The Czechs will try to improve on last year’s third-place finish and regain the championship form they showed at the beginning of the millennium. The Central European hockey nation won back-to-back gold medals in 2000 and 2001, but then disappeared from the medal podium until capturing the bronze in North Dakota in 2005.
This year, the Czechs are in Group B, going up against Latvia, Sweden, Slovakia, and Russia in Kamloops and Kelowna in the Round Robin. The team has a young defensive corps, but its goaltending should be outstanding and there’s no lack of offensive forwards. The skilled Czechs, who beat the Americans 3-2 in overtime in last year’s bronze medal game, will try to build on that positive experience.
Coaching: Head Coach Radim Rulik takes over from Alois Hadamczik, who brought the Czechs their bronze hardware last year. Rulik has worked in the Czech Extraleague and knows what it takes to win at the international junior level, as he was part of the coaching staff when the Czechs won gold in 2000. Assisting him will be Radomir Danek, who was Rulik’s coaching colleague in 2000, and Jan Votruba, who is no stranger to international competition either, having served as the head coach of the Chinese National Women’s Ice Hockey team in 2004.
Goal: The Czech Republic’s last line of defence is one of the strongest in the tournament. Marek Schwarz will be playing in his third IIHF World Junior Championship. In 2004, he was a first round NHL draft pick of the St. Louis Blues and in last year’s WJC, Schwarz was part of the All-Star team and named the Top Goaltender in Grand Forks.
Defence: There will be a few returning defencemen from last year’s team, including Ladislav Smid, who’ll also be playing in his third IIHF World Junior Championship. The Portland Pirates blueliner, currently in his rookie season with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate, has a big frame but can skate pretty well, which will allow him to join the rush or get out of trouble as the situation demands. Smid’s experience should help guide newcomers like Jakub Kindl and David Ruzicka. Kindl was drafted 19th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 2005 and is a big man who can handle the puck. Ruzicka, 17, is rated the 12th-highest prospect for 2006.
Forward: Team Czech Republic is blessed with plenty of fire power up front. At the tender age of 17, Michael Frolik is a key returning veteran. He is an excellent skater with great game awareness and could be a Top Five NHL draft pick for 2006. Another player to watch is Martin Hanzal, who was drafted 17th overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005. His size is above average, and he’s a smooth puck handler with great hand-eye coordination who can finish scoring chances. Petr Kalus has emerged as an offensive leader in his rookie season with the WHL’s Regina Pats, and the 18-year-old center from Ostrava could make a splash in this tournament.
Projected Results: With the majority of Team Czech Republic’s roster already drafted into the NHL, there is definitely no shortage of talent. And while much attention may be focused on higher-profile teams like Canada, Russia, or the United States, the Czechs could wind up on the medal podium come January 5. But only time will tell what colour of medal, if any, they will have hanging around their necks.