While Canada-United States will earn top billing at the 2010 Winter Olympics, that may well be a case of North American bias. Why? Because few rivalries are as intense as Russia vs. the Czech Republic.
"I'd say the rivalry with the Russians is still big," Czech Republic captain Patrik Elias
told NHL.com. "Obviously they're still one of the top teams in the world and you know the history of it going back 20 years and what it meant for the countries to play against each other. It's always great to play against one of the best teams in the world. While the game against the Slovaks is also good, the Russians are a little more competitive than the Slovaks, so the emotions and everything is stepped up."
It's an international battle that has spanned four decades and will resume Feb. 21 when the Group B combatants open a triple-header of preliminary-round games at Vancouver's Canada Hockey Place.
Czech-born Jaromir Jagr
has worn No. 68 his entire career in honor of the "Prague Spring" rebellion that occurred in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
"They still talk about (the '98 Olympics). They call it their victory of the century. It was a huge achievement, huge for the country and everybody lived for it and the guys that were part of it are considered the best hockey team the Czech Republic has ever had. I think the reason they were so successful was because (goalie) Dominik Hasek was just outstanding and they scored at key moments." -- Patrik Elias
It was during the '68 Winter Games in Grenoble when the Czechs pulled off a monumental 5-4 victory against the Soviet Union in round-robin play of the tournament, just months before the Soviets sent tanks into Czechoslovakia to reassert their rule and halt a budding move toward democracy. Even as the Soviets were occupying the country and would eventually earn gold on the last day of the tournament, the Czechs reveled in that triumph, scribbling the final score on streets, walls and kiosks in a show of defiance.
"The Czechs don't really like playing against the Russians," the Czech Republic's Tomas Fleischmann
said. "There's a little bit of a rivalry there because they kind of owned our country for a couple of years."
In 1969, the Czechs would upset the Soviet Union again, not once, but twice, during the World Championships, 2-0 and 4-3. It marked the first time a team would defeat the Soviets in the same international tournament on two occasions.
The biggest triumph in the history of Czech Republic hockey occurred during the 1998 Games in Nagano when it stunned Russia, 1-0, in the gold-medal game.
"They still talk about (the '98 Olympics)," Elias said. "They call it their victory of the century. It was a huge achievement, huge for the country and everybody lived for it and the guys that were part of it are considered the best hockey team the Czech Republic has ever had. I think the reason they were so successful was because (goalie) Dominik Hasek
was just outstanding and they scored at key moments."
Since the Czech Republic and Slovakia became two independent nations in January 1993, the Czechs have mustered plenty of international success. The Czech Republic is one of only three countries to medal twice in ice hockey since the NHL allowed its players to participate in the Olympics -- gold in '98 and bronze in 2006.
The NHL's leading scorer, Washington's Alex Ovechkin
, will be skating in his second Olympics for Team Russia. He notched 5 goals in eight games during his team's fourth-place showing at the 2006 Games in Torino.
"The Czechs always have a good goalie and good defensive players," Ovechkin said. "But every team has best players over there (in Vancouver) and every team wants to win. I think when you see the rosters, all the teams have great players and Olympics are such a short tournament -- one mistake can cost you. You have to pay attention when you're on the ice you have to be concentrating 100 percent."
During those '06 Games, the Czechs scored a 3-0 victory against Russia in the bronze-medal game, marking only the second time in Olympic history that a Russian hockey team was going home empty-handed -- the Soviet Union did not enter a team until the 1956 Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.
"I wish I was part of those victories," said Elias, whose '06 Olympic participation was cut short by injury. "It's always great to win and beat (Russia) and we have them in our group again. It'll be a big game and they're obviously one of the favorites -- them and Canada I think. It'll be a charge and we just have to do it.
"When you look at the international results the last few years, we don't have that big goal scorer or guy ranking in the top 15 in scoring like we had before," he added. "We still have talented guys and (goalie) Tomas Vokoun
is playing great. You need to have the best goalie out there because it's so important. It's all about the team, though. If you have that confidence, you can accomplish a lot."
When unified with Slovakia, then-Czechoslovakia had won four silver medals and four bronze -- being denied an opportunity to capture Olympic gold every other time by the Soviets.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Team Russia has never won Olympic gold, but took home a silver in '98 and a bronze in 2002. The Soviets earned seven gold medals in nine Olympic tournaments and the Unified Team, consisting of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Armenia, won gold at the 1992 Winter Games -- the year Czechoslovakia won bronze.
So will Fleischmann have anything up his sleeve if he's on the ice when Ovechkin begins turning the transition in their game with Team Russia in the preliminary round?
"I played against him in 2008 World Championships in Quebec and we were in the same group then. You just have to make sure you just slash him a couple of times so he knows you're there," Fleischmann said with a grin. "It's team against team though, so it'll be exciting."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com