The annual Czech Hockey Games will mark the unofficial start of the 2009-10 men's international season. The tournament will be held from Sept. 3-6 in Karlovy Vary, western Bohemia.
The Czech Hockey Games are the first leg of the annual Euro Hockey Tour -- a four-tournament competition involving the national teams of the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden and Finland. The other tournaments are the Karjala Cup (Finland), the Channel One Cup (Russia, formerly known as the Izvestia tournament) and the LG Swedish Hockey Games.
After the tournaments have finished, the teams are seeded according to the combined point total from all four tournaments and play in the European Hockey Tour finals with the winning national team receiving about $100,000 in prize money.
The current tournament is actually the second Czech Hockey Games event held within the 2009 calendar year (although it's now officially "next year" on the hockey calendar). The 2008-09 installment was played in April and won by Russia, which went on shortly thereafter to capture gold at the IIHF World Championships. The tournament now moves back to its traditional start-of-the-season slot.
The Euro Hockey Tour rarely sees the top players from any of the national sides competing. The coaches and the respective national ice hockey federations tend to select players with less international experience in order to get a long look at potential role-playing candidates for the World Championships. With the possible exception of Russia, only a few players competing in the Czech Hockey Games have a realistic shot at earning a spot on their country's Olympic team roster.
The Czech Hockey Games started in 1994 as the Pragobanka Cup before changing sponsors and names (Czech Pojistovn Cup) in 1998. The tournament became part of the Euro Hockey Tour as of the 1997–98 season, and the Slovakian national team was replaced by the Finnish national team. Until 2003, the tournament was played in Zlin. It later moved to Pardubice and Liberec. Russia has won three straight tournaments while the Finns dominated the early part of the decade. The last time the host Czechs won was the 1999 installment. Sweden won in 1998 and 2005.
The Euro Hockey Tour was created one season prior to the inclusion of the Czech Hockey Games. During the 1996 Izvestiya tournament, representatives of the Russian, Swedish, Finnish and Czech hockey federations agreed to create the competition with each country contributing one quarter of the prize money. Another part of the agreement is an obligation to produce television coverage for the events and sell commercial space during the live broadcasts. The winner also obtains the Challenge Cup, which was made in Sweden in 1996.
While most of the players competing in the Czech Hockey Games are unfamiliar to North American fans, there's a sprinkling of well-known names interspersed through the rosters. Most notably, the Czech squad features Jiri Hudler, who left the Detroit Red Wings to sign under a cloud of controversy with Dynamo Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League. The Czech squad also has ex-NHL players Pavel Brendl, Jaroslav Hlinka, Josef Melichar, Jaroslav Bednar, Jakub Cutta, Petr Hubacek and Petr Sykora (formerly of the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals).
The blue line for defending tournament champion Russia will be led by longtime NHL defenseman Dmitri Kalinin, who has returned to his homeland to play for Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The Russian squad will also feature offensively gifted Alexander Radulov, veteran center Viktor Kozlov, enigmatic defenseman Andrei Zyuzin, former Ottawa Senators winger Petr Schastlivy, winger Alexander Perezhogin and 38-year-old veteran Oleg Saprykin.
Team Sweden will welcome the return of forward P.J. Axelsson, who spent 11 years with the Boston Bruins prior to signing with the Frolunda Indians of Gothenburg. Other notable veterans with NHL experience include goaltenders Johan Holmqvist and Mikael Tellqvist, defensemen Dick Tarnstrom, Daniel Tjarnqvist and Lars Jonsson and forwards Mattias Weinhandl and Mathias Tjarnqvist. More intriguing is the inclusion of some of Sweden's top young players, including Edmonton Oilers prospect Linus Omark, Tampa Bay Lightning hopeful Johan Harju and San Jose Sharks draftee Patrik Zackrisson.
Team Finland is going with a youth movement at this tournament, with only three players over the age of 28 and no players with NHL experience. The roster features Minnesota Wild defense prospect Harri Ilvonen, Calgary Flames draftee Juuso Puustinen and 21-year-old forward Joonas Kemppainen. Among the veteran players on Team Finland, Karpat Oulu center Jari Viuhkola spent part of the 2007-08 season with the New Jersey Devils' American Hockey League farm club in Lowell.
Coach Jukka Jalonen and general manager Timo Jutila have also rewarded 37-year-old defenseman Jan Latvala (who has played his entire career in Finland's SM-Liiga) with a roster spot. Meanwhile, 31-year-old goaltender Petri Vehanen will get to put on the Finnish lion crest after a strong season with Lukko Rauma.