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Reality Czech Underrated in Nagano, the counterattacking, team-oriented Czech Republic has established itself as the squad to beat

Reality Czech Underrated in Nagano, the counterattacking, team-oriented Czech Republic has established itself as the squad to beat

On the eve of the 1998 Winter Olympics, as NHL players prepared
to compete in the Games for the first time, the medal favorites
in hockey included Canada, Russia, the U.S., Sweden and Finland.
Only after that formidable five did oddsmakers list the Czech
Republic, a small, landlocked nation in which soccer fields
outnumber hockey rinks by the dozenfold.

This is an article from the Feb. 17, 2002 issue

Still, a few among the cognoscenti viewed the Czechs as a dark
horse for a medal. They had the sport's best goalie, Dominik
Hasek, and the NHL's most explosive offensive force, right wing
Jaromir Jagr. In a short tournament, the reasoning went, that
combination could carry an otherwise ordinary team into the
elite. "If Hasek stands on his head for a couple of days and
Jagr makes a few plays, they could steal some games," one
Canadian player said shortly before leaving for Nagano. "I could
see those guys taking the bronze."

The Czechs, of course, did better than that. They won the gold,
knocking off Canada along the way, and Hasek was indeed
spectacular. In the euphoric aftermath of the Czechs' 1-0
final-game victory over Russia, then coach Ivan Hlinka nearly
turned ice-blue trying to convince people that there was more to
his team than its two guiding lights. "Maybe for the media and
spectators it was just Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr," Hlinka
said, huffily, "but for us, the coaches, seeing all of the team
from the inside, there were no stars. We had such a great team
because we have such a great bunch of players working together."

Hlinka's refrain sounded like so much politically correct
palaver, a coach dutifully praising his forgotten foot soldiers.
In the years since he put forth his argument, however, Czech
hockey has resonated more powerfully than even he could have
imagined. If the Czechs really are all about Hasek and Jagr, how
to explain that the country has won the past three world
championships with neither Hasek nor Jagr playing for the
national team? And what to make of the junior team, which has
won back-to-back world junior titles?

In these Games the Czech Republic (which plays Sweden today at 4
p.m.) is the team to beat. But how has this cash-strapped
country produced the most dominant hockey team in the world,
considering that 1) it spent much of the second half of the 20th
century being beaten back by the Russians, on and off the ice,
and 2) it saw about 20% of its available talent pool evaporate
in 1993, when the former Czechoslovakia officially split its
national teams? "There are," says Szymon Szemberg, an official
at the International Ice Hockey Federation in Switzerland, "a
lot of factors."

For one, the Czechs have long memories and are keenly motivated
by them. Jagr, the captain of the Czech Olympic team and a
Washington Capital in the NHL, wears number 68 on both of his
team sweaters to recall the summer of 1968, when Russian tanks
rolled into Prague's Wenceslas Square and crushed what had been
a blossoming democratization movement. Jagr was born almost four
years after that invasion, but he, like many Czechs his age, was
raised on bedside tales of the event and has striven to restore
his country's pride.

When the Czech Republic beat Russia in Nagano to win the gold,
some 10 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of
Czechs flooded into Wenceslas Square for a flag-waving
celebration reminiscent of the most passionate independence
rallies. Czech defenseman Frank Musil called Hasek "the symbol
of the republic," and it was lost on no one that the
medal-winning goal had been scored by veteran defenseman Petr
Svoboda, whose surname translates to freedom.

The Soviet Union also exerted a more tangible impact on Czech
hockey: It shaped the style of play. Throughout the 1960s, '70s
and '80s the Soviets had been so dominant on the ice that the
Czechs typically beat them only once in every four or five
meetings. To combat the Soviets' superior talent, the Czechs
developed a disciplined system that has earned them renown as
"the Italians of hockey." Like Italy's soccer clubs, Czech
hockey squads are known for their calculating methods--long
stretches of sober defensive play interrupted by dazzling and
often decisive offensive bursts. In short, the Czechs are
masters of the counterattack. "I can't call us a defensive
team," says veteran Czech and Dallas Stars forward Martin
Rucinsky. "We like to entertain. But we know we have to be
patient. We have to wait for the right moment to do what we do
best."

The Czechs' effective dichotomy is that they are at once among
the world's most disciplined defenders and its most
improvisational offensive players. "What's especially striking
is that you go around from team to team in the Czech Republic
and they all play pretty much the same way," says Los Angeles
Kings general manager Dave Taylor. "There's more unity than you
see most places."

