There was a time when the Czech Republic was considered a perennial contender 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 Klesla
and forward Pavel Brendl
) earned the tournament's best player awards at their positions in 2001.
Since then, however, the Czech Republic has fallen on hard times, winning just one medal -- a bronze in 2005 -- since then. And that was due in large part to goaltender Marek Schwarz
, a 2004 first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues
. The Czech Republic hasn't finished higher than fifth the last five tournaments.
So what's the problem with Czech hockey?
The team opens its preliminary-round play at the 2011 WJC on Monday against Norway with the hope of turning things around.
NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb sees the biggest culprit of the downturn being the decision by a number of top junior-age players to jump to North America.
Stubb makes a good point, as two returning players on this year's 20-man roster are standouts in the Canadian Hockey League -- forwards Roman Horak
of the Western Hockey League's Chilliwack Bruins and Andrej Nestrasil
of the P.E.I. Rocket of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. A third player, defenseman David Musil
of the WHL's Vancouver Giants, was unable to join the team after injuring his right leg earlier this month.
Czech Republic assistant coach Jiri Fischer
feels the talent at the grassroots level in the country remains strong; it's just a matter of getting back to basics in an attempt to keep the players home.
"Certainly the results haven't been similar to the back-to-back championships, but I think we still have many talented players in Czech Republic," Fischer said. "I think as coaches, on every level and not just the national teams, players need to be worked with according to the latest modern trends on an individual basis, on top of their team practices."
Fischer, a native of Horovice, was chosen by the Detroit Red Wings
with the 25th pick of the 1998 Entry Draft. He played six seasons for the Wings, retired after the 2005-06 season and now works as the Wings' director of player development. He's serving as an assistant coach for Czech Republic for the first time in his career.
"Maybe introducing more international trends -- high speed, breaks, transitions, up-tempo hockey … not just waiting for things, but creating things in traffic," Fischer said.
One of the brightest young stars participating in the WJC is from the Czech Republic -- and he's also tearing it up as a rookie with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL this season. His 31 points is tied for the team lead and is second among all first-year league players.
Forward Martin Frk, a 17-year-old, 6-foot, 192-pound power forward, isn't Entry Draft-eligible until 2012, but he's still turning heads.
"He's having a very good season on a team that's rebuilding in Halifax, so he's getting prime opportunities to be part of the offense and can certainly be a dangerous player," Fischer said. "We'll see how he's able to fit into this context and contribute, but this is the first opportunity I've had to see him play. If he has a good tournament, that exposure and experience will certainly bode well for him next year, as well."
forward Michael Frolik
, who represented his country in four World Juniors, including captaining the 2008 team when the tournament was held in Pardubice and Liberec in the Czech Republic, feels the program must do whatever is needed to keep the young players happy.
"I think as coaches, on every level and not just the national teams, players need to be worked with according to the latest modern trends on an individual basis, on top of their team practices."
-- Jiri Fischer, Czech Republic assistant coach
"I think Canada, the U.S. and Russia have so many players, they can make two or three teams," Frolik told NHL.com. "They always talk about what is wrong with Czech in the country. To me, I watch Canada, the U.S., Finland and Sweden and always get the feeling they're trying new things. We kind of stay on the same thing all the time -- a little like old school. We need to get new training and practices in place, and find out what's working good for the teams that are always doing so well. Why not try to be like them?"
Frolik, the 10th pick of the 2006 Entry Draft, scored a team-best 5 goals in six games at the 2008 WJC.
Fischer feels the country is prepared to do whatever it takes to re-establish itself as a hockey power. Czech coach Miroslav Prerost 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. We had a strong training camp this summer and Miro is part of the reason myself and (assistant coach) Terry Christensen were brought in to be part of the staff and I'm grateful for that. Terry and I have experience on the smaller ice surfaces and Miro wanted the influence of North American hockey."
In other words, building a hybrid Czech-North American hockey player isn't too far-fetched.
"We certainly have been following concepts and things going on in this continent, maybe a little bit closer than anyone else in Europe, so I think Miro is really trying to put some firm rules in place," Fischer said. "He wants that combination of Czech hockey and North American hockey … we'll see how it works out.
"We need to start learning things that will make us successful on the international scene. I think this year will be a better draft year for Czech hockey players than in the past two, but we'll see where it goes beyond that."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale