The hockey landscape in Slovakia has shifted dramatically recently, with big changes coming at the international and professional levels. The former concerns the nation’s junior programs, while the latter involves Slovan Bratislava, one of the most notable teams in the country, leaving the KHL and rejoining the Extraliga. This season, the merits of those decisions will begin to unfold.
On the junior scene, Slovakia has shuttered its Orange 20 program, which was originally designed as the nation’s own version of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. Orange 20 brought together a bunch of Slovakia’s under-20 players on the same team, where they would prepare for international tournaments by facing off against men in the Extraliga and the second-tier Liga. In terms of wins and losses, it did not go well.
The Orange 20 kids didn’t win a single game in 24 contests against the Extraliga teams last year, though they did nab five victories in 12 games against the lesser Liga opponents. Despite that, Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Martin Marincin was happy with his Orange 20 experience in 2009-10. “For me it was pretty good,” he said. “I was working on my ‘D’ zone, so it helped me that way. Every time I played with older guys, I was OK with that. We played all year as a group, working on one system, so it was good. It was a good idea.”
They have to play with the big boys, and they learn a lot when they do. they have to earn it. It’s up to them
– Robert Petrovicky
Originally formed in 2007-08 as an attempt to boost the nation’s fortunes at the world juniors, Orange 20 never had the intended impact. Slovakia won precisely one bronze medal in the decade since Orange 20 began, mainly on the back of goaltender Denis Godla, the tournament MVP in 2015. Now, the Slovaks are going back to the drawing board.
Orange 20 has been scrapped this year in favor of an under-18 squad that plays against other Slovakian junior teams and some Liga competition. “It’s a big challenge,” said new under-20 coach Robert Petrovicky. “We’re experimenting with something different.”
Petrovicky takes over the bench from longtime WJC coach Ernest Bokros, while Ivan Fenes will coach the new centralized under-18s. Overseeing everything is Slovak Federation president Miroslav Satan, the former NHLer.
Satan and Petrovicky met recently with other Slovakian officials to plan for the future, and the Extraliga is getting involved, too. The pro league’s teams are being encouraged to keep at least two under-20 players on their roster, and there will be financial incentives if those players average at least 10 minutes of ice time per game each month. “These guys have to play at this level,” Petrovicky said. “They have to play with the big boys, and they learn a lot when they do. But they won’t get it for free. They have to earn it and realize that someone is trying to help them. It’s going to be up to them.”
Already, the new under-18 squad has lost talent to teams in the Extraliga, Finland and Sweden, and some underagers have played in their absence, including 2004-born phenom defenseman Simon Nemec. Petrovicky noted the idea of creating a dedicated under-17 squad has also been bandied about. Losing talent to other places has been one controversial issue for Slovakian hockey, though usually North American major junior has been the culprit. Marincin played two seasons in the WHL – with Prince George and Regina – after being drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 2010, and he had a positive experience. “I had great billets in Prince George who helped me a lot,” he said. “It felt like home. I came here because I wanted to play in the NHL and just played and had fun. I was a happy man there.”
Petrovicky, who played in the NHL with Hartford and Tampa Bay among other teams, is OK with youngsters eschewing home for the CHL, with a caveat. “I don’t mind, but make sure you’re ready,” he said. “If you want to go for it, try. Everything has two sides. We had a couple guys drafted this summer that decided to stay here and play in the top league. I was drafted by (WHL) Tri-City, but I was young, so I stayed home. I ended up winning a championship with Trencin a couple years later.”
Robert’s younger brother Ronald Petrovicky (who also played in the NHL) did head to the CHL, also playing for Prince George. The Cougars’ other import at the time? One of the best Slovakian players ever, Zdeno Chara. Whether today’s young Slovaks play at home or abroad, they need to keep their heads above water internationally. Last year’s under-18 team got relegated at the worlds, so the new program basically needs to run the table at the Div. 1-A championship in April in order to climb back up to the top rung.
On the pro side of the ledger, the Extraliga got a shot in the arm this season with the return of Slovan Bratislava from the KHL. The circumstances weren’t ideal – the team ran into financial problems and had to retreat from the Russian-centric circuit – but it does bring one of Slovakia’s best-known clubs back into the fold. Originally founded in 1921, Slovan’s most famous players include Hall of Famers Peter Stastny and Vaclav Nedomansky. Former NHL defenseman Andrej Meszaros currently plays for the team. In 2012, the squad was lured over to the KHL, but success did not follow. The team only made the playoffs twice and was swept in the first round on both occasions. Keeping up with deep-pocketed competition was a problem.
Coincidentally, Petrovicky used to be an assistant coach for Slovan, and he acknowledged the controversy surrounding the departure, but also had fond memories of those KHL days.
“Personally, I really enjoyed it,” he said. “We had a few guys who made the national team because they had been playing such tough competition.”
At home, Slovan still needs to win back the hearts of fans who saw their team sink in the KHL. The road is a different story, however. “Every away game they sell out now,” Petrovicky said. “People are looking forward to Slovan being back. It’s like old times.”
Slovan’s final pre-KHL season in Slovakia in 2012 resulted in a championship. In the team’s first year back, they’re near the top of the table. Home sweet home, it appears.