Denis Godla (Photo by Dennis Pajot/Getty Images)
Denis Golda became a folk hero during the world juniors this year thanks to his incredible play in net. And even though he and his Slovakian mates were underdogs, they snatched a bronze medal away from Sweden.
Before each game, every member of Slovakian's world junior team would line up and have a moment with goaltender Denis Godla. For what appeared to be an undermanned squad talent-wise, it sometimes seemed like they were paying their last respects. As it turns out, it was more of a pilgrimage.
“Godla is an amazing guy," said right winger Samuel Petras. "He's got a lot of luck, but he's very good. Everybody likes him and he is our hero. He's our goalie, we pray to him!"
The only netminder to face more than 200 shots in this tournament, Godla stood tall once again in the final game against Sweden, helping his nation win its first medal since 1999, when the squad also took bronze in Winnipeg. A smaller goaltender who makes up for his lack of frame with excellent quickness, Godla has great post-to-post movement and a scrambly never-give-up style reminiscent of Tim Thomas or Dominik Hasek. Hard to believe he was the goalie of record in Slovakia's tournament opener, when Canada blew the doors off the underdogs 8-0, but that served as a wake-up call for the squad.
“We told ourselves the tournament was just starting," Godla said through a translator. "We started from the beginning (again) and we won.”
Though Godla couldn't get his team past Canada again in the semifinal, he did all he could to keep the high-powered Canucks offense at bay in what was eventually a 5-1 loss. Earning a shutout against the rival Czech Republic one game prior helped the legend of Godla grow and fans in Toronto learned what Montrealers (a couple of them at least) had seen when he put in a star turn in the round robin against Team USA, even though Slovakia still lost.
By the time Sweden was dispatched with thanks to an empty-netter, Godla had become a folk hero at the tournament. When the player of the game for Slovakia was about to be announced, the Toronto crowd began chanting "Goalie, Goalie!" in anticipation and erupted when he did indeed garner the honor. For an undersized, undrafted kid from Slovakia, getting his tires pumped by a big crowd in an NHL arena was huge for him all tourney long.
“It was an unbelievable feeling," he said. "The fans pushed me further.”
Will North American fans ever see Godla again? It's tough to say. Slovakia's last world junior goaltending hero, Jaroslav Janus, ended up getting drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning and played as high as the American League over here. He now plays in the KHL, but he's a six-footer; Godla is 5-foot-11 tops.
No matter where Godla ends up, he has made his mark on international hockey, as did Slovakia as a program. For years now, the team seemed to be in the wilderness and a national program similar to Team USA's NTDP was not getting results in terms of medals won or prospects developed. But now the HK Orange 20 program has something very positive to build on.
"The project is really important for us because we're choosing our (world junior) team from only 50 players," said coach Ernest Bokros. "So we need to keep it going to get players like we had at this tournament."
Godla was one of those players from the HK Orange 20 squad and his importance can't be understated. Anytime things got squirrely for Slovakia, he seemed to be there with his pad jammed against the post, if he wasn't stabbing a puck out of the air with his glove hand.
And while big-picture storylines are important in hockey, what everyone will remember from the 2015 bronze game is the Slovakian players hanging over the bench with five seconds remaining, spilling onto the ice in euphoria before the final buzzer even sounded, mobbing the goalie that played a huge role in getting them there.
“This is history," said winger David Soltes through a translator. "We will be happy forever.”