-- There was a time when the Czech Republic was considered a powerhouse at the World Junior Championship.
The program boasted back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2001 behind players such as Martin Havlat
, Radim Vrbata
, Martin Erat
and Tomas Plekanec
and three Czechs (goalie Tomas Duba
, defenseman Rostislav Klesa and forward Pavel Brendl
) even earned the tournament's best player awards in 2001 when the event was staged on rival territory in Russia.
But the Czech Republic has since fallen on hard times, producing just a single bronze medal in 2005. The Czechs haven't finished higher than fifth the last six tournaments -- placing a disappointing seventh the last three years.
This year's 22-player roster, which includes three goalies, does boast a higher skill level and more experience than last year's version. But until the Czechs start winning a few preliminary-round contests and prove competitive, it's hard to consider the nation serious contenders.
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Following a tournament-opening 2-0 victory over Norway in last year's WJC, the Czechs were outscored by Canada, Sweden and Russia by a combined 21-8. The penalty-killing unit finished dead last in the tournament, allowing 12 goals in 29 times short (a 59 percent kill rate). Overall, the team yielded 4.17 goals per game.
"Last year, we had a tough time on the penalty-kill and had a lot of missed coverages," Czech Republic assistant coach Jiri Fischer
told NHL.com. "We did not advance out of the group, so we want to be a little more structured, more dedicated this year. We don't go by name recognition, don't go by draft status; we feel we've selected the best players [this year]."
The Czech Republic opens its 2012 IIHF WJC preliminary-round schedule on Tuesday against Denmark in Group B at Rexall Place in Edmonton. It will then be matched against Canada (Wednesday), the U.S. (Friday) and Finland (Saturday).
NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb feels the drop-off has more to do with the decision of many key players to leave for North America at a younger age than anything else.
"A main reason for today's poor state of Czech junior hockey is the fact so many young Czech players leave for junior hockey in North America," Stubb told NHL.com. "It would be a big surprise if Czech can advance to the medal round. Former NHL assistant coach Slava Lener was hired to put Czech hockey back on the map, but it will be a few years before a Czech team will win a medal at World Juniors."
Lener spoke extensively of the ongoing problem with youth hockey in the Czech Republic and other European nations during the World Hockey Summit in Toronto in August 2010. At the time he quoted that, since 1997, 840 teenage Europeans had left their home countries to play in the Canadian Hockey League. He then added the agents of those players told their clients that the "CHL exposure is the best way to get drafted into the NHL." He also pointed out more than 50 percent of the Europeans playing in the CHL did not get drafted.
This year's Czech Republic team returns defenseman Bohumil Jank
(Lev Poprad) and forwards Petr Holik
(HC Zlin), Petr Straka
(Rimouski Oceanic, QMJHL) and Jakub Culek
(Rimouski Oceanic, QMJHL).
Perhaps the country's finest offensive performer, Martin Frk of the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, will not be returning. Frk, a top 2012 draft prospect, missed the first 29 games of the season with post-concussion symptoms. Fischer said that Frk opted not to play in the tournament since he didn't feel up to the speed he needed to be at to be effective in this event.
Frk, concussed in a preseason game after a hit by Moncton Wildcats forward Allain Saulnier, returned to practice with Halifax on Oct. 6. He is rated No. 2 among skaters playing in the QMJHL this season.
The top-rated Czech Republic players eligible for the 2012 Draft in Pittsburgh, according to NHL Central Scouting, are No. 1 Tomas Hertl (Slavia Prague) at center and No. 20 Petr Zamorsky
(HC Zlin) on defense. Left wing Tomas Faksa of the Kitchener Rangers is rated No. 4 among skaters in the Ontario Hockey League. In 27 games with the Rangers this season, Faksa has 14 goals and 27 points.
"We want to advance [to the medal round]," Fischer said. "While we did play tough opponents last year, we didn't play to our capability and that hurt. Those three games [against Canada, Sweden and Russia] weren't even close. Our realistic goals are to make every game competitive and advance.
"Obviously, having the U.S., Canada and a strong Finnish team will make this tough. This might be the strongest Finnish team we've seen in this tournament in a very long time. Of course, the Canadians and U.S. are always frontrunners."
Fischer, a native of Horovice, was chosen 25th in the 1998 Entry Draft by the Detroit Red Wings
. He's currently director of player development for Detroit, where he played five seasons before deciding to call it quits after the 2005-06 season due to heart problems. He's serving as an assistant for the Czech Republic for the second time in his career.
Fischer feels the country is prepared to do whatever it takes to re-establish itself as a hockey power. Head coach Miroslav Prerost, in fact, has been incorporating new ideas that should aid in the turnaround.
"Miro is a pro coach for the Czech Federation and he had a lot of these kids at 16 and 17 years old, and now he moved up to WJC ranks," Fischer said. "He's working extremely hard in implementing concepts that we need to get better in. Over the summer, we added two five-day camps into the preseason development. We practiced, worked on individual skills and team concepts."
Perhaps this is the year the Czechs can return to prominence at the WJC.
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale