people like to watch that,” said Novotny, who plays for Kelowna in the Western League. “And especially the way Canadian and U.S. hockey has been doing, they’ve been doing really well lately. Obviously people aren’t going to watch (back home) if they know Canada is going to win, right?”
Giant cultural shifts may also play a role. According to several insiders, the fall of communism is still being felt in the region, as Western conveniences pour into places that never had them before. Skype, PlayStations and Xbox consoles can be a real distraction for youngsters, who used to have no choice but to play hockey, soccer or volleyball.
In an attempt to right the ship, the Slovaks have begun hot-housing their top junior prospects on the HK Orange team in the Extraliga this year. The kids play against men and though wins are hard to come by, the experience helps.
“It’s great for our younger guys because the other teams are professional,” said Viedensky, a San Jose pick with the WHL’s Prince George Cougars. “They play professional guys and make good choices (on the ice).”
The program is still in its infancy, though, and will take a few years to become truly effective. Whether that would work for the Czechs is a matter of debate, according to Novotny.
“Technically, yeah,” he said. “But those guys (Slovakia) didn’t make it to the quarterfinal either. Maybe it could work. If you do it the way the U.S. has done it, but it’s harder for the teams in Europe to get the money to do it.”
Either way, Lawton is happy to see Panik in Windsor with the Ontario League’s Spitfires.
“It’s two-fold for us,” Lawton noted. “There’s the elite competition and it’s a cultural acclimation.”
The GM believes Panik will have a shot at the Lightning roster next year and, failing that, the American League is a possibility, too. The slick left winger is still learning English, but his hockey skills translate anywhere.
“I think he’s closer than people think,” Lawton said.
If Panik was more the rule than the exception, the Slovaks – and the similarly struggling Czechs – wouldn’t have to worry about relegation.
Don’t let anyone tell you Czechs and Slovaks hate each other. On the ice, sure, the teams are fierce rivals. But minutes after the Czech victory in Saskatoon, the players were co-mingling. Viedensky and Kovar exchanged pleasantries during interview duty while a pair of Red Wings draft picks, Slovak Tatar and Czech Nestrasil, had a long conversation with each other.
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The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy is joined by the Hockey Sverige.se’s Ulf Bodin to discuss the semifinal between Team USA and Sweden… The play of the Swedish defense… Who will return from the 2010 team to compete in Buffalo in 2011… And Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s future. PRODUCER: Ted Cooper
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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