TORONTO — In the wake of a disheartening 3-1 loss to upstart Slovenia at the Sochi Olympics, Team Slovakia goaltender Jaroslav Halak stood in the mixed zone at Bolshoy Arena and tried to explain how a once-elite national program had fallen so far. He sounded defeated, a man resigned to the fact that his country was falling off the hockey map.
“It’s players,” Halak said. “We had different players. Everybody was younger. Everybody’s four years older right now, and time is catching up with everybody. You look at our roster four years ago, we had really good hockey players in their primes. It’s hard to replace them. We have nobody young coming up. It’s really hard to replace them and, I mean, it is what it is. We have to play with what we have.”
That was more than two years ago. And it’s only gotten worse for Slovakia. Only 12 Slovaks played in the NHL last season, and only seven played at least 40 games. And with the World Cup of Hockey starting Saturday in Toronto, there is no Team Slovakia, just six Slovaks lumped into Team Europe, along with seven other nationalities. Slovakia, which lost in the bronze-medal game in the 2010 Olympics, can’t even field a team that can compete with the likes of Sweden, Finland, Russia, Canada, the Czech Republic, and the United States.
And the cruel irony is the fall of communism might have hastened Slovakia’s hockey downfall.
“We were [among] the last guys during the communist times, when we basically almost everything for free,” Marian Hossa said. “The parents didn’t have to pay big money like they parents do these days. There was big competition because everybody could play and come play and only the best can go further. Right now, there’s not enough kids because it costs so much money for the parents. It comes down to economics. I think that’s why there’s a big hole.”
Los Angeles Kings winger Marian Gaborik agreed with his countryman, but expressed hope that a new regime at the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation can resurrect the national program.
“It starts with youth,” Gaborik said. “Every country around us had their [foot] on the gas, and we kind of slowed down the process a little bit. We let it slip away, in terms of progressing the game and learning the game and having coaches learn the different process and patterns of the game that countries around us are working on. I think that’s the problem, and I think with a new president and a new staff and front office, it should turn around. … Money’s very important in this situation, to fund hockey, and sometimes the money didn’t go where it should be going to. Now, hopefully the times will be better.”
Hossa is trying to do his part, with his charity. Hoss Heroes tries to make hockey more accessible to Slovak kids. But even some free-equipment programs have fallen short of Hossa’s hopes, which too few families taking advantage.
“I was surprised [by] that,” Hossa said. “I don’t know if they didn’t get the message, or parents basically decided it’s still going to be too expensive for them, even when they get free equipment. It’s not easy back home, and people don’t make enough money to try to support kids to play hockey. It’s really hard.”
Hossa and Gaborik both tried to put a positive spin on the Team Europe idea, saying that once the puck drops, everyone will play hard regardless. But Hossa is 37. Zdeno Chara is 39. Gaborik is 34. Halak is 31. Andrej Sekera is 30. Of the six Slovaks on Team Europe, only Tomas Tatar (25) has his best years ahead of him. For Slovakia, it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. If it gets better at all.
“That’s the question,” Hossa said. “I know we’ve got guys around 17 for the next draft. There’s some potential there. Between now and then, I think there’s a hole and some questions. This generation, us — Chara, Gaborik — are going to finish one day. What’s going to happen then? That’s a big question mark.”