Friday, May 6, 2011

The Gentle Rivalry

by Risto Pakarinen

BRATISLAVA – The Czechs and the Slovaks are truly like brothers: They’re same, but different. They share a long history, and they understand each other, even if they don’t speak the same language. After decades of living side by side, they’ve been on their own like this for almost 20 years. The differences may be subtle sometimes, but they’re there.

For example, the non-violent revolution that overthrew the communist government of Czechoslovakia, is called the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic. In Slovakia, the same event is called the Gentle Revolution. The name in Czech is sametová revoluce, while in Slovak it’s called nežná revolúcia.

For the players here, though, Czechoslovakia is almost ancient history, as 39-year-old Jaromír Jágr is the only player on the Czech team who represented Czechoslovakia, having played in one World U20 Championship, one World Championship, and the 1991 Canada Cup under the old flag (which is, for the Czechs, also the same as the new flag).

Slovakia’s Jozef Stümpel, too, played for Czechoslovakia in the 1991 World U20 Championship, but if there’s one player who might have special butterflies in his stomach tonight, it must be Pavol Demitra. Born in Dubnica nad Vahom, some 150 kilometres north of Bratislava, the now 36-year-old centre skates to the ice as Slovakia’s popular captain.

Demitra was also on the last team Czechoslovakia ever iced. As the two countries separated on January 1, 1993, Demitra and his Czechoslovak teammates were in the middle of a World U20 Championship in Gävle, Sweden.

"That was very tough (for us) because at that time, the group we had was very tight. I remember after the New Year, when we’d won a couple of games, and they didn’t play our national song anymore. That was very weird," Demitra tells

"I remember that after we won the bronze medal, everybody sang the Czechoslovak national anthem all together (for the last time), and that was very special," he says.

In the final standings, the team was called "Czech/Slovak Republics". The Czechs went on to host the next year’s tournament, having inherited the Czech Republic’s spot in the top division, but Slovakia quickly returned to the top as well after the new country’s hockey body had joined the IIHF.

The 2011 teams are practically the first generation to have played their entire careers under Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The rivalry is definitely there, it’s on, but it seems to lack the animosity that some other sports rivalries have.

"It’s a hockey game just like any other. The Czechs get along with Slovaks very well, so there’s no problem from our side to play them, and not feel any different," says the Czech Republic’s coach Alois Hadamczik, who’s been behind the bench in games against Slovakia before, most notably in the 2006 Olympics quarter-final, which the Czechs won 3-1.

The only person who’s ever represented Czechoslovakia, besides Jágr, may be the team doctor, jokes Hadamczik.

"There will probably be bigger tensions in the stands than on the ice," he says.

In the Czechs previous games in the tournament, the crowd has been fully behind them, cheering them on, and creating an unforgettable atmosphere for the game.

"The atmosphere is fantastic. It's nice to have that advantage. For me, playing here is like being at home. Well, my home is just an hour from here. You can say that we get the advantages of being at home, but not the pressure of playing at home," says Czech forward Martin Havlát.

Tonight, the crowd will most certainly be behind the Slovaks, who are truly at home. The Czechs are only almost at home.

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