WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- They are the reigning world and
Olympic champions, led by arguably the sport's best player in
goalie Dominik Hasek, and driven by a deep-rooted determination to
retain their cherished status as the best in the game.
Yet as the Czech Republic's gold medal hockey team arrives in
Salt Lake City this week, it will find most of the talk centering
not on their chances of repeating, but on the favored-as-always
Canadians, the home-ice Americans and the dangerous Russians.
It's almost as if the Czechs must do it all over again to prove
they aren't one-Olympic wonders, that their 1998 victory in Nagano
wasn't an anomaly on ice.
Winning again is something they are certain they can do, too.
Just as in Nagano, they intend to play their game, put aside their
NHL loyalties to embrace season-long opponents as teammates -- and
give their countrymen another reason to stay up until the middle of
the night and rejoice.
"I'm very, very strong, very positive going to the tournament
because we have lots of players who play on winning teams, who can
play on the big ice," said forward Robert Reichel, one of those
'98 stars. "They just want to win one more time."
But the Czechs understand it will be harder this time away from
the neutral ice of Nagano, where they quickly became fan favorites.
They also won't have the surprise factor going for them inside Salt
Lake City's two relatively small rinks, which will be spilling over
with noisy, banner-waving Americans and Canadians who don't really
care that nearly the entire Czech team earns its living playing
professionally in North America.
"It will be more difficult this time," said Hasek, who almost
single-handedly willed the Czechs to victory in 1998. "The
Americans are at home, the Canadians are almost home, and they have
prepared like never before."
The Czechs could be even stronger than they were in 1998, when
there were 40-plus of them in the NHL; now there are more than 70.
They have added star forwards Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, who
have won the Stanley Cup.
Hasek, at age 37, seemingly has lost nothing from his game since
he allowed an average of less than a goal per game in Nagano,
stopping all five Canadian shooters during a memorable semifinal
shootout. Given a lead, the Czechs can play the suffocating neutral
zone trap in front of Hasek better than any team in the world.
But there also are negatives that complicate the Czech
Republic's chances of winning.
Jaromir Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champion and the Czechs'
second biggest star, has often seemed lost and disconcerted since
being traded from Pittsburgh to Washington, no longer the scorer
and playmaker he was as recently as last season. The Czech
defensemen are not as physical or as talented as the Canadians or
Americans, and their forwards -- Jagr most of all -- are prone to
exasperating bouts of inconsistency.
And in the Olympics, with low-scoring games played at a much
faster pace than in the NHL, one fluke goal or one skittish puck
off a skate blade can rapidly turn victory into defeat. Given the
compressed schedule, Russia's Nikolai Khabibulin or Mike Richter of
the U.S. could just as easily be the hot goaltender of these games
that Hasek was in Nagano.
"The Olympics are like the seventh game in the Stanley Cup
finals each and every night out, and even the pros understand
that," said Herb Brooks, who returns as the United States coach.
"Nobody is exempt from being upset."