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Canada - Slovakia GDT: Dangerfield

Slovakia can't get no respect. Always the smaller partner in the first, and enduring, European hockey power that was Czechoslovakia, after the Velvet Revolution it seemed all the hockey respect that both peoples earned over the decades accrued solely to the Czech Republic. Slovakia might as well have been Danny DeVito in "Twins", cast out into the C Pool of the world rankings and forced to win their way up. Which of course, they did as quickly as possible, ascending rapidly to the A Pool and an enduring place among the top 8 hockey nations in the world. Even the bottom of the top 8 is an upset away from semi-finals, or three upsets away from taking the whole tournament, as the Slovaks themselves proved in the epic 2002 World Championships.

Given any kind of a fair fighting chance, the tiny nation of ~5 million has performed brilliantly at the Winter Olympics over the past two decades. They weren't rated high enough to get an invitation to Albertville 1992 - I don't remember the details but remember feeling it was an injustice bordering on a slight - but by Lillehammer 1994 the Slovaks were front and centre. They posted a 3-0-2 record in the round robin and won their pool on the strength of ties against Sweden and USA and a 3-1 win over Canada, until today the only Olympic meeting between independent Slovakia and the North American hockey superpower. Ever unlucky, the Slovaks were rewarded with a crossover game against Russia who had somehow lost a three-way tiebreaker despite having the best goal differential, and been placed fourth on the other side. In the QF Russia barely prevailed, beating Slovakia 3-2 in overtime, and that was that.  

The Slovaks' "luck" was to become a whole lot worse.

In 1998 NHL players were invited to the five-ring circus, and a whole lot of concessions were made to benefit pretty much anybody but Slovakia. A 14-team tournament was envisioned, in which an opening round involving 8 "minnows" was played in the opening days of the Olympics while the NHL was still playing games. Just the top country from each four-team group made it through to the second round, where they would be joined by the six favoured hockey powers who had a direct bye to the second round. Slovakia, who as I recall was seventh ranked in the world in both 1998 and 2002, were thrown to the minnows and had to qualify their way in. Moreover, they had to do so without benefit of their numerous great NHL players who couldn't be released "early" from their club teams. Even worse, they had to keep roster spots available for a few of those guys so ran with a short bench in the qualifying round. It was a total gang bang, about the worst treatment I can recall any country ever getting on the international hockey stage.  

In Nagano 1998 the star-less Slovaks lost out to Kazakhstan in their qualifying group. Four years later, the broken system still unattended, the Slovaks lost their opener to group winner Germany and by the time their NHL players arrived in Salt Lake City they had already been eliminated from advancing to the medal round. Each time the tournament suffered for the loss of such stars as Peter Bondra, Ziggy Palffy, Miro Satan for reasons which were as avoidable as they were unfair.

Finally in 2006 the system was fixed where 12 teams were invited and the tourney started for all of them at the same time. Slovakia again roared through its group undefeated and this time untied, recording wins over Russia, Sweden and USA along the way. As in 1994 they got a bad draw in the crossover, and lost a tense quarterfinal against their former mates from the Czech Republic. Again they had a great Olympics but lost the wrongest possible game.

Here they are again in 2010, and once again people seem surprised by this team. This time they picked a better game to lose, dropping their opener to their nemesis from the Czech Republic, but bounced back to win a shootout thriller over medal favourite Russia to finish a solid third in Group "B for Brutal". They then rolled to a pair of tight 4-3 wins in sudden death games, the first against Norway, the second over another medal favourite, Sweden.

Finally the Slovaks have made their way through the dreaded quarterfinal, and now have two shots to win a medal. Despite the "upset" nature of the Sweden victory, is there a soul out there that thinks they haven't Earned this opportunity? More power to' em, I say.

Except tonight. The Slovaks are my favourite neutrals, but it's impossible for me to stay neutral when Canada is involved. At first blush the game appears to be a mismatch, but so did the Slovakia-Russia and Slovakia-Sweden games, didn't they?

