The Future of Czech Hockey

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Olympic gold in men’s hockey at the Nagano Games in 1998. Three straight gold medals at the IIHF men’s world hockey championships from 1999-2001. Back-to-back gold at the World Juniors in 2000 and 2001. During this period, the Czech Republic was a certified force on the world stage, belonging with the usual perennial powerhouse countries.

But the last several years has seen a decline in the quality of Czech hockey. Sure, they won the World Championships in 2010 but otherwise, the country just hasn’t been the force it used to be. The development of youth players in the Czech Republic just hasn’t been a priority and the results speak for themselves at the U18 and U20 levels as Czech hockey hasn’t made an impact at the youth levels in a long time.

However, there is some promise as the Czech U-18 team won a surprising silver this past spring at the U-18 World Hockey Championships, losing to a very strong American squad. The Czechs beat Canada en route to the final as they boasted two eventual 2014 first rounders in forwards Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak as well as a high second-rounder in defenceman Dominik Masin.

There is a trend showing that Czech players are leaving their home country to play their youth hockey elsewhere. Vrana and Pastrnak both left for Sweden while Dmitri Jaskin of the St. Louis Blues decamped to the QMJHL for the 2012-13 season where he lit up junior hockey after a disastrous post-draft season in the Czech league.

The biggest bright spot for Czech hockey would be San Jose Shark Tomas Hertl. Hertl burst onto the NHL scene this past fall, cementing himself as a Calder Trophy favourite until an unfortunate knee injury sidelined him for months. He put up 25 points in just 37 games and became another go to weapon for the already offensively potent Sharks. His enthusiasm for the game has made him a favourite in San Jose and around the league and Hertl will be counted heavily for the Sharks as well as the Czech national teams as stalwarts like Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias age out and the youth is needed.

For next season, Pavel Zacha is emerging as a top prospect for the heavily hyped 2015 NHL draft class highlighted by Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. Zacha has committed to play for the Sarnia Sting of the OHL where he will play alongside fellow talented youngsters in Nikolay Goldobin, Anthony DeAngelo and 2014 OHL No.1 pick Jakob Chychrun.

The verdict is the Czech Republic is starting to crank out more highly touted prospects. However, the fact that many of them are leaving home to hone their craft in other leagues in other countries doesn’t reflect well on the Czech Republic. Usually kids leaving to other countries to play is usually an issue for smaller hockey playing nations like Denmark and Switzerland.

The Czechs are an interesting case study for several reasons. They are more than capable of dominating any given tournament but some of their decision making is questionable (choosing Petr Nedved over Jiri Hudler for the Olympic team). The flow of youth players ascending to higher levels of hockey is increasing but the quality of the Czech league is seen as inferior to many other European leagues which results in their players leaving for better development elsewhere. But for now, hockey in the Czech Republic is finally showing signs of turning around, so the rest of the hockey world better keep an eye on them.

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