The past week was a remarkable one for San Jose Sharks rookie forward Tomas Hertl. The youngster from Prague made his NHL debut, and scored his first two NHL goals in his second game. If Hertl’s name was unknown to hockey fans at that point, he truly became a household name in his third game where he exploded for four goals, including an all-time highlight reel goal in which he tucked the puck between his legs, and lifted it over the helpless shoulders of New York Rangers’ goalie Martin Biron. The goal has already generated millions of views on Youtube, and has spawned the onset of Hertlmania across North American hockey markets and back in his homeland. His play during the past week has also provided a glimpse of the immense talent that the Czech player holds.
The 17th overall pick of the 2012 draft is seen as a bright light for the future of the San Jose Sharks, and is being looked upon as being the future torch bearer for the Czech hockey program, which has been in steady decline since the golden days of the late 1990s and early 2000. In that era, the Czechs captured Olympic gold in Nagano in 1998, and reeled off three straight World Championship gold medals from 1999 to 2001. Additionally, the U20 team captured two straight gold medals in 2000 and 2001. Yet, since those golden days, the development of youth players coming from the Czech Republic appears to have stagnated and the trend has been well documented by the international hockey press in the years since. Since the gold medal win in 2001, the junior team has won only one medal at the World Junior Championships, that being a bronze at the 2005 tournament. The declining quality of Czech hockey is reflected in the declining number Czech players in the NHL. During the 2002/03 season, there were a total of 80 Czechs in the NHL, representing 7.4% of all players (the peak percentage of Czechs in the NHL was in2001/02, where 7.9% of all NHL players were born in the Czech Republic). This season, there are only 31 players, making up 4.6% of the NHL.
Even more staggering has been the decline in the number of Czechs drafted by NHL teams. In 2001, there was a total of 46 Czechs drafted in the Entry Draft, and between 1999 and 2005, there was an average of 30 Czechs drafted each year. Since 2006, the number has fallen dramatically. In 2006, there were 11 Czechs drafted. The year of Hertl’s draft (2012), he was one of six. This past year, there were three.
The reasons for why the quality of Czech hockey has eroded over the past decade has been discussed in hockey circles for many years, as observers have been surprised by the decline in competitiveness of their youth national teams and the lack of quality Czechs being drafted into the NHL. The problem is multifactorial, which encompasses a toxic blend of politics, attitudes and finances. Though others have addressed this topic in recent years, I wish to provide a review of the salient points for the uninitiated.
Perhaps the major factor in the downfall of Czech hockey, has been the complete upheaval in the country’s political system since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the NHLs current young stars were born during this time of political and economic change, and the tectonic shift felt in the Czech Republic at the time has left a lasting impact on the country’s sporting climate today. The communist era in Czechoslovakia was certainly oppressive, and provided limited opportunities for recreation and artistic expression. Yet, an important outlet for the Czech people in that era was through sport, and the sports infrastructure was incredibly well funded and organized by the state. Sporting clubs became a vehicle through which the socialist state could exercise control, discipline and organization amongst its individuals, and athletic excellence within this system was viewed by government officials with pride and was used as a shining example of how well the system thrived. Great incentives existed for the government to fund local sporting clubs, and top coaches were recruited and rewarded with status based on their accomplishments. Because hockey was subsidized, individuals living in Czechoslovakia did not have excessive registration fees, and could cheaply procure equipment, secure ice time and receive top training. Additionally, the regimented work and family life in the communist system allowed parents to go to work early in the day, and return home in the early afternoon. This arrangement allowed them to spend the rest of the day with their family, and take their children to the local athletic facilities.
