In 2000 and 2001, the Czech Republic won back to back World Junior Championships. Those teams included Milan Kraft, Josef Vasicek, Martin Havlat, Vaclav Nedorost, Radim Vrbata, Martin Erat, and Tomas Plekanec. In 2001, goaltender Tomas Duba, defenseman Rostislav Klesa, and forward Pavel Brendl swept the tournament’s best player awards. Many from that group have enjoyed fine NHL and international careers since.
That crop of players joined a crop of Czech players that was already at the top of the hockey world. In 2010, the Czech Republic won the IIHF Men’s World Championship for the sixth time in 15 years, a total which doesn’t include the Olympic gold medal won in 1998.
Slovakia won its first international hockey medal, a bronze, at the 1999 World Junior Championships; a team that included Branko Radivojevic, Ladislav Nagy, and Robert Dome. Marian Hossa was still of age to play, but was already in the NHL. In 2001, they lost to their Czech cousins in the gold medal game of the World Men’s Championships and the following year, they struck gold.
However, the core group of players that helped these countries achieve that success is getting older, and many Czechs and Slovaks are now concerned that it may be a while before they see an international win at any level.
In 1999, the first and fourth overall picks at the NHL Entry Draft, Patrik Stefan and Brendl, were Czechs and the 10th, Branislav Mezei, was a Slovak. In 2000, there were seven Czechs and three Slovaks taken in the first two rounds. In 2001, it was six and three. Since then, the totals have dropped significantly. In 2008, there were none from either country taken in the first two rounds. In 2009, there were two Slovaks and no Czechs, and in 2010, one of each.
Since those two junior gold medals a decade ago, the Czech Republic has only won a single bronze medal, in 2005, and haven’t finished higher than fifth since then. Since winning a silver medal at the 2003 U18 tournament, Slovakia has been shut out completely at all levels.
In the 2007 World U18 tournament, the Czech Republic was relegated and Slovakia narrowly avoided the same fate. In the 2010 World U20 tournament, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia ended up in the relegation round.
This is not the first time a drought has hit Czechoslovak hockey. In the late 1940s, Czechoslovakia won two World Championships and had emerged as the best challenger to Canada for international hockey supremacy. However, the arrest and banishment of seven players from their 1949 team over fears of defection put their program into a serious tailspin. They didn’t win another gold medal until 1972.
One of the players who was punished by the Czechoslovak communist government was Augustin Bubnik. Later, Bubnik coached national teams in Finland and the Netherlands, and coached youth and junior hockey in Czechoslovakia for decades. Players such as Ivan Hlinka and Jiri Bubla developed into international stars under his tutelage. He has also observed the recent problem with player development and has a few opinions.
"We now have a big, big problem with the junior level. We are losing with the juniors for many many years."
When asked why, he answered, "Because the coaches, the teachers, are not good for the young guys and the young guys are not interested like before. Some people go to North America for the money. They aren’t finished (with their development)."
Up until 1990, the Czechoslovakian national team was made entirely of players in the Czechoslovak First League who were products of the domestic amateur program. This program was funded completely by the state and developed star players who were idolized by Czechoslovakian boys who dreamed of playing in the First League and, if they were lucky, the national team.
Since then, the communist system has been abolished and Czechoslovakia has been split into two separate states. Professional hockey is now a business and clubs are left to their own devices to train and keep players, and many find it a struggle to keep players at home.
Czechs and Slovaks today have more options and top players go elsewhere, usually the NHL or the Russian-based KHL to earn more money. Many junior-aged players also have the opportunity to go elsewhere and see greater opportunity to develop in North American junior leagues that provide a higher level of competition. The loss of top players at all levels means that the Czech and Slovak pro leagues are not as prestigious as the Czechoslovak First League was.
Nowadays, Czech and Slovak youngsters rarely get the chance to see top players from their countries play in person which could, as Bubnik suggests, result in less interest in playing the sport. And some that are might not be able to so easily, thanks to the rising costs involved in playing.
Less money for a program at home means that, if they want to develop into elite players, top prospects are more likely to go overseas. Indeed, the majority of top Czech and Slovak prospects currently play in the Canadian Hockey League.
Of the 15 Czechs and Slovaks that were drafted in 2009 and 2010, 11 were from junior leagues in North America, while two each played in the Czech and Slovak leagues. By comparison, a whopping 43 were drafted out of Sweden in that time, 14 from Finland, 10 from Russia and, surprisingly, four from Germany. Long thought to have a strong domestic league because of imports, but weak on developing talent, the German domestic leagues produced as many draft picks in those two years as the Czech Republic and Slovakia combined. There was also one each drafted from clubs in Latvia, Denmark, and Switzerland.
At one time, Russia also faced a similar problem, with a large number of their prospects playing junior hockey in the CHL. There are still several, but the recent establishment of the ambitious KHL and a stronger national junior program has meant that more Russians, both professionals and juniors, are now choosing to play at home.
Doing the same thing in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, however, would be a much bigger challenge, given the size of these countries compared to Russia.
So what is the solution?
"The solution is now to build a new system of coaches, of the younger coaches, for the junior level," answers Bubnik.
Slovakia has tried to address the issue by having an Under 20 team compete in the Slovak Extraliga. It is hoped that more Slovak juniors would opt to stay at home and play in this league rather than go overseas to play in North America. It has achieved limited success, its biggest problem being the inability to ice a team that can play at a competitive level in the league. After 20 games of the 2010-11 season, the Slovakia U20 has only one point in the standings from a shootout loss, and have lost the other 19 in regulation. Such results aren’t likely to encourage many juniors to play there.
The Czech Ice Hockey Association does seem to be taking a more serious look at its coaching program, as Bubnik says is needed, with a more involved certification course. Of course, it will take some time to evaluate how well this program succeeds.
Since their split, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are considered to be in the top seven hockey countries in the world. Recently, however, Slovakia has had trouble keeping its place in that group, producing results roughly similar to countries such as Switzerland and Belarus. While its larger population and talent pool has so far kept the Czech Republic out of that danger, it seems unlikely that they will be as dominant in the near future as they were in the past.
Article was written by Derek O’Brien.