When Czechoslovakia split up on December 31, 1992, the International Ice Hockey Federation ruled that the Czech Republic should remain in the "A" pool of the IIHF World Junior Championships, while Slovakia was assigned to the "C" pool. The reasoning was that, historically, Czechoslovakia's junior teams had been made up largely of players from the Czech region.
The Slovaks worked their way back up to the "A" pool in the shortest possible time, and qualified to play in the 1996 WJC tournament in Boston.
Finally, in the 1998-99 season, Slovakia cracked the big time by winning a bronze medal at the 1999 WJC in Winnipeg. The players responded to the positive approach of coach Jan Filc, a bright new face, and Jan Lasak provided outstanding goaltending, including a 0-0 tie against Canada.
Last year the Slovaks shut out the Czechs 1-0 and tied Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S., yet finished in eighth place. That's how tough this tournament is.
The Slovaks will not have Marek Svatos, who scored seven goals in seven games to tie for the tournament lead with Canada's Mike Cammalleri last season. Svatos, who later helped the Kootenay Ice win the Memorial Cup, is ineligible this year due to his age.
However, Slovakia will have Igor Pohanka, who contributed five assists in seven games last season and led the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League in scoring with 25 goals and 68 points in 58 games.
Slovakia will dearly miss two experienced Ontario Hockey League goaltenders in Peter Budaj of St. Mike's and Peter Hamerlik of Kingston, who are also ineligible to play. Jan Chovan, another OHL'er, who will likely will get the starting job, played 10 regular season games in 2001-2002 for the London Knights, and 20 games with the Belleville Bulls.
Stefan Schauer is the only returning defender, but Tomas Slovak of the WHL's Kelowna Rockets and Milan Jurcina, a 2001 draft pick of the Boston Bruins should shore up the blueline. In effect, Jurcina will be playing on home ice. He produced 20 points in 61 games with the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads last season.
Richard Stehlik, a 6-5, 230-pound defender with a powerful shot, should also cause opposing netminders some worry. Stehlik was the leading Slovak scorer at the World Under-18 Championship with three goals and six points in eight games.
Jozef Fruhauf takes over the coaching reins from Julius Supler, who also was behind the bench for Slovakia at the 1994 Olympics in Norway. Fruhaulf served as General Manager last season.
Slovakia operates special hockey schools where promising prospects can practise during the school day and get away for three or four days for tournaments during the school year. Still the country has fewer than 15,000 registered players, compared to more than 500,000 for Canada. And there are only 40 indoor ice rinks in the country.