Hockey was structured and accessible, and many Czech people took the sport up, and success within the game allowed for people to distinguish themselves from the others. I recently spoke to one of my Czech colleagues who grew up in Czechoslovakia during the communist era. As a child, he played goal for a local club. He told me that playing hockey was not expensive, as you simply registered at the club, and the club took care of the rest, including providing equipment. Upon the fall of the Iron Curtain however, all of the local sports clubs became privatized, and funding from the government was abruptly halted. The Czechoslovak Union of Sports and Physical Training, which helped build and maintain athletic facilities throughout the country was ultimately disbanded, and the access to the facilities became limited. In modern times, the price of hockey equipment, and the relatively scarcity of indoor ice time has been cited as major barriers to entry for Canadians to play hockey. Since the fall of communism, the costs of playing hockey in the Czech Republic fell completely on the individual. Within the first few years of this political shift, the transition from a communist to market economy was extremely difficult on families. Many struggled to meet their basic needs, let alone consider the thought of putting their children through youth hockey. Furthermore, over the last three decades, the costs of equipment has skyrocketed, through the need for helmets and masks, the improved technology of goaltender equipment, and the advent of composite sticks. It should also be stated, that unlike the regimented lifestyle imposed by communism, the working members of the family now have more erratic work hours, to keep in line with Western demands, and this change in lifestyle has made access to the local ice rink more difficult for some children. Ironically, the fall of communism created a series of barriers for access to the game, which never existed before, and these barriers are likely a major reason for why the hockey system has floundered in recent years.
While the fall of communism itself was a major political factor, another political event that cannot be ignored is the Velvet Revolution in the early 1990s which led to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, and the formation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as separate entities in 1993. The country of 15 million people was divided into two, with the Czech Republic taking 10 million and the Slovaks five. In purely hockey terms, this fragmentation meant that the Czech Republic now had a smaller pool of players to train and develop, and the internal competition within the country was weakened. If you allowed for the best Slovak players of this generation (Zdeno Chara, Jaroslav Halak, Marian Gaborik, Pavol Demitra and Marian Hossa) to play with the Czechs during the past decade, the Czech decline would arguably be less of a story.
The chilling stories of defection from athletes behind the Iron Curtain to the West almost seem surreal in this era of globalization and cooperation. The political climate has changed significantly since the days when Petr Nedved defected from Czechoslovakia to play junior hockey in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Since Nedved, there has been an increased number of young Czech teenagers who have moved (freely) to North America to play junior hockey in the Canadian Hockey League. The adverse economic conditions of the Czech Republic in the early days post-communism made many of the country’s hockey youngsters dream of moving to North America and one day playing in the NHL to fulfill the American dream. This migration of players has not come without consequence. The theory is that upon arrival, many of these teens are ill-suited to life in Canada, and subsequently their hockey suffers, rather than develops. They are forced to cope with significant differences in language, culture and lifestyle. The style of hockey in Canada is quite different to that in the Czech Republic as well, with an increased emphasis on physical play on smaller ice surfaces. Consequently, some of these Czech players fail to adapt, and are unable to achieve their full potential. The plight of Tomas Vincour is a cautionary tale about the struggles these players face. Vincour was the first player selected in the 2007 CHL Import Draft, and was touted to be a top NHL prospect with good size and scoring ability. However, he was drafted by an expansion team, the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL. Vincour showed occasional glimpses of his potential during his time in the WHL, but in a losing environment, he never quite attained what was expected of him. Because of his size, skillset and pedigree, he was selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft by the Dallas Stars. Vincour made it to the NHL, but his career was rather unspectacular. Eventually, the Stars traded him this past spring to the Colorado Avalanche. Facing stiff competition for an NHL spot this fall, and perhaps recognizing his own limitations, Vincour signed this summer with AK Bars Kazan of the KHL to re-establish his game. Sadly, Vincour’s story is one shared by other young Czech players, whose dreams of making it in America are more difficult than they appear. Reviewing the 2003 CHL Import Draft selections from the Czech Republic is another sobering account.
Meanwhile, as young Czechs mostly struggle to find success in the North American junior leagues, the country’s development system sees a double-hit, as a result. Firstly, because there is no international transfer agreement in place between Canadian junior clubs and their European counterparts, the Czech clubs that develop these young players get no compensation for the time and money they have invested in the development of a player that eventually moves to Canada. The second hit is that as the top players migrate to Canada, the players that remain at home do not play against the best competition, and these players may also not fully develop to their potential. In 2006, the IIHF released a report demonstrating the impact of this phenomenon and concluded that when an increased number of players left their countries to continue their development elsewhere, the performance of those countries at Olympics and World Championships suffered. Additionally, the study found that those players that left their home country at an earlier age had shorter and less productive careers. While many young Czechs feel that moving to Canada may be a boost to their hockey development, the evidence suggests otherwise, and has a major detrimental impact on the entire developmental system of their home countries.