While Czech players learn the value of defense at an early
age--"their junior teams are almost always more mature
defensively than whatever team they're playing against," says
Szemberg--they're also encouraged to frolic near the
opposition's net. Statistics aren't kept for most Czech players
until they are in their teens because youth league coaches tend
to praise players for their creativity. That emphasis continues
right up to the national team. While most countries, including,
say, Finland, have relied on three basic power-play systems for
the past decade, the Czechs encourage their skilled players to
adapt to any power-play scheme that plays to their strengths.

Slava Fetisov, the general manger and coach of the Russian team
and a legendary Soviet defenseman, points out that the Czechs
"are using a strong foundation to capitalize on a strong
generation of players." The current crop is indeed as bountiful
as the country has ever had. In addition to Hasek and Jagr there
are more than 60 Czech players on NHL rosters, including such
dynamic all-stars as Milan Hejduk of the Colorado Avalanche,
Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora of the New Jersey Devils, Martin
Straka of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Roman Hamrlik of the New
York Islanders. Though many of the top Olympic teams have similar
star power, the Czechs distinguish themselves for exactly the
qualities that Hlinka suggested. "We think like a team, not as
individuals," says center Robert Reichel, whose shootout goal
defeated Canada in the semifinals of the 1998 Olympics. "Nobody
does anything against each other on the ice. There are 25 guys,
and sometimes [off the ice] you aren't always thinking the same
way and you're not friendly with everyone. But when we play, we
all pull together."

Two things have led to that unity. First came the breaking off
of the Slovaks nine years ago, which robbed the Czechs of some
stars but also eliminated a source of tension. If Czechoslovakia
were a single team this year, for example, several world-class
Slovak players, including Los Angeles Kings sniper Ziggy Palffy,
would be eligible for the club. Yet just as the respective pride
of French and Anglo Canadians at times makes them seem more like
rivals than teammates, the Czechs and the Slovaks were often at
odds. The split has given each group a more cohesive sense of
national pride.

Then came the 1996 World Cup. The Czechs entered the tournament
fresh off victory at the world championships but failed to
advance out of the preliminary round, losing 7-1 to lightly
regarded Germany in a game that still smarts for any Czech who
played in it. The team was sniping and in disarray, and the loss
led to the resignation of coach Ludek Bukac, who had feuded with
Jagr. "There were too many guys on that team playing for
themselves," says Rucinsky. "Losing that game woke us up. When
we got to Nagano, everybody agreed to play as a team. You had
Jaromir Jagr helping on defense, which maybe you wouldn't have
seen before. We won the gold medal, and it's been a team effort
since."

As one of many pieces of evidence, consider the 1999 world
championships in Oslo. The Czechs won, yet the tournament awards
for top forward, top goalie and MVP went to players on other
teams. By contrast, think of the Czechs' old nemesis in Nagano.
Russia relied on five goals by Pavel Bure to beat Finland 7-4 in
the semifinals; when the clamping Czech defense rendered Bure a
nonfactor in the final, Russia's offense disappeared.

The final element in the Czechs' success has been good
old-fashioned stesti, or luck--which is invaluable to even the
most talented of squads. Including the semifinal shootout win
over Canada at the Olympics, the Czechs have won five
consecutive last-puck situations (either overtime or shootout)
to avoid elimination from major tournaments. At the 1999 worlds,
for example, they beat Canada in a semifinal shootout, then beat
Finland in overtime of the final. Reichel attributes that
late-game success more to a "new sense of confidence" than to
good fortune, pointing out that it was the Czechs'
self-assuredness that enabled them to rally from a 2-0 deficit
to defeat Finland in the final of last year's world championships.

All of this has made for smiling times in the Czech Republic.
Nearly 50% of the country tuned in to see that rally against
Finland. Soccer remains the nation's top sport, but in recent
years many of the most talented young athletes have been hanging
up their cleats and donning skates. The number of registered
hockey players in the Czech Republic, including women, has risen
from about 40,000 in 1996 to 70,000 in 2001.

"Everybody wants to be part of the national team," says Reichel.
"People say we make them happy. In the summer, when we go home,
everybody on the streets knows us, and in every city we sign
autographs and do something for charity. It wasn't like that even
a few years ago. People are watching us now."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO When the going gets tough, the Czechs unite, which is what they did before the gold medal game in Nagano.COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (LEFT) Capitals rightwinger Jagr, Islanders defenseman Hamrlik (4) and Devils rightwinger Sykora (17) are but three of the more than 60 Czech players brandishing their game in the NHL.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: LOU CAPOZZOLA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO With Hasek in goal in Nagano, the Czechs held their opponents to one goal per game and won five of six games.
The Czechs are among the most disciplined defenders and most
improvisational offensive players.
The final element in the success of the Czech Republic has been
good old-fashioned stesti, or luck.