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Czech, Slovak decline makes way for Switzerland

If, as expected, Patrik Elias suits up for the Czech Republic in Sochi, it will be his fourth and likely last Olympics. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

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If, as expected, Patrik Elias suits up for the Czech Republic in Sochi, it will be his fourth and likely last Olympics. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

In 1998, the Czech Republic stunned the hockey world by beating Russia for the Olympic gold medal in the first edition to feature NHL players. Led by Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and a crew now so legendary back home that they even made an opera about the team, those Czechs are part of hockey lore.

But it ain’t gonna happen again.

Critics of the world juniors often bemoan the fact the same four teams – Canada, Russia, Sweden and the U.S. – are always winning gold lately, but don’t be surprised to see the exact same scenario play out in the Olympics (the World Championship doesn’t count, because it’s not best-on-best). Sure, the Finns have come close (as they do at the world juniors most years), but two teams heading in the exact wrong direction are the Czechs and Slovakia.

In the Cold War era, these players were all united under one banner as Czechoslovakia and if you put the teams together today, you’d have a pretty impressive roster, but it still wouldn’t stack up to the elites. Jakub Voracek was the only player from either country to place among the top-30 NHL scorers this past season, while Tomas Vokoun was the only goalie to crack the top 30 in save percentage. Was the lockout-shortened season wonky? Perhaps, but it was wonky for everybody.

While players such as Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and Patrik Elias will keep the teams competitive in Sochi, this will be the last time you can say that, unless there is a major upheaval in development there. If the NHL goes to the Olympics in 2018, you won’t see Chara, Jaromir Jagr or Elias. And the next generation simply isn’t coming.

Both countries have been consistently smoked at the world juniors, except in years where a goalie catches absolute fire, like Petr Mrazek did for the Czechs in 2012, or Jaroslav Janus for Slovakia in 2009. But neither team won a medal in those years; they just came closer.

Otherwise, there are usually a couple decent players on the squad, many of which come from the Canadian major junior ranks. This is a sticking point for the Czechs in particular, who have warred with their own players in the past, including Mrazek, who was only allowed to compete in his last year of eligibility because he had not left his Czech club team organization under good terms when he joined the Ontario League’s Ottawa 67’s. For kids who come over to North America, they play in front of much bigger crowds and face much better competition. But I can see the Czech point of view as well: If all the best talent flees, how can the median level of skill ever get back to the golden days?

Most telling is the results of the 2013 NHL draft. Just four Czechs were taken out of 211 players, tying with Switzerland. Only two Slovaks were selected, tying them with Austria and Denmark. Contrast that with the 2000 draft, when six Czechs and three Slovaks went in the first two rounds alone, including Marian Gaborik at third overall.

If there’s a bright spot internationally, it’s Switzerland. Along with being Canada’s white whale lately, the Swiss have slowly climbed the ranks at the world juniors and now occupy that dangerously-close-to-bronze slot, while the Czechs and Slovaks often do just enough to stave off relegation. The best Swiss players are either in their prime or approaching it, with the exception of Mark Streit, who turns 36 this year. Otherwise, you’re looking at Jonas Hiller, Luca Sbisa, Roman Josi, Yannick Weber, Raphael Diaz, Nino Niederreiter, Sven Baertschi and Damien Brunner. At the junior level, Mirco Mueller and Sven Andrighetto (both 2013 draftees) played in North America this past season, but the majority of the world junior team was still playing in Switzerland.

Typically the Swiss have been coached well and get solid goaltending. From that goaltending, they form a hard defensive shell, which has vexed Canada at the men’s level and Russia in the junior ranks. Based on the current trends, how long before the Swiss permanently displace the Czechs and Slovaks on the world hockey stage?

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Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at @THNRyanKennedy.

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