Petr Straka, part of the wave of Czech import CHL players, will be asked to lead the national U20 team at the coming IIHF World Junior Championships in Buffalo and Niagara, NY. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Ed. note: the following preview was written by Czech hockey fan Lukas Hudecek, better known around these parts as Czechboy.
It seems quite strange that a country that boasts the reigning World Champions and so many top tier players in the world (Jagr, Hemsky, Havlat, Michalek x 2, Plekanec, Pavelec, Kaberle etc.) can be considered to be in big trouble, but that is exactly where the Czech Republic finds themselves. When Jaromir Jagr was asked about the recent Gold Medal and what it meant, one of the first things he said was that the Czechs need to invest into junior hockey as they are falling behind. Even more telling was the presentation by Slavomir Lener at the Hockey Summit in Toronto this summer which was considered a highlight by many observers. He presented a case of a once proud hockey nation on a massive decline. The question is: who is to blame?
I've posted on many blogs that one of the big problems is the import rule in the CHL which heavily drafts Czech Players. This results in a lot of Czech Players leaving when they are 16 years old and not coming back until they are 22 and former shells of themselves (or as Lener succinctly put it - ‘hybrid players' that are neither good European or North American players). I've always pointed out that almost all of the great European players spent an absolute minimum amount of time in the Canadian Juniors and North American minor systems (Forsberg, Fedorov, Jagr, Hasek, Kurri, Selanne, Koivu, Kovalchuk, Malkin etc.). Most of them actually came over a little later and became NHL successes after considerable time in their home country. They were allowed to develop the European ‘style' of play that can be very successful in the NHL when complimented by other styles of play.
However, a closer look points out a few discrepancies in that theory. First, most of the good Czech players currently in the NHL (Hanzal, Hemsky, Pavelec, Neuvirth, Frolik) all plied their trade in North America. Second, and more importantly, it is just plain wrong to blame the CHL for the Czech problems. In fact, the blame is squarely on the shoulders of the Czechs themselves. Their adult league (Extraliga) is on a severe decline. What was once a strong European league that dominated tournaments like the upcoming Spengler Cup, now simply shows up to enjoy the beautiful views of the Swiss mountains and come home empty handed. To look closely at the junior program or senior program is a puzzle slightly more complex than a Rubic's cube!
So while it would be great if the CHL simply banned import players altogether, I honestly get the feeling that all the good young Czechs would go play in Sweden or Russia. Some might point out that this shows a lack of national pride, but that simply isn't the case. The fact is the Czechs have a lot of work to do because they have let their leagues fall apart and the most successful way to make a living in hockey is to leave the Czech Republic and go somewhere where they have their act together. Czech players would love to stay and develop but it is simply a bad environment right now.
The Swedish Example
If you are a big fan of the World Juniors like I am you may recall Pierre McGuire constantly going on about how ‘Sweden has lost a generation of hockey. They used to promote creativity and now all they do is promote systems and this has killed Swedish hockey'. Believe it or not, he was saying this for about 3 or 4 tournaments straight and the Swedish program became extremely soft and was not producing high end talent. It went from Forsberg, Lidstrom and Sundin to Kristian Huselius. Looking at the current Swedish teams it does not take a genius to figure out that they've really turned around their national junior program. Almost all of the good young Swedish players are playing in Sweden and the ones that left are in the NHL as it should be. They are turning out three or four world-class talents per tournament and are riding a true wave of talent that will serve them well. I've been saying for years that the Czechs need to do a few things: First, contact Sweden and find out what they did to fix their system. Second, contact Switzerland and Finland and find out how it is that they are able to produce so many world class goalies?
It would appear that the Czechs are taking those exact steps. They consistently refer to the ‘Swedish turnaround' on their hockey website (www.hokej.cz) and have finally been producing top notch goalies again (eg. Pavelec and Neuvirth to go along with Vokoun, and Alexander Salak if given the opportunity). Also, Lener has been fired as head of player development and is putting a lot of money and time back into the junior program to try and rebuild it from the bottom up. Lastly (and I am so unbelievably opposed to this that I cannot explain), the Czechs are using foreign coaches for the first time in their history including have a Swedish Assistant Coach on their U20 team this year. So the Czechs are aware of the problem and are beginning to reverse their fortunes. However, I wouldn't expect to see any of those moves having an effect on this tournament.
In about five years we'll know if Lener is a genius who turned it all around, or if the ‘Big 7' will include the likes of Switzerland, Denmark, Norway and Germany instead of the Czechs and Slovaks. I am personally a big fan of Lener's work and feel he is taking all the right steps. I'd also like to point out that developing junior players requires a bit of luck. Who knows why players like Schwarz, Olesz, Kindl, Brendl and Kaspar never really caught on in the NHL? If they had then our current generation would be much stronger.
