BUFFALO – It ended with a whimper, but the Czech Republic’s run to the semifinal was a huge step for a junior program that has been in the wilderness for years. Before their berth in Buffalo, the Czechs hadn’t been out of the quarterfinal since 2005. The program hasn’t won gold since back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
Current junior coach Filip Pesan remembers those teams and hopes that one day some of his charges can make the NHL like their predecessors.
Based on this year’s tournament, that may happen as soon as next year for 2018 draft prospect Filip Zadina. Centers Martin Necas (Carolina) and Filip Chytil (New York Rangers) have already made their NHL debuts and aren’t far off from regular duty, either.
But the Czechs have had some great players in recent world junior tourneys – from David Pastrnak to Radek Faksa – and still come up short in the success department. Pesan, in his first year at the helm, sought to change that by really putting resources in the right places.
“We have great players and a great staff who have been working with them all year, even over the phone or email,” he said. “The staff were sent to those guys to make sure they know how we wanted to play and that’s the key; to build an atmosphere and a relationship with the players.”
And this is important, because for today’s Czech juniors, the past is largely bereft of good memories. Necas has fond recollections of the 2012 team, but they lost in the quarterfinal – the highlight was a round-robin win over the U.S.
“Petr Mrazek was the goalie, celebrating in the air,” Necas said. “That was cool.”
This year, the Czechs knocked off Russia in their tournament opener and took out Finland in the quarterfinal to break the hex. While they got crushed by Canada and the U.S. after that, at least there is growth. And the effect that may have on future teams shouldn’t be discounted.
“Yeah, I watched the tournaments before and they always go out in the quarterfinal,” said center Jakub Lauko. “It was hard for those players.”
Lauko is up for the draft this summer and looks like a top-40 pick. Along with right winger Martin Kaut and goalie Jakub Skarek, he makes up the top end of what is another nice draft crop for the nation. Depending on how many of Zadina, Necas and Chytil are in the NHL, the Czechs could either be another threat next year at the world juniors or revert to middling status.
For the sake of parity, it would be good to see them flourish under Pesan, who seems to have a good pulse for his troops. The world juniors will be in Vancouver and Victoria next year, but then the Czech Republic will host in 2020. The city/cities have yet to be announced, but Brno – where Necas plays this year – has been mentioned as a possibility for some games. He’ll be too old for the tourney by then, but the talented pivot is excited about his nation’s chance to show the hockey world its passion.
“Czech country is hockey country,” Necas said. “It’s great for the country and our guys. It will be fun.”
Especially if the Czechs are in the medal hunt again.
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