2003 WJC Preview: Team Czech Republic

By Robert Neuhauser

After two consecutive world champion titles from the WJC the Czechs took a general step back last year at their home WJC, played in the Czech cities Pardubice and Hradec Kralove. The seventh place and a lackluster performance meant a disappointment for the fans and head coach Jaroslav Holik, father of New York Rangers’ forward Bobby Holik, was about to be fired. But after the dust settled Holik remained in function and will be the bench boss this year again. He will be trying to bring his guys on the places of glory again, this time in Canada in the cities Halifax and Sydney. Only the assistant coach is a new person, Jiri Kalous took over the spot vacated by Pavel Hynek.

This year’s squad consists mostly of the 1983 born players, but the 1984 borns have also a strong presence. The 1983’s finished just two goals shy of the bronze medals at the 2001 Under-18 WJC and the 1984’s finally grabbed the elusive bronze medals the year later. So it will be build of players from two succesfull birthyears, but the 1984 birthyear is considered one of the best in Czech hockey ever. Returning from last year’s team will be just three players, all of them are highly touted NHL prospects, though. They are Lukas Krajicek, Jiri Novotny and Jiri Hudler. Unlike last year, the 2003 edition of the Czech Under-20 team will boast two players with experience even from the Czech senior national team. Jiri Hudler formed a strong line with 2003 NHL blue-chippers Milan Michalek and Vojtech Polak and the trio really turned heads like the Jaromir Jagr-Robert Reichel-Bobby Holik line last time eleven years ago did.

Unfortunately, Vojtech Polak was suddenly scratched from the Czech WJC roster already after the first camp in the Czech Republic. Nearly the same surprise created the fact that experienced defenseman Ondrej Nemec and 2004 top prospect Rostislav Olesz were also left out. This makes the situation a bit absurd, because after Olesz was released from the camp, senior national team head coach Slavomir Lener didn’t hesitate to invite him to the Baltika Cup, played in Russia. This made from Olesz the youngest player to ever dress up for the Czech senior national team.
The Czechs began their camp in Havlickuv Brod, Czech Republic, on Monday, 9th. Exactly after one week they headed Amherst to start their North America-based camp there. The final roster will be set after two exhibition games against the Slovaks and the Swiss team. “We plan to carry up to eight CHL players on this year’s team “, head coach Holik stated.

The Czechs struggled at the goaltending position a bit during the preparatory course and Lukas Mensator seems to address the needs. The Ottawa 67’s netminder and the recent OHL Rookie of the Month November provides very solid goaltending depth and he knows what it takes to be responsible for the team’s success as he carried the Czech Under-18 team at the Under-18 WJC in April. Barring an injury he’ll start the Czech games at the WJC.

The back rows will be led by Peterborough Petes’ (OHL) rearguard Lukas Krajicek, who already had a taste of NHL hockey and is a defensive anchor. He showed a remarkable composure during his stint with the Panthers last NHL season. Krajicek is a strong puck-carrier and contributes offensively a lot. He was one of the very few players who didn’t fail to meet the expectations at the previous WJC and this year will coach Holik ask from him to take over the leader’s role.

Undersized defenseman Lukas Chmelir brings enough heart and leadership to support Lukas Krajicek in his role. Chmelir has neither an imposing frame or top-notch skills but is highly valued by the coaches for his spirited leadership and is respected both on and off the ice. Defensemen aren’t asked only to generate offense and every team needs a player who will learn the opposition some respect and will dominate along the boards and in front of the net. The Czechs have to rely on the team’s overall grit and toughness more than on an exact tougher player, given the fact the toughest cookie on the Czech preliminary roster, defenseman Jan Platil of Barrie Colts (OHL) had to be released because of pneumonia.

The biggest star up front is Jiri Hudler, one of the best forwards in today’s Czech senior Extraleague. The Detroit Red Wings prospect created some furore when he wasn’t returned by senior national team head coach Slavomir Lener to the Under-20 team for the Four Nations Tournament and performed at the senior tournament instead. Coach Holik then stated that he won’t invite Hudler to the WJC because of this. The two hot heads of the coaches had to find an agreement and common sense finally won. Hudler will center the first line with his uncanny vision and a terrific hockey sense and is expected to be among the scoring leaders of the whole tournament if he can keep it up with tougher opponents like Canada or Finland.

It isn’t very often that on the team are players from other leagues than the Czech one and the CHL. This year’s squad will have an AHL presence in Jiri Novotny. The gritty Buffalo Sabres draft pick is an example of a leader and assistant coach Jiri Kalous remembers his great capitancy during the Under-18 WJC in 2001. Novotny shows up every game, is a great passer and can take care of his own end, too, which is highly coveted by the coaches. He will be expected to make use of his experience and lead the younger forwards by example.

Eyes of many NHL scouts will be focused on sturdy Ceske Budejovice forward Milan Michalek. The feisty, skilled and versatile player understands himself on the ice well with Jiri Hudler and will try to overatake ultraskilled Russian Nikolai Zherdev in the hunt for the consensus first overall pick next NHL draft.

Like almost every time, the squad will have to rely on a team’s performance and team spirit. Phoenix Coyotes’ combative first-rounder Jakub Koreis summarized: “All opponents are tough to beat. We have to rely on a strong performance as a whole team. I think this will be essential, because we are here to win.”