Soon after the Soviet Union came apart as a political entity in the early 1990s, there was concern that crumbling infrastructure, failing attendance and the overall volatility of the new emerging society would deal a death blow to Russia’s hockey programs. Didn’t happen. As recently as two years ago, a trio of Russian players were all finalists for the NHL’s most valuable player award. The projected top pick in the entry draft this year is Nail Yakupov, and Russia had a goalie, Andrei Vasilevski, that stopped the first 100 shots he faced in the world junior tournament until faltering late Saturday night in a stirring game against Sweden.
Sweden, you’ll remember, was also going through a fallow period of its own, post-Sedins, and for years went without a medal at the world junior and senior championships.
Inexplicably, the real casualties of the new hockey order were the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who split up in 1993. After a nice little run following the breakup – Olympic gold for the Czechs in 1998, an unexpected world championship for Slovakia in 2002 – the countries have fallen on harder times of late, with seemingly no Jaromir Jagrs or Zdeno Charas in the pipeline.
But in this most unpredictable of world junior championships, both were showing signs of life again. Neither was favoured to qualify for playoff action and yet here they are, the Slovaks having edged the Swiss for the No. 3 seed in Pool A and the Czechs knocking the Americans into the relegation round by getting the No. 3 seed in Pool B.
Both will be underdogs again Monday, as the playoff round begins, with the Czechs facing historic rival Russia in one game, while Slovakia has drawn the Finns in the other. Russia is playing Monday because of an epic collapse Saturday in its final game of the preliminary round, in which they blew a 3-0, two-period lead and ultimately lost to Sweden 4-3 in overtime. If the Russians win over the Czechs, they will meet Canada in the semi-final round Tuesday in a rematch of the 2011 tournament final.
But Czech goaltender Petr Mrazek, who plays his junior hockey for the Ottawa 67s in the Ontario Hockey League, is not about to concede anything, not after the way his team has performed in this tournament.
“They have a strong team, but if we play disciplined and don’t take many penalties or stupid penalties, if we play like a team – and hard – then we can win,” said Mrazek, who will likely need to the difference maker for his club. “I think the Russians and Czechs, both teams could go to the semi-finals.”
Jiri Fischer, a former NHLer and one of the Czech Republic’s assistant coaches, concedes that while the Czechs continue to prosper at the senior men’s levels internationally, “In the younger groups, we have a lot of work to do.
“There is a difference in the mindset of parents, and how they raised their kids,” Fischer continued. “[Costs]can certainly be one of the excuses, but I’m not a fan of excuses. It always comes down to motivation and holding kids accountable and showing them how to work, first with the parents and then the coaches.”
Slovakia’s continuing presence in the tournament is even more unlikely than the Czechs’, requiring as it did a massive third-period comeback against the Swiss last Saturday. That was then followed immediately by Sweden’s inspired comeback against Russia, proving once again that, in junior hockey, at this level, where the passions run so high, momentum changes can come with dizzying and unexpected frequency.
Latvia and Denmark were out of their league at the tournament this time around, but after that, it was a wild ride throughout the preliminary round.
Who knows? The way things have gone, there may be more upsets along the way.
“We knew we had strong team,” said Slovakian right winger Tomas Jurco, who played with Canadian Justin Huberdeau on the Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs last season. “We haven’t gone to the quarter-finals the last couple of years and we don’t know if the next generation is going to make it, so we tried really hard and we were very happy we did it.”
The winner of the Slovakian-Finnish game meets Sweden in the other semi-final, also Tuesday.
Slovakia’s task against Finland seems more manageable than the long odds the Czechs face against Russia, as the two former Cold War rivals will be playing a game that Fischer says will resonate for reasons other than history.
“I’m 31. When we were 17, playing in the U-17 tournament, we talked about it in the locker room and we didn’t know what it meant back then – and this is 14 years ago. What was happening after ’68 [when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia] there was definitely a big rivalry, but it really was part of the Communist era. I was nine years old when the Communist regime was over.
“The guys right now? The rivalry is because the Russians have been very good and because we haven’t had enough success against them in the last few years. That’s where the rivalry stands. I don’t think there are any political issues any more.”