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World Cup

Jaroslav Spacek spreads wisdom to Team Czech Republic

Prank-pulling assistant speaks about group's chances at World Cup, remarkable Olympic victory in 1998

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

TORONTO -- Jaroslav Spacek's voice precedes him into a room. It's a thick, booming, heavily accented baritone that can be a growl and a laugh and a gargle all at once, and his delightfully fractured syntax can follow some mischief that he's just been into - which happens often.

Spacek, 42, is at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 as an assistant coach for Team Czech Republic, four years retired after 13 seasons in the NHL.

He is one of the great characters in the game, a happy-go-lucky, prank-pulling retired defenseman whose country welcomes his wisdom at this tournament, and in domestic hockey at home.

"I'm living day by day," Spacek said of his coaching career, having served as an assistant for the Czech Republic at three IIHF World Championships before being named to its World Cup staff.

The Spatchoman, as he's known to most in hockey, was standing outside his team's Air Canada Centre locker room on Friday afternoon, on the eve of Team Czech Republic's World Cup opener, a 6-0 loss to Team Canada.

The last Spacek and I had spoken in an arena corridor was in mid-February 2012 at Bell Centre in Montreal, the veteran returning to the city as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes at the sunset of his career. The incorrigible practical joker was up to no good that morning, planning to slip into the empty locker room of the Montreal Canadiens, for whom he had played for two-plus seasons, and cut every skate-lace and sabotage every piece of equipment he could find - until he discovered to his chagrin that his access card had been demagnetized.

From blue line to behind the bench, hockey blood still flows strongly through Spacek's veins.

"Most of these guys are my friends," he said of the Team Czech Republic players, heckling and being heckled at that moment by former national team and Canadiens teammate Tomas Plekanec, who wandered by.

"We make fun of each other but that's OK," Spacek said laughing in Plekanec's direction. "I can take it and I hope they can take it, too. I still feel more like a player than a coach, but I don't know. There's a lot of stuff you have to do on a daily basis as a coach. I still have young kids and I'd like to spend lots of time with them. So far, I don't see myself as a coach for a long time, but you never know what can happen. Never say never.

"Am I a good coach?" he said, repeating a question. "I don't know, you'll have to ask them."

Spacek laughed at the thought, as he laughed throughout our talk, and then added,

"What's good for me is that I played in the NHL and on European ice surfaces, I'm watching lots of NHL games and I played in the old and new NHL systems. That's experience you can bring to coaching."

On Friday, he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of his wife, Lenka, and his sons David, 13, and Jacob, 8½, from the Czech Republic.

"Don't write that Jacob is 8," he cautioned with a grin. "He'll tell you that he's 8½."

Spacek has been in love with hockey since he first laced up skates as a 6-year-old in his hometown of Rokycany-Borek, an hour outside of Prague. By the age of 8, he was playing hockey before, during and after school, well into darkness, "before there were computers," he joked.

He didn't know anything about the NHL until he was 15, when articles and televised highlights trickled into the Czech Republic with the fall of Communism. And if he was on an NHL team's radar before the 1998 Nagano Olympics, he didn't know it.

Spacek was playing for Farjestads in the Swedish Elite League before and after Nagano when he believes he was scouted by Czech Republic national team and Florida Panthers assistant Slava Lener.

The Panthers selected him in the fifth round (No. 117) of the 1998 NHL Draft and he arrived for the 1998-99 season. Florida offered unique challenges to a 24-year-old who spoke halting English, but was fluent in Czech and Russian, had a mouthful of Swedish and a grasp of some German.

Video: Czech Republic revving up to face a stacked Group A

He hung tight to Panthers teammates Radek Dvorak and Robert Svehla to pick up what he could, happy to sound foolish than not try at all.

"My English isn't perfect," Spacek said in the summer of 2009, the defenseman having just signed a three-year contract with the Canadiens. "But I'm pretty happy with it. I can say, 'I want beer, I want food,' and I can get gas for my car."

It was a remarkable ride into an industrial-strength NHL career, one that saw him wear seven different uniforms and briefly skate as the hugely popular captain of the Buffalo Sabres. Spacek came within one victory of winning the 2006 Stanley Cup, his Edmonton Oilers falling in seven games to the Hurricanes in the Final.

The Czech Republic finished last in the inaugural 1996 World Cup. "Kind of a disaster," Spacek said of the tournament that he watched at home. Coaches would be fired, the program would be rebuilt, and two years later, he was a member of the Czech Republic team that stunned the world by winning the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics.

The country was ranked sixth going into the Games, then knocked off hockey superpowers from the United States, Canada and finally Russia to win the Czech Republic's only gold medal of the Olympics.

This was much, much more than a hockey victory. Fifty years earlier, to the week, the Soviet Union had helped engineer a Communist coup in tiny Czechoslovakia. Twenty years after that, Russia had rolled tanks of occupation into the streets of Prague.

For the upstart Czech Republic hockey team to defeat Russia for gold is something that still moistens Spacek's eyes, his country at that time bleak with a crippled economy, political uncertainty and struggling with fatal, massively destructive flooding.

"It was a poor time at home. Everything was changing after Communism and it was time for us, as a hockey team, to step up and do something for our country," Spacek said. "That's what happened. Everybody in the Czech Republic started to think positively and enjoy life more. For our small country, winning the gold medal when we did was one of the best things that ever happened."

It was a personal milestone for Spacek, too, taking part in his first major international tournament after being injured twice when previously considered for the Czech world championship team.

And it was his first time seeing the superstars of the NHL up close, including many of those from his own nation. He was awed by the presence of former Canadien and Stanley Cup winner Petr Svoboda, who defected from the former Czechoslovakia in 1984 and remained abroad until the demise of Communism eight years later.

And how not to be wide-eyed in the presence of Olympic teammate Jaromir Jagr, whose No. 68 marked the year of the Soviets' springtime invasion?

The Czech Republic defeated Russia 1-0 in Nagano's gold-medal game, Svoboda scoring the only goal, Dominik Hasek a magician in goal.

Seventy thousand Czechs viewed the game on giant screens, before dawn, in Prague's Old Town Square. It touched off a countrywide celebration as the string of three Olympic hockey title-game losses to Russia finally ended.

Spacek grows emotional when he discusses the experience. Eight summers ago, he showcased the gold medal on a wall of a home he built in Rokycany-Borek, his hometown and that of his parents and wife, to where he returned upon retirement from the NHL. Also on display are the three gold medals he won with Czech Republic teams at World Championships and his bronze from the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Video: SIGHTS & SOUNDS | World Cup Day 1

At this World Cup, Spacek is in charge of Team Czech Republic's defense and its penalty-kill. Publicly, at least, the expectations here seem muted, and Team Canada's 6-0 rout on Saturday was an unpleasant way to begin.

"We're the dark horse, obviously," he said. "I like the group of guys and as underdogs we always seem to win a medal. They have to be close as a group. The coaches can give them as much information as we can but it's up to them to play on the ice. I trust them. We have good goalies, good skill guys up front. The defense isn't great but on the ice, it's five guys - play together, stay together. It's a short tournament at the beginning of the season. Our chances are OK."

Team Czech Republic obviously didn't start this tournament on the right foot. But Spacek has always been a glass-half-full guy, and when the sun rose on Sunday morning, his sleeves were rolled up for a midday practice and the work that had to be done.

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