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Another shot at glory

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

MONTREAL – Taking part in the World Hockey Championship will always hold a special place in Tomas Plekanec’s heart.

The Canadiens’ No. 14 will be participating in the annual tournament for the eighth time in 2016, suiting up for his native Czech Republic and sporting the “C” in Russia as Vladimir Vujtek’s squad goes in search of a podium finish for the first time in four years. One of six Canadiens players set to ply their trade for their respective countries overseas, Plekanec is the most experienced of the bunch at the senior level, having also taken part in the Winter Olympics on two occasions, including most recently in Sochi in 2014 where he also served as team captain.

Tomas Plekanec will be making his eighth career appearance at the World Hockey Championship in May.

While the veteran pivot would undoubtedly like to still be sporting the CH and playing in front of the Bell Centre faithful right about now in the NHL playoffs, making the 7,000-kilometre trek overseas affords him the opportunity to don his country’s colors once again in international competition. That’s always been a priority for the Kladno native, who always appreciates getting the call to represent one of the strongest hockey nations in the world.

“When I was growing up, there weren’t many NHL games on TV. All you saw was the national team playing in championships and the Olympics. When I got that opportunity to do it for the first time [at the World Hockey Championship in Latvia in 2006], it really was a dream come true. That was the goal growing up, to be a member of the national team. It’s nice to be able to go over there and play for my country. Being captain makes things even more special,” said Plekanec, who has 17 goals and 43 points in 57 games for the Czech Republic’s senior side over the years.

Ask Plekanec what he enjoys most about the World Hockey Championship experience – aside from winning games and picking up hardware, of course – and he’ll tell you there’s one thing, in particular, that really captures his attention every single time. And, he doesn’t expect things to be any different this time around in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“The fans at these events, they’re just so passionate about the tournament and the games. They really look forward to it. Playing for your country there is like playing in Montreal. People are really, really into it. There are a lot of fan zones around the city where you’re playing. It’s fun for them and fun for us as players, too. When the semi-finals and the championship game comes around, you know people everywhere are watching,” said Plekanec, who has fond memories of watching the Czech Republic’s on-ice accomplishments back home before making the move to North America in 2002.

“I remember when I was younger and the guys won the tournament, people were going into the streets and celebrating in every single big city in the Czech Republic. That’s really what’s cool about events like the World Championship, people are so involved and love their teams and their countries,” added Plekanec, who would still have been on native soil to witness his countrymen claim World Hockey Championship gold in 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

Plekanec has enjoyed success at the World Hockey Championship over the years, collecting one silver and two bronze medals.

Since then, Plekanec has amassed a host of tournament memories of his own while helping the Czech Republic secure silver in 2006 and back-to-back bronze medals in 2011 and 2012.

“The best one [of the three] was probably the very first one where I won silver in Latvia. That was nearing the end of the golden generation back home because they’d won so many gold medals in the years leading up to that, including the year before in Austria. They were such a dominant group on the national team side,” recalled Plekanec, referencing a Czech roster that also featured the likes of former Habs Tomas Kaberle and Jan Bulis, and fellow NHLers David Vyborny, Zbynek Michalek and Martin Skoula, among others.

In 2011, Plekanec was a force to be reckoned with in Slovakia, finishing tied for second in tournament scoring with Patrik Berglund and Roman Cervenka with six goals and 10 points in eight games. He even capped the scoring for the Czech Republic with an empty-netter in a 7-4 win over Russia in the bronze medal game at Braitslava’s Orange Arena.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had at the World Championship. It was almost like playing at home for us. There were so many Czech fans out there for every one of our games. Their passion for the tournament was unreal. We played really good hockey that year. We dominated all tournament long. It was my first tournament playing with [Jaromir] Jagr on a line,” said Plekanec, whose squad went undefeated through the first six games of the tournament before dropping a 5-2 decision to the Swedes in the semis. “Even though we didn’t win gold, it really felt like we did because we had such a good time as a group.”

The Czechs avenged the defeat to Sweden the following year on their turf when they eliminated them with a 4-3 win in the quarterfinals. It was an upset of sorts, for sure. Not only did the Swedes enjoy home ice advantage, but they also boasted 16 NHLers on their roster, including Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Backstrom, Daniel Alfredsson, Johan Franzen and Gabriel Landeskog. Plekanec’s contingent, meanwhile, featured just six.

“It really was unreal for us that we still managed to end up with the bronze medal that year. I remember we lost [3-1] to Slovakia in the semis and beat Finland 3-2 for bronze. I was the captain for the first time,” said Plekanec. “It was fun to get that medal without a lot of proven stars on our roster and all those guys from the gold generation. That was the last medal we’ve won at the tournament.”

Plekanec has always enjoyed suiting up for his country in international competition.

This time around, Plekanec will open the tournament on May 6 with a tilt against Russia and Alexei Emelin, before eventually squaring off against both Lars Eller (May 15 – Denmark) and Sven Andrighetto (May 17 – Switzerland) in the latter stages of preliminary-round play. Needless to say, he’s chomping at the bit get started.

“For me, personally, it’s important to play in these events. I’m healthy. I had a good break after the end of the regular season, so I’ve had a chance to recharge and get ready for it,” concluded Plekanec, who, according to reports, will play on a line with Cervenka and 19-year-old David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins. “I think as a country we’re smart players. We try to create things up front, and with a hot goalie and good defense, I think that’s where we probably have the edge on other teams.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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