It started with who was on the team, right when it was named in early January.
When the Czech Republic first put together its team for the 2014 Olympics, there was disbelief in many hockey circles, as there were some glaring omissions and strange names on the roster.
Not going were the likes of Jiri Hudler, the third highest scoring Czech player in the NHL this season. Or Radim Vrbata, who has more goals than any other Czech in the NHL the last three years. Or Jan Hejda, who leads all Czech NHL players in ice time with a pretty good Avalanche team.
Other useful players were missing, too: Roman Polak, Tomas Fleischmann and Michal Neuvirth.
In their place were an odd mix of non-NHLers, some of whom had had a cup of coffee in North America and failed, and others who had simply played their way out of the league: Michal Barinka, Lukas Krajicek, Tomas Kaberle, Roman Cervenka, Jiri Novotny and, most surprising of all, a 42-year-old Petr Nedved, in his first Olympics for the Czechs.
Now, the Czechs’ hockey development has fallen off in recent years, and there are reasonable concerns over how well they can compete internationally with the so-called Big Four (or Five), but some of these choices have likely only exacerbated that weakness.
If you ask around NHL circles, there’s a lot of anger over how the roster was selected and how it’s being run, with Hejda the most prominent example of a player openly criticizing the national team in the press.
Or, as one Czech publication put it before the Olympics opened: “There have been many questions around the national team. And a few scandals.”
At the centre of it all seems to be Czech coach Alois Hadamczik, a controversial figure these days with anyone remotely close to the national team.
The Czechs’ tournament hasn’t been particularly impressive so far. They opened with a 4-2 loss to Sweden after going down 4-0 early, followed by a 4-2 win over a weak Latvian team and a 1-0 loss to Switzerland.
They go into Tuesday’s do-or-die game with rival Slovakia considered a huge longshot to make it past even the quarter-finals, which is quite a fall from winning gold back in 1998.
Watching them so far at the Games, you can pick up on the underlying dysfunction there, too, with one example being netminder Ondrej Pavelec having to essentially pull himself from the goal with his team trailing the Swiss by a goal late in Saturday’s game.
Then there’s the distribution of ice time. One game, defenceman Ladislav Smid sat the entire 60 minutes on the bench. Michal Rozsival then got that treatment two games later.
Nedved has been playing more than NHL players like Ales Hemsky, Michael Frolik, Martin Erat and Ondrej Palat, despite a clear need for offence in the Czechs’ two losses.
And Barinka, a 29-year-old playing in the Czech league, is dressing for games and averaging nearly 17 minutes a night while Smid, Radko Gudas (who has been nursing an illness) and Rozsival play far more limited roles.
So what’s going on?
The first thing that critics of the Czech situation point out is that Barinka is Hadamczik’s son-in-law, and that there is favouritism there with him not only making the team, but playing a key role.
In fact, you don’t have to dig very deep to find those that question the coach’s methods in general, including going back to a seventh place finish at the worlds last year in Stockholm, where players took issue with many of the decisions being made.
He seemed uncertain who to use in shootouts, for one thing, and deferred to veteran players during key games for strategic decisions.
Hejda made more pointed comments when he was left off the Olympic team last month, coming out in the Czech press and declaring that Hadamczik barely used a discernible system at all and that the team would have to win on its own.
Other players feel as though he plays favourites, letting some of the petty bickering that’s gone on at past events keep good players like Hudler off the team entirely.
With all that going on, multiple Czech NHLers said they were actually glad to not be selected to the Sochi team. Some of those who are on the team, meanwhile, are apparently not even on speaking terms with the coach at this point.
Hadamczik’s background is hard to flesh out but is interesting enough on its own, as he’s a multimillionaire who has been in the Czech press regularly over the years, with some recent stories inquiring into just where all his wealth came from.
That’s a bit of a tangent, but what’s clear is he’s a point of disruption when it comes to the NHL players on the team. And the bottom line here is that the Czechs were going to be underdogs in this tournament even in the best case scenario, with the right players both on the team and on the same page with their coach.
Without that – and Dominik Hasek in goal – it’s going to be awfully tough to recreate any of the magic they had 16 years ago when they won in Nagano.
Or get close to the podium at all.