Along with the political and economic changes that were seen in the early 1990s, I believe that the rise of European football since the advent of the UEFA Champions League in 1992, has also contributed to the decline in the popularity of hockey at the grassroots level. As stated earlier, hockey is an expensive sport, and has become more inaccessible to the average Czech person. Meanwhile, as the glamour of European football has increased, the game’s accessibility, through low equipment and facilities costs, has convinced the country’s best athletes to play that sport. Though the Czech football league is not highly rated, the league remains well scouted by the biggest clubs in Europe. Playing in the domestic league will allow the young Czech players ample opportunity to advance. Teams from Prague, Liberec, Ostrava and Plzen have all qualified for the Champions League in recent years, and when those teams face other exotic European teams, the cities stand still and people in those communities have the opportunity to see the best players on the planet at their local stadiums. Meanwhile, hockey’s best league, the NHL is distant and difficult to access for Czech youth due to the expensive television packages and major difference in time zones. Young athletes in their formative years may be more likely to be inspired by the likes of Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky or Pavel Nedved rather than other Czech athletes prying their trade on a different continent.
Of course, many of the arguments I have just presented give the sense that the Czech hockey program is on a runaway train heading for a cliff. It could very well be that the decline of Czech hockey is overstated. After all, the Czech Republic is a country of only 10 million people, a third of the size of Canada, and a tenth of the size of the United States, and has seen major political and economic shifts in the last generation. The country has captured an IIHF World Championship as recently as 2010 (however, many hockey fans would argue that the World Championships during Olympic years tend to have weaker competition, and certainly the 2010 Czech squad on paper was largely unimpressive). In football, many countries have Golden Generations, owing to multiple factors. In Czech hockey, the golden generation of the late 90s/early 2000s was led by two world class, generational talents, in goaltender Dominik Hasek and forward Jaromir Jagr. These two players are considered two of the finest European hockey players of all time, and are two greats of the NHL. Interestingly, both Hasek and Jagr are Husak’s Children, which is a term to represent a baby boom which took place in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The boom occurred when attempts of revolution within the Communist system were repressed, culminating with the Prague Spring of 1968. Many Czechs became dispirited in the oppressive communist system and felt resigned to seek whatever other joys they could find in their life. The government also adopted several pro-population policies which gave incentive for people to have larger families. It may be that the Hasek and Jagr were geniuses born in this time in which their countrymen were having more babies, and the Czech Republic sides they led were an outlier. This current crop of Czech talent is perhaps more reflective of the true hockey potential of the country. While there has been much consternation about the overall health of Czech hockey, Czech football also appears to have had a similar phenomenon. In the late 1990s, and early 2000s, the Czechs benefited from their own golden generation of footballers, led by 2003 European player of the year Pavel Nedved, and fine talents such as Jan Koller, Karel Poborsky and Vladimir Smicer. This group reached a European Championship final in 1996, and a semi-final in 2004. Yet, since the retirement of some members of this generation, the Czechs have failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2010 and have had a dreadful 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign. It may be after all that the Czechs overacheived in the late 1990s/early 2000s, because of the rare geniuses born during an unusual period, and that they are now fulfilling their expected course given their country’s size and wealth.
With the Olympic Games upcoming in Sochi in the next few months, much attention has been placed on the Czech team for this tournament. The short list of 67 players that was released this summer has several veteran players past their prime, such as over 40 year olds Jaromir Jagr and Petr Nedved (who is recently re-eligible to play for Czech Republic in IIHF events, after having played for Canada in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer), some reliable NHLers (Patrik Elias, Tomas Plekanec, Martin Havlat, Alex Hemsky. Jakub Voracek and David Krejci), a few young Czech players trying to make an impact (Hertl, Petr Mrazek, Roman Horak) and a series of unheralded domestic players. There are no generational talents in this lot, and it will be difficult to see if or when the next golden generation of Czech hockey players will emerge. It would perhaps be no true surprise if this is the destined fate for Czech hockey in the years going forward. For now though, we can hope that players like Tomas Hertl, who remained in the Czech Republic to play his junior hockey, will provide inspiration to the Youtube generation of Czech youngsters to take up the sport and attempt to duplicate his incredible, eye-popping feats.
– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada