Team Slovakia could, if they play their cards right, walk away from Beijing 2022 with a medal in men’s ice hockey. With NHL players out of the picture, the Central European nation’s assortment of talent could shock their rivals next month – and it would be historic if they did, as they’ve never stood on the podium before.
Although Slovakia has enjoyed less success on the international stage than their Czech rivals, they will head into this year’s Winter Olympics with an intriguing mix of youthful exuberance and veteran wisdom in their ranks. They came tantalizingly close to medalling in men’s hockey for the first time at Vancouver 2010, losing 5-3 to Finland in the bronze-medal game. Will 2022 be Slovakia’s year?
Slovakia’s Rich Hockey History:
Slovakia, if players born pre-independence are counted, has produced 89 NHLers, including Hall of Fame inductees Peter Šťastný, Marián Hossa, and Stan Mikita. Of the nation’s current crop of major league talent, towering defenceman Zdeno Chára is the most recognizable, with Andrej Sekera, Tomáš Tatar, and Jaroslav Halák following closely behind.
The Slovak Extraliga was founded in 1993, splitting from the Czechoslovak Extraliga following the nation’s independence. In its modern format, the Slovakian top-flight features 12 teams that contest a 50-game regular season. The league’s top six clubs qualify automatically for the playoffs, with sides ranked 7-10 contesting a best-of-five play-in round. Once the play-in series are completed, Slovakia’s best-of-seven playoffs begin.
Meanwhile, the league’s lowest-ranked side enters a best-of-seven playout series versus the regular-season champion from the second division. The winning club secures its place in the Extraliga for the following campaign.
HC Kosice is Slovakia’s most decorated club, with eight national championships, two Czechoslovakian titles, and one IIHF Continental Cup to their name. Founded in 1921, Peter Bondra and Erik Černák are among Oceliari’s noted alumni. Their last title came in 2014-15.
HC Slovan Bratislava, nicknamed the Sky Blues, has also won eight Slovakian championships and was founded 101 years ago. They did, however, spend seven seasons in the KHL, twice losing in the conference quarterfinals.
Team Slovakia enter this year’s Olympic Games ranked ninth in the world, securing their place at the tournament by winning a qualification round back in 2021. They’ve competed at every Olympic tournament since splitting from Czechoslovakia, upsetting Russia in the group stage four years ago.
In addition to their fourth-placed finish in Vancouver, Team Slovakia has also enjoyed top-flight success at the Men’s World Championships. They were crowned champions in 2002, beating Russia in the gold-medal game, and finished third a year later. The Slovaks have twice finished second at the Worlds, in 2000 and 2012.
Fun Facts About Team Slovakia & Its Players
- Team Slovakia has twice won bronze at the World Junior Championship (1995, 2015).
- Miroslav Šatan is Slovakia’s most-capped player at the senior level, he appeared 183 times for his country over his 23-year professional career.
- Šatan is also Team Slovakia’s top goal-scorer, with 86 strikes to his name.
- Team Slovakia head coach Craig Ramsay has a 13-13-3 record since taking charge in 2017.
- Team Slovakia has an unbeaten record against ten nations, including Great Britain, Japan, and Ukraine.
- The biggest win in Slovak history came in the nation’s first World Championship after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. They defeated Bulgaria 20-0 en route to winning promotion from the third division.
Where Will Slovakia’s Players Come From?
Make no mistake, Slovakia is a nation with a solid reputation for cultivating impressive hockey players – a reputation it absolutely deserves. However, like the rest of the field in Beijing, the Slovaks will be hoping to rise above their challenges with the help of players based mainly in Europe.
As a result, players competing in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) will serve as the bedrock of Slovakia’s Olympic roster, with talent from the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), Finish Liiga, Czech Extraliga, Germany’s DEL, and the Swiss National League also likely to play an important role. Slovakia’s Extraliga is another valuable pool of ability that head coach Craig Ramsay will draw upon, with players based elsewhere considered outside bets to make the final roster.
However, Slovakia’s biggest assets heading into the Beijing Games are the elite prospects at Ramsay’s disposal. Right-handed defenceman Šimon Nemec is widely regarded as a top-ten prospect ahead of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, with left-wingers, Juraj Slafkovský and Filip Mešár also slated to be selected early in the first round.
Of Slovakia’s three highly-touted draft-eligible prospects, Nemec is the standout figure. The 17-year-old is a phenomenal play driver from the blueline and impressed during the curtailed 2022 World Junior Championship. He’s already a key player for HK Nitra in the Slovakian Extraliga, registering 16 assists in his first 25 appearances of 2021-22.
Mešár was also impressive at the World Juniors. He’s a problem-solving forward who moves the puck tidily and has a high hockey IQ. The 18-year-old has five goals and four assists in 20 appearances in Slovakia’s top-flight this year. He plays for his boyhood club, HK Poprad.
Slafkovský is an altogether different proposition. At 6-foot-4, the 17-year-old has silky hands and is a power forward who can play on either wing. He shoots with his left and, if named on Slovakia’s Olympic roster, will be hoping to improve his draft stock following an underwhelming start to 2021-22.
Prospects aside, Team Slovakia will feature a contingent of veterans with who NHL fans will be familiar. 29-year-old blueliner Martin Marinčin returned to Europe last summer, rising to prominence in Czechia in wake of his impressive performances for HC Ocelari Trinec. Former Boston Bruin Peter Cehlárik will also play a key role; he’s notched 25 points in 39 KHL appearances for Avangard Omsk this term and put up similarly impressive numbers in the SHL in 2020-21.
On the other hand, Libor Hudáček, Ramsay’s likely choice at first-line centre, has spent his entire career in Europe. Although he hasn’t been a prolific scorer since leaving the Czech Extraliga, the 31-year-old knows his way around the international circuit, with six World Championship tournament appearances on his CV.
Will 2022 Be Team Slovakia’s Year?
Team Germany made an unexpected run to the gold-medal game at Pyeongchang 2018, rising above Canada and the United States to provide Russia, the eventual champions, a serious title challenge. The Germans arrived