Outside of back to back Golds at the turn of the century from teams coached by the legendary (more for playing than coaching) Jaroslav Holik, father of longtime NHLer Bobby Holik, the Czechs have never really been that strong at this tournament. However, they were always competitive and had world class talent. Their downfall was usually more of inconsistency or mental mistakes. Unfortunately, in recent years, most of the teams fielded have not been very strong or very talented, each team seemingly having less talent than the next. I used to really look forward to Czech vs Canada games as we always put up a great fight, even if we consistently lost. The last few encounters looked more like the Globetrotters versus the Generals. A quick look at Czechs being drafted into the NHL in the last ten years will show a massive decline. Not long ago, the Czechs were the top supplier of European talent in the NHL, behind only Canada and America overall. Go back ten years and at least half the U20 team was drafted, or going to be drafted. Now, every year has one or two good players lately and this year is no exception. Last season five Czechs were drafted and that was considered fantastic news.
The Czechs' other problem is the pool they are in. They have Canada, Russia and Sweden to deal with. Also, I guarantee that Team Norway has the date circled when they play the Czech Republic because that might be Norway's best chance to win a game and then maybe pull an upset on another country and qualify. So the Czechs need to be very careful of their game against Norway (a sentence I never thought I would type). In a perfect world, the Czechs beat Norway and pull of an upset against Sweden, Russia or Canada and qualify for the playoffs. In fact, this would be a truly amazing feat and would have the country very happy. They did just lose a 3-2 decision in the shootouts to the US team in a pre-tournament exhibition, which should be considered encouraging.
My prediction is a win against Norway, at least one very lopsided loss and two closer losses to land them square in relegation where they will come out just fine (from a being relegated perspective). I cannot stress how wrong I hope that I am and please know I will be cheering very loudly for my boys for every game (including the Sweden game which I'll be attending in person).
The team itself continues to be plagued with the same nagging problem that occurs every year. Specifically, a lot of good players get left of the team for political reasons. Some of the best young Czechs leave for the CHL whilst in the midst of contracts in the Czech leagues and leave those teams high and dry. With no transfer agreement signed between the two leagues, this leaves the Czechs developing players for the CHL with zero compensation. As a result, they are banning players from the national team. Sweden is developing a similar approach in that the players are being asked to sign a deal saying they won't leave until a certain age. I agree with this hard stance and hope it continues. However, there was a neat exception recently with Martin Frk. Frk left and is still in the CHL but the Czechs were compensated and it was negotiated that they received some compensation and that Frk be available to the junior team. I would still like to see some ban on players under 18 from leaving but think this will never happen.
The team is a combo of European and CHL players (official roster not released till tomorrow). The big two players to watch are David Musil (son of Frantisek Musil) and Martin Frk. Both look to be top notch prospects. Frk is supposed to be a ‘generational talent' that should go very high in next years draft. Jacub Culek and Petr Straka are also excellent players who will make a difference up front. The top forward going in for the Czechs was actually a Russian named Dimitri Jaskin who is a natural goal scorer. However, he is apparently injured. If anyone know what happened to Jaskin I would love to know as he was going to be one of our stars this tournament.
Marek Mazanec (Plzeň), Filip Novotný (Sparta Praha), Tadeáš Galanský (Saginaw, OHL).
Jakub Jeřábek (Plzeň), Petr Šenkeřík (H. Brod), Dalibor Řezníček (Zlín), Adam Sedlák (Ottawa, OHL), Martin Pláněk (Znojmo), David Musil (Vancouver, WHL),Oldřich Horák (Hradec Králové), Marek Hrbas (Edmonton, WHL), Bohumil Jank (Č. Budějovice), Michael Zacpálek (Sparta Praha).
Robin Soudek (Chilliwack, WHL), Roman Horák (Chilliwack, WHL), Andrej Nestrašil (P.E.I., QMJHL), Ondřej Palát (Drummondville, QMJHL), Martin Frk (Halifax, QMJHL),Petr Holík (Zlín), Jakub Orsava (Třinec), Michal Hlinka (Vítkovice), David Tůma (Sparta Praha), Antonín Honejsek (Moose Jaw, WHL), Jakub Culek, Petr Straka (Rimouski, QMJHL), Tomáš Rachůnek (Znojmo), Tomáš Filippi (Quebec, QMJHL), Radim Heřman (Č. Budějovice).
Lukas hit the nail on the head with this year's team: it's better than the past couple of years on paper, but faces a stiffer challenge with their tough pool. I'm in agreement with his assessment, that the Czechs will likely finish behind Canada, Russia, and Sweden, but do well against the teams in the relegation round.
Staff: Petr Komers (General Manager), Miroslav Prerost (Head Coach), Jiri Fischer, Terry Christensen and Roman Visnak (Assistant Coaches)
Prediction: 4th in Group B, 7th overall.