PRAGUE – After a winless five-nation tournament in Sweden early February, the Czech Ice Hockey Federation feared a déjà-vu. Two years ago the once mighty Czechs found themselves relegated to Division I. Although they are back among the elite this year, the early results against other elite nations were anything but promising.
The executive committee of the Czech hockey association did not hesitate and took preventive measures by firing coaches Zdenek Cech and Radek Kampf. The pair was replaced by U20 coach Marek Sykora and Frantisek Musil, a veteran of over 800 NHL games. They will fight against the clock to prepare the team for the upcoming World U18 Championship held April 9-19 in Fargo and Moorhead in the United States.
“I did not think the situation was that critical,” Zdenek Cech said after hearing he was dismissed. “We explained the committee that the team that played in Sweden was a totally different squad than the one in the USA. So this verdict was surprising but the reality.”
In Nyköping, Sweden, the Czech youngsters were treated to four clear losses against Finland (1-4), Russia (2-5), the USA (3-7) and Sweden (2-7). “Many players on the team play in the domestic junior league and don’t have much international experience. They are not familiar to give their maximum,” Cech knows. “During this tournament we lacked heart and we were reluctant to fight for a better result . We tried some other players and now know who we could count on and who not.”
That information will almost surely be passed on to new coach Marek Sykora, who will now be behind the bench of a World Junior Championship in North America for the second time this year. He led the Czech U20 team to a sixth spot in Ottawa back in January.
Yet, time is not on his side. “I do not know the talent pool from which I can pick from and I do not know the level of our opponents, so I quickly need to refocus.”
The first task of Sykora, a former coach of HC Plzen, HC Pardubice, Slavia Prague, Karlovy Vary and Russia’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk, was to find an assistant coach. He wasted no time in appointing former defenceman Frantisek “Frank” Musil, who was on top of his short list. “I admit I acquired information from Alois Hadamczik with who Musil had worked and the references were second to none,” Sykora said. Musil acted as junior coach for Dukla Jihlava this season and as a scout for the Edmonton Oilers.
Secondly, in order to get a grasp of the available talent pool, Sykora invited a large group of 28 players that are eligible for the World U18 Championship. The team started a training camp on Monday already getting used to the smaller rink size that will be waiting for them in the United States. Followed by another training camp starting on March 23. During these camps they will twice meet U21 junior selects of Dukla Jihlava and once of Slavia Prague. The final preparation on home soil comes in the form of an exhibition game against Slovakia on March 27. After that the team will travel across the pond to face Norway and Finland in Minneapolis before the big show starts.
The Czechs will face some stiff opposition in Fargo and Moorhead playing against Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and finally Canada. Only the top three teams of the group advance. The bottom two will fight to stay at the elite level in a round-robin including the bottom two of the other group that consists of Russia, USA, Finland, Slovakia and Norway.
Unlike previous years the Czech hockey association is now counting on their junior players that play overseas. Currently, five eligible players are playing junior hockey in Canada. Defenceman Adam Sedlak (Peterborough Petes, OHL) and forwards Andrej Nestrasil (Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL), Michal Hlinka (Chicoutimi Sagueneens, QMJHL), Robin Soudek (Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL), and Tomas Rachunek (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, OHL). Already accustomed to the smaller ice and the pace of the game, these players are heavily counted on.
Added to not having these players available in the domestic training camps, Sykora also has to deal with the fact that the Czech Junior Extraliga is still underway. This means that the teams involved are not obliged to release their star players to the national team. Sykora: “It is unsure yet whether we can make use of the players who play in North America. The teams do not have to send the players to the championship. Therefore we can only call on them and wait if they will get released as the season is drawing to an end.” With Nestrasil’s team having clinched a playoff spot, his name was removed from the list.
The fact that a number of players are unavailable was one of the reasons for Sykora to run such a big list. Sykora: “I added a lot of names on the pre-tournament entry list already. I felt this is better than to add players later on,” the experienced coach explains. “We hope to finalize the squad as soon as possible but some things we can simply not control.”
With a far from ideal preparation, the Czechs will be heading into the World U18 Championship. Nevertheless, Sykora was confident witnessing his team managing a 2-2 draw against Jihlava. “The level of the game was good and the result pleased me,” he said afterwards. “After next Sunday we hope to have the final squad, without the North American players, ready to get the players into training.”
Times have changed for the three-time bronze medal winners. Gone are the days that they were competing for the medals. The relegation shocker two years ago opened a lot of eyes within the association’s offices. After winning gold in Division I, the Czechs are back among the elite but reality has forced them to look over their shoulders. Just two players (forwards Ondrej Palat and Roman Horak) from last year’s squad are eligible meaning there will be a shortage of experience.
The task for Sykora is not just to call upon his experience and bring it over to his players but also to guide the ship into safe territory this time. A repeat of the U20’s sixth-place performance earlier this year would be a slamming success for the Czechs.
The coach himself is as competitive as he has always been. “The executive committee has informed me the goal is to avoid relegation but I always want to succeed so my targets are higher than just that.”Notebook:
- Initially, Marek Sykora had other plans this post-season. He would be consulting KLH Chomutov in their efforts to qualify for the Extraliga. With the partnership being ruled out, Chomutov found their Waterloo in the semi-finals of the second-tier league’s playoffs, losing to Kometa Brno in seven games.
- Reigning champions and top-seeded Slavia Prague almost was the next victim of the upset club. While the top-seeded teams across Europe are being eliminated in bunches already in the first round, Slavia saved the day with a narrow 2-1 home victory over Vitkovice Ostrava in game seven. Two goals in the final period completed the champion’s comeback from being 1-3 behind in the series.
- Less fortunate were the second- and third-seeded teams. Pardubice lost its series to Lasselsberger Plzen (3-4) after Martin Adamsky struck the game-winning goal after an Extraliga record 87 minutes of play. Meanwhile, HC Litvinov was surprisingly swept by Karlovy Vary.
- In the semi-finals Slavia Prague will face Lasselsberger Plzen and Energie Karlovy Vary will be looking to upset Sparta Prague.