This may come as news to anyone under the age of 20, but the Czech Republic was once a force to be reckoned with at the World Junior Championship. Watching them sucked out your will to live the way the Death Eaters in Harry Potter did, but they were a successful bunch. They won the gold medal in both 2000 and 2001 and celebrated by crawling in a line on their hands and knees. But in recent years the Czechs have looked like they were playing on their hands and knees. They won a medal in 2005, when they took home bronze, but since then they’ve been a third-world country at this event. In the past nine tournaments, the Czechs have never finished higher than fifth. They’ve lost seven quarterfinal games by a combined score of 30-5 and have been a whipping boy for the top teams in the tournament.
It could be argued the Czechs and Slovaks have been most responsible for making the world juniors a far more predictable tournament the past decade. They’ve declined so much that it has made the tournament a four-team event involving Canada, USA, Sweden and Russia, with Finland interloping depending upon the quality of its under-20 crop. But just when we thought all was lost with the Czechs, they’re staging a rebound at the elite teenage level. That was no more evident than last spring when the Czechs, led by future first-rounders Jakub Vrana and
David Pastrnak, defeated Canada in the semifinal and won the silver medal at the world under-18s. And this year our junior hockey guru,
Ryan Kennedy, is picking the Czechs to sneak in and win the bronze medal.
If you’re looking for the prime reason behind the revival, you have to follow the money. One factor in the decline of the program was it wasn’t being funded and most good young Czech players were coming to play in the Canadian Hockey League. But under the guidance of Tomas Kral, who was a successful lawyer and businessman before taking over the Czech Hockey Federation, the Czechs have revamped their system and attracted government money.
Kral discovered six years ago that half the under-16 team had failing grades in school and established a system where players could get academic help, but they had to maintain a passing grade to keep playing. That initiative prompted an infusion of funds that allowed the federation to build better facilities, have paid physiotherapists and better coaching from the Extraliga down to youth hockey. Coaches are better trained and have access to expertise in North America and Scandinavia, and there is more of an emphasis on player development. There’s a new attitude surrounding Czech hockey, said
Jiri Fischer the director of player development with the Red Wings who keeps a connection to Czech hockey. Fischer was assistant coach with the under-20 teams in 2011 and ’12, when the Czechs were ninth and fifth. “I come from the Detroit system where we believe we can beat anyone on any night,” Fischer said. “When I worked with those teams, I didn’t get that sense. And it became the reality. We lost 8-3 to Canada and 7-4 to Russia. We lost that perception we could play with anybody, and that perception became reality.” Emboldened by the play of their 1996-born players, the Czechs enter this year’s WJC with a group that has finally experienced success on the world stage. Pastrnak almost made the Boston Bruins out of camp and was a point-per-game player in the American League before his call-up. Vrana is playing for Linkoping in the Swedish League and was the team’s scoring leader at the world under-18s. And instead of coming to the CHL, the best players in the Czech Republic are playing in Europe, with many going to Sweden to advance their careers. That’s what Pastrnak did last season in Sodertalje. And now, instead of going back to Sweden or the Czech Republic, Pastrnak stayed in North America and is playing in the AHL. By playing in Sweden, the players can play in a junior league that some scouts think is second only to the CHL in terms of quality, plus some get time with the men’s teams. Many of the elite players who stay in the Czech Republic stay with the men’s teams, but they don’t get much ice time and it halts development. Fischer has seen the benefits of going to Sweden first-hand. Last year he went for a weekend to see Vrana play and watched him in three games at three levels. “He played with Linkoping’s under-18 team because they needed him,” Fisher said. “Then he played a game with his under-20 team and got called up the next day for the men’s team.” Whether it’s at home or abroad, the Czechs are again producing top players who compete hard and want to win. “We want to go into every tournament now and have a chance to win,” Fischer said. And that’s great news for the rest of the hockey world.
This feature appears in the Jan. 5 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.