Jaromir Jagr and Richard Zednik battle for the puck at the Olympics in Vancouver. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
During the past decade, hockey has undoubtedly become a global sport at a level beyond any previous period and the NHL has reflected this trend. Its rosters have become much more diverse. Good young players are emerging from countries that had no background in hockey development programs – i.e. Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar. At the same time, traditional hockey powers have supplied a wealth of talent to the NHL. The elite players of the league are representative of this trend. Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden and Finland all appear to be "on top of their game" when it comes to player development.
However, there is one traditional hockey area defying these positive trends. The former Czechoslovakia - now the Czech Republic and Slovakia - has fallen upon lean times. For a number of years, the Czechs and Slovaks were only one notch below the Soviet Union in terms of being a hockey power and a source of talent. In recent years, the collective wisdom of the hockey community is that significantly fewer prospects are emerging from this part of the hockey world. For the most part, Czech and Slovak teams have been disappointments at recent World Junior and World Under-18 Championships. A quick look at recent NHL drafts confirms the negative trend.
Here are the total number of Czech and Slovak players selected in the past 12 drafts:
1999 - 30
2000 - 40
2001 - 46
2002 – 22
2003 – 26
2004 - 31
2005 - 20
2006 - 11
2007 - 8
2008 - 3
2009 - 8
2010 - 7
It should be noted that prior to 2005, there were nine rounds in each draft; starting in 2005 there were only seven rounds each year. Nonetheless, in the six drafts prior to 2005, there was an average of 33 players per year drafted from the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the subsequent six drafts starting in 2005, there was an average of less than 10 players per year selected. This is an astounding difference.
Top players from this part of the hockey world are still in the primes of their careers. Examples are Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik, Patrik Elias and Zdeno Chara. They are replacing former greats such as Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Pavol Demitra. The question becomes whether the present greats will have any successors who can fill their roles as their careers wind down.
What has caused this obvious decline in the hockey development programs in the Czech Republic and Slovakia? Some observers point to the exodus of top junior players to North America. The argument is this migration diminishes the quality of the Czech/Slovak junior program.
I do not subscribe to that theory. When you look at the caliber of players from this region who have recently come to North America as juniors, I do not see much star potential. Like most declining systems, I believe you must look closer to identify internal reasons.
I recently raised the situation with a life-long hockey person from the region. He was a player in his youth, spent time with the national team and has worked in the game in one capacity or another ever since. Like many Czechs and Slovaks of his generation, he is also a successful businessman. Although he has no use for the previous Communist regime, he can look at developments objectively. I believe his insights are valuable.
His first point is the most obvious: The Communists wanted athletic success to glorify their regimes. As a result, they poured lots of money into the elite sports programs. Under the new form of government, funding is not available and the people are not used to exploring other means of funding.
His other two points are more subtle. First, under the old regime, there were few avenues open for advancement in life if you did not want to join the Communist Party. Two possibilities were cultural instructors and athletic coaches. As a result, top caliber people were often available to coach athletic teams, with hockey getting some of the best available. With far more avenues open now for advancement, not as many quality people are available to serve as youth coaches.
The second factor raised deals with lifestyles. Under the Communist regime, work started early, but also ended early and workers were then at home with their families. This is a prime reason why hockey games in this region still start at 5:00 p.m. With more hectic lifestyles today, parents are not necessarily home with their families at an early hour.
This is interesting food for thought. Hopefully, knowledgeable people can put their heads together and resolve the decline. The hockey world needs the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He will be blogging for THN.com this season.