COLOGNE, Germany – Jaromir Jagr likes his new friends just fine.
The veteran forward and a fresh cast of characters helped vault the Czech Republic back on top of the world Sunday with a stunning 2-1 win over Russia in the final of the IIHF World Hockey Championship.
The tournament began with Jagr criticizing several influential players from his country for deciding to skip the event. It ended with the 38-year-old forward passing the championship trophy among a group of unheralded teammates who play mostly in the domestic league or the Russian-based KHL.
“We have a lot of guys who play in the league in the Czech Republic and no one knows them,” said Jagr. “If you asked me two weeks ago that this was going to happen, I probably would have said no. … Look at our lineup.
“They played so hard and I am so proud of them.”
Most of the Czech players were at a loss to explain how this happened.
They lost to Switzerland and Norway in the early part of this tournament and had to win five straight games to claim gold. The final victory was the most improbable of them all because it came against a star-studded Russian team that had won 27 straight games at the world championship.
“There’s no way we should compete on an even level with the team we played tonight when you look at the players they have,” said Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun, who made 35 saves. “In one game, anything can happen. I highly doubt that we would beat them in a playoff series four times to knock them out.”
No one could have seen this coming for a Czech hockey program that had suffered quarter-final losses in four straight major international tournaments, including the Vancouver Olympics.
In fact, defenceman Petr Caslava said he didn’t start believing the team could win the title until Jakub Klepis converted a pass from Jagr just 20 seconds into the gold-medal game. The rest of the game felt like a dream.
“We weren’t a team with many stars but we play with heart,” said Caslava.
Relentless play, great goaltending and a little bit of good fortune made the difference against the talented Russians. The eventual winner was scored off the skate of captain Tomas Rolinek late in the second period just after Alex Ovechkin and Sergei Fedorov accidentally collided.
Pavel Datsyuk ended Vokoun’s shutout by scoring with 35.3 seconds left in regulation for Russia.
The Russians were carrying eight players who had won the last two world championships and 14 guys that were trying to make amends for the quarter-final exit at the Vancouver Olympics. By comparison, the Czechs had just four NHL players—including backup goaltender Ondrej Pavelec.
“It doesn’t matter how many NHL players (they had), everybody is even on the ice,” said Datsyuk. “We have a good game today and I think every fan appreciated it. We’re disappointed, but life’s not stopping.”
The gold-medal game was easily the best one played during a world championship that saw the majority of top players take a pass. The event ended up being forgettable for the medallists at the recent Olympics as none of them got past the quarter-finals here: Canada (seventh), U.S. (13th) and Finland (sixth).
With some of the bigger nations out of the way, lesser lights like Denmark and Germany pulled off some upset wins and advanced further in the tournament than anyone would have guessed.
The Germans came within a win of their first medal since 1934, losing 3-1 to Sweden in Sunday’s bronze-medal game. They still received a long standing ovation from a partisan crowd at Lanxess Arena afterwards.
“I think everybody on the team is disappointed because we were so close to a medal,” said German forward Marcel Goc. “It’s tough right now, but I think it’ll give a push to German ice hockey. When we look back on this in a few days or weeks, we’ll realize what we did here.”
The Czechs will be pinching themselves for longer than that.
Anyone who questions the importance of this event to players need only watch the jubilant celebration that followed Sunday’s victory. The Czechs literally jumped up and down on the ice surface and were later addressed by president Vaclav Klaus in the locker-room.
“This is what you dream about when you are growing up,” said forward Lukas Kaspar. “I am so very proud right now. … If you play your heart out, you can beat anyone.”
Jagr’s other gold medal from this event came in 2005, when the Czechs beat Canada 3-0 in the final game. He and Vokoun were the only members of that team to win again here.
Now that he has another victory with anew group of players, he has no interest in stepping away from the national team.
“I hope not,” said Jagr. “As long as I can play, I will play. I love playing for the Czech team and if I can help, I will play.”