Befitting a tiny nation, the Slovaks are dangerously short of depth, but their top end players can compete with anybody. Up front Peter Bondra's squad is led by NHL stars Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa, with crafty vets like Satan, Palffy and Pavol Demitra showing that they can still dial it up. On the blue the towering Zdeno Chara and the stumpy Lubomir Visnovsky provide a truly outstanding range of talents, while between the pipes Jaroslav Halak continues his emergence into the upper echelon of goalies. Lots of recognizable names sprinkled elsewhere through the lineup, but most of them are a cut below the guys named here, which is to say at least a cut below the "bottom of the roster" players on Team Canada. The hosts need to be particularly ungracious while the big guys are catching their breath, but they're likely going to need to bring their A game for the whole 60 minutes. Slovakia has proven twice now in Vancouver that they are ready, able and more than willing to take out a medal favourite, and will be gunning for the hat trick tonight.

* * *

Slovakia's Olympic hockey record vs. the "Big Six":

v. Sweden: 2-0-1, +11/-7
v. Russia: 2-1-0, +9/-7
v. USA: 1-0-1, +5/-4
v. Czech*: 0-2-0, +2/-6
v. Finland: 0-0-0
v. Canada: 1-0-0, +3/-1
Overall: 6-3-2, +30/-25

(* does not include the near-meaningless fifth place game in 1994, won by the Czechs 7-1)

* * *

Prehistoric notes: To practice my own preaching about giving Slovakia its due respect, I should do the same for them as I did for Russia and Germany and review their earlier history before the geopolitical map changed with the fall of the Wall. Just as the Iron Curtain-era Russians had help from Latvians, Belarussians and Kazakhs, the Slovaks of that period had a little :) help from the Czechs. In fact the combined nation put in an appearance at the very first Olympic hockey tournament and has a long history of playing Canada:

1920: Canada 15, Czechoslovakia 0
1924: Canada 30, Czechoslovakia 0
1936: Canada 7, Czechoslovakia 0
1948: Canada 0, Czechoslovakia 0
1952: Canada 4, Czechoslovakia 1
1956: Canada 6, Czechoslovakia 3
1960: Canada 4, Czechoslovakia 0
1964: Canada 1, Czechoslovakia 3
1968: Canada 3, Czechoslovakia 2
1980: Canada 1, Czechoslovakia 6 (5th place game)
1984: Canada 0, Czechoslovakia 4
1988: Canada 6, Czechoslovakia 3

1994: Canada 1, Slovakia 3

After early domination by Canada (think: Canada v. Slovakia in modern women's hockey), Czechoslovakia emerged quickly as a post-war hockey power, a long-forgotten chapter of the game's history that ended very badly indeed. Andrew Podnieks puts it this way in his coffee table book Canada's Olympic Hockey History 1920-2010:

[St. Moritz 1948]: The Olympic tournament featured a simple  nine-team, eight-game round robin format, each nation playing every other once. It was really the Czechoslovakians who provided the only competition for Canada. ... It was the game of Feburary 6 that provided the biggest surprise as the Czechs held Canada to a 0-0 tie. While Murray Dowey was his usual stellar self in the Canadian goal, he was equalled at the other end by Bohumil Modry who stopped every shot he faced.

The Czechs played flawlessly and finished tied for first place with Canada, each winning seven games and tying their mutual meeting. Canada received superior placement because of goals ratio (goals scored divided by goals allowed). Canada scored 69 times and allowed only 5 goals while the Czechs scored 80 and allowed 18. The [RCAF] Flyers may have won gold, but the Czechs won many hearts and made clear they were the first European nation to emerge as a challenger to North American hockey. Indeed, they won the previous year's World Championship (when Canada didn't attend) and won again in 1949 when Canada did compete.

Podnieks unfortunately falls into the trap of abbreviating "Czechoslovaks" to "Czechs". I honestly don't know how many of that 1948 Czechoslovakian Olympic team were of Slovak extraction; perhaps a person more familiar with that part of the world can derive that from the linked list. But it sounds like that silver medal was earned on merit, decided by tie-breaker and bracketed as it was by those two World Gold.

Podnieks picks up the sad story:

[Oslo 1952] Had history been different, this might have been a great game, but the Czech government had destroyed a great team in the making. The Czechs won World Championship gold in 1947 and '49 and finished second to Canada at the 1948 Olympics, but just before the 1950 World Championship in London, England, the entire team was arrested and charged with treason. The players were accused of planning to defect en masse, a ridiculous charge, and in the ensuing weeks they were sentenced to jail terms ranging from several months to several years. A national program on the verge of greatness was destroyed forever [sic].

More on this sorry episode can be found in this entry on Bohumil Modry at the outstanding site Joe Pelletier's Greatest Hockey Legends.