The Czech Republic and Slovakia will not meet in round robin play at the 2003 IIHF World U20 Championship. The two countries are separated by pools, the Czechs in Group A and the Slovaks in Group B. This separation is not unfamiliar to the two countries and its players.
Once a single nation, Czechoslovakia was the only country to have a winning record against Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championship. In 1992, after several years of political and economic instability within the country, Slovakia declared itself a sovereign state and thus began the fall of Czechoslovakia.
Now two individual countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have become hockey rivals. Players who once played together under the same flag are now on separate teams and hearing different national anthems.
Slovakia has clawed its way up the ranks from Pool C into Pool A. After the fall of the nation, the Slovaks had their work cut out for them. It was deemed that most of the players of the former Czechoslovakia were from the Czech region. The IIHF ruled that the Czech Republic should therefore stay in Pool A and the newly formed Slovakia would be put in Pool C.
By 1996 the Slovaks proved that they were ‘a force to be reckoned with’ and qualified for that year’s World Junior Hockey Championship. By the 1999 World Junior Tournament, they had proved themselves as a prominent team by winning the Bronze medal. Their talent pool is impressive considering that the country only has 15,000 registered hockey players as compared to Canada’s 560,000, and only 40 operational arenas.
In 2002, Slovakia shut out the Czech Republic 1-0. They also tied Switzerland, Sweden and the United States only to finish eighth in the tournament. The Czech Republic finished seventh last year after winning two consecutive gold medals in 20.
Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia are proud of their individual rosters which include many NHL draftees. As the quest for gold heats up in Halifax, Slovakia may have a slight advantage over their rivals as far as a comfort level is concerned. The Halifax Metro Centre is home to the Halifax Mooseheads, a QMJHL team. Five of Slovakia’s players are currently playing in the QMJHL and play in the competition arena several times during their seasons. For Milan Jucina, the Metro Centre is his home arena as he is a player for the Halifax QMJHL team. Perhaps this familiarity will give the Slovak’s a slight edge over the rival Czech’s who have only one player from the league.
This year, both teams are looking to improve on their disappointing finishes in 2002. They will meet head to head in pre tournament competition and not again until a possible meeting after the round robin portion of the tournament is complete. The rivalry is relatively new but intense considering the short period of time since the split of the former Czechoslovakia. Taking the history of the two counties into consideration it is sure to be a rivalry that will last for years to come.