Nearly 16 years ago, on a cold February night, 70,000 people converged on Prague’s Wenceslas Square, the site of many of the country’s most memorable moments in history. In the preceding hours, all the way in Japan, a wiry goalkeeper from the industrial city of Pardubice helped his country win an improbable Olympic gold medal. Amidst the crowd singing “Hasek to the Castle,” Dominik Hasek and his teammates emerged onto the stage, and partied the night away in a scene fit for true rock and roll legends. Dominik Hasek was a tour de force at the Nagano Olympic Games, and was unquestionably the central figure in the Czech Republic’s gold medal triumph. That night, Czech President Vaclav Havel hailed him a national hero, and he became the country’s equivalent to Canada’s Gretzky, Brazil’s Senna, or Argentina’s Maradona… all larger than life athletes with absolutely unassailable accomplishments.
The Olympic gold medal was the seminal moment in Hasek’s Hall of Fame hockey career, which saw him also capture two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 and 2008. Hasek’s hockey brilliance is unquestionable, but also an outlier in the context of the accomplishment of other goaltenders from his home country. Despite the country’s rich hockey history, no netminder has come close to rivaling Hasek’s achievements, at club or country level. Recently in fact, there has been a relative dearth of Czech netminders playing at hockey’s top level. In a previous article, I touched on some of the factors that have plighted the development of Czech hockey since the fall of Communism, and I do not wish to revisit those reasons here. However, one notable point from the article is that if we accept the premise that hockey is now too expensive for the common Czech person to play, partly due to the lack of subsidization from central government, then the position that would most suffer is in goal, given the exorbitant expenses associated with the equipment needed to play it.
Since Hasek retired from the NHL in 2008, there is been a general gulf of quality Czech netminders in the league. In NHL history, there have only been 13 goalies from the Czech Republic that have played a game, and the list reads like a who’s who of NHL expansion draft fodder. Unsurprisingly, Hasek remains the leader in nearly all statistical categories. Born over ten years after Hasek, Tomas Vokoun is the next most decorated goalie hailing from the Czech Republic. Vokoun continues to be a quality and reliable netminder with the Pittsburgh Penguins, even in his advanced years, but is unfortunately currently afflicted by a blood clotting disorder which has put the future of his hockey career in doubt. Vokoun’s consistency is unmatched, in contrast to contemporaries hailing from his country, which included Roman Cechmanek, Roman Turek and Milan Hnilička. Hnilicka saw limited time in the NHL, mostly as a backup or third string goalie, and had his finest form with the expansion Atlanta Thrashers. In 2001-02, he played 60 games for the Thrashers, but the rest of his career in the NHL was brief and mostly forgettable outside a few great games and highlight saves. The other two, Cechmanek and Turek had more sustained periods of brilliance with their respective teams, however each faltered quite dramatically when the pressure of the games escalated. Cechmanek is best known for postseason flame outs while with Philadelpha, while Turek is famous for helping St. Louis win the President’s Trophy in 2000, only to allow a goal from centre-ice in Game 7 of the team’s opening round playoff series. Despite their regular season brilliance, the reputation that both players have left in North America is largely one that is derided.
The subsequent generation of Czech goalies certainly received more hype from the junior ranks, but the press clippings did not translate to success at the professional levels. Marek Schwarz was pegged to be the best of the current generation, drafted 17th overall in the 2004 NHL draft by the St. Louis Blues, ahead of notable goaltenders in Corey Schneider and Pekka Rinne. Schwarz never managed to live up to his stellar junior reputation, and played a largely unspectacular six games with the Blues over a three year period, before moving back to Europe in 2009. Schwarz currently plays in Liberec of the Czech Extraliga and has posted mediocre numbers over the last three seasons. Currently, the best two Czech netminders in the NHL are Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec and Washington’s Michal Neuvirth. Both players have shown the quality to be good NHL netminders, and remain relatively young (Pavelec is 26, Neuvirth is 25). But neither has demonstrated the consistency to reach the level that Tomas Vokoun has demonstrated over the course of his career.
