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Czech and Slovak hockey: On the decline?

July 24, 2011

Slovak hockey fans about at the IIHF World Championships this spring in Kosice and Bratislava.

Just look at the number of Czechs and Slovaks being drafted into the NHL since the lockout: it’s declined each and every year. It’s topic that’s been covered here in the Hockey News and here, from the IIHF itself.

And it’s a topic I hope to continue covering right here, on Eastern Conferences. Why? Because the pipeline of talent from the Czech Republic and Slovakia was once rich, diverse and full. Today, it has stagnated. And the health and success of not just the NHL, but international competition in the IIHF and Olympics, and hockey as a whole, depends on it. This isn’t just about the NHL. Moreover, it’s important because while the number of Russians in the NHL has also declined somewhat, that is in large part a result of the establishment and growth of the Kontinental Hockey League. And elsewhere in Europe, pools of skill in Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Germany remain strong. Their leagues continue to grow and become more competitive, more robust.

It’s the Czech Republic and Slovakia that are troubling.

Let’s look retrospectively, first.

The ranks of the NHL became swollen with Czech and Slovak players in the early 1990s, as the fall of communism across the Eastern Bloc enabled players to move and compete in tournaments freely, be drafted, and enter the NHL. It was a boon for hockey, and one epitomized by none other than Kladno-wunderkind Jaromir Jagr. Fresh blood was injected into the league, and the allowances in travel, scouting and play granted hockey a chance to grow like never before. I dare say this was good for the Czech Republic and Slovakia and their hockey programs, newly independent as of January 1, 1993.

But those hockey programs, presumably, were starting a period of suffering. Much like the Soviet Union, hockey was state-sponsored and subsidized. According to International Sports Law and Business, by 1997, teams had been sold to private investors and were no longer receiving assistance from the state. And the Czechoslovak Union of Sports and Physical Training, which owned and maintained rinks, was dissolved. This had a ripple effect. It was not merely Czech Extraliga clubs that suffered, but their farm systems, which grow players who are in their geographic area from a young age. The health and vitality of the big club affects children in the region with respect to their hockey development. Couple that with economic uncertainty that grew out of the fall of communism, and you have two countries that weren’t necessarily in a position to promote hockey.

And that comes back to the fact Czechoslovakia, an international hockey behemoth, was gone. While from a political standpoint, a united Czech and Slovak republics may have been untenable, from a hockey standpoint, it was fantastic. The widened competition was undoubtedly a factor in the quality of play. While hockey ties are strong still, one must imagine that much like Canada and the US, having a wide swath of teams and players to play against only improves the overall quality. Smaller states, smaller pools, less competitive hockey. Imagine a Czechoslovak National Team for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. One that includes players from both sides. Krejci with Hossa? Havlat with Handzus? Gaborik and Plekanec? Chara and Hamrlik? Options in net that would Vokoun, Halak, Pavelec and Neuvirth?

That sounds like an incredible team. Mind you, those current NHLers were born in the Czechoslovak era, raised before or during its demise, and developed before the situation became more dire.

The two states are predominantly middle-class in nature, the Czech Republic being somewhat better off than Slovakia. But the expenses of playing hockey are trying, and without subsidies, it’s that much more difficult.

Even so, the sport remains popular, well-received and always on TV and in the media. Attendance at Extraliga games seems healthy. In small arenas that seat anywhere from 3000 to 15000 across the two states, the game of hockey has a magnetic appeal that has hardly diminished. While watching a playoff game between Zlin and Pardubice this past spring, a full-house rocked the Zimni Stadion, clad in yellow and blue, jeering as loudly as possible. Hockey is healthy. Hockey is alive. The caliber of play was excellent. It’s clear cream of the crop have left for sunnier pastures, more money, namely, in the NHL and KHL, but the Extraligas of Slovakia and Czech Republic offer a glimpse at talent still blossoming, quality players in their primes, or former NHLers in their twilight years. It makes for great hockey. But it’s clear there will be no Jagr. There isn’t a Chara out there. Not now. Not yet.

It’s unclear who the next generation of outstanding Czech and Slovak players will be. The two states have a history of producing players that are extraordinarily talented and electrifying, but also players who are humble, modest (okay, maybe not Jagr) and hardworking. Players that are true sportsmen. It’s a real shame if we don’t have those types of players in the Olympics, in IIHF-sanctioned tournaments, in the NHL and in the Czech and Slovak Extraliga.

I hope to investigate this further, to see where the problems lie, and what the solutions might look like.

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