The absolute vacuum in Czech goaltending excellence post-Hasek has brought along the next great hope, Petr Mrazek. The 21 year old netminder, from another industrial Czech city in Ostrava, was a 5th round selection of the Detroit Red Wings in 2010, and over the last three seasons, has shown glimpses of being more than a flash in the pan, like many of his countrymen playing the position. Mrazek played his junior hockey in Canada, with the Ottawa 67s, and soon became a fan favourite in that city for his reliable goaltending, his battling style of play, and his exuberant celebrations. The 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships was Mrazek’s introduction to the hockey world. At that tournament, he took an extremely unheralded Czech team, reeling from multiple failures at the junior level in the preceding years, to the quarterfinals after an impressive win against the United States. The game was played in Edmonton, and Mrazek found himself making save after save. Gradually, his legend grew amongst those in attendance It was a tight game, with each team trading goals, but when the Czechs took the lead for good in the third period, Mrazek was excitably fist pumping and was leading the pro-Czech Canadian crowd. When the Czechs scored an empty net goal, Mrazek skated out from his crease and jumped into a pile of his celebrating teammates. The enthusiasm was genuinely unbridled. As the crowd continued to hum from his excitement, Mrazek nearly scored an empty net goal, which would have caused the crowd to explode in a frenzy. By the end of the game, Mrazek made 52 stops. The hockey world stopped and noticed Mrazek’s emotion and ability on that day, and the performance was the flashpoint of his tournament, in which he was named the tournament’s best goaltender. It would be near sacrilege to say that Mrazek’s performance approached that of Hasek’s in 1998, but against a complete favourite in the Americans, and Mrazek’s insistence that the Czechs were to win the game, there were certain aspects of it that were vaguely reminiscent.
In 2012-13, professional hockey beckoned for the young Mrazek, and he made the step up from the OHL to the ECHL to the AHL with the Red Wings’s affiliate in Grand Rapids in quick succession. In Grand Rapids, he initially shared starting netminding duties with the highly ranked American Red Wings’s prospect Tom McCollum, but gradually won over the starting duties. Mrazek was named the starting goalie for the playoffs, and he played every minute of the playoffs for the Griffins, and appeared dominant in several games along the way. With a 2.31 GAA and a .916 save percentage, Mrazek was instrumental in backstopping his team to the Calder Cup Championship.
Last night marked Petr Mrazek’s third appearance in the NHL, after he was called up from Grand Rapids to replace regular Red Wings’s backup, Jonas Gustavsson who was placed on short term injury reserve. Despite his inexperience, Mrazek looked unfazed and posted his first shutout (admittedly, the Edmonton Oilers were a lacklustre opponent). Given that Mrazek played because of injury, it is likely that Detroit will send him back to Grand Rapids after Gustavsson returns. Furthermore, the Red Wings are well known for slowly bringing up their young prospects, so it is unlikely that we will see much more of the Czech youngster this season, when he can play games and develop in the American league. Yet, Mrazek’s rapid ascent within North American hockey over the last three seasons has been remarkable, and nobody would be surprised if the Red Wings made room for him on their NHL roster. He brings a certain joy to the game, and it would be quite enjoyable to see him play more at the top level.
Heading into the Olympic Games this coming winter, the situation for the Czechs in goal will be interesting given the doubts over Tomas Vokoun’s career. Given their experience and previous international pedigree, Pavelec and Neuvirth will surely be named to the team. If Vokoun cannot attend, Jakub Stepanek of the KHL’s Cherepovets Severstal is likely to be the third netminder. The 27 year old was named to the team in Vancouver and has posted relatively good numbers with an otherwise weak team in the Russian league. However, the romantic side in us hockey fans would vouch for Petr Mrazek. Though he has much to prove before coming close to touching the accomplishments of Dominik Hasek, Mrazek’s remarkable and memorable performances at the World Juniors and Calder Cup reminded us of his country’s national hero, and would it not be something if the young Czech star stole the show again… this time on hockey’s biggest stage? One can always dream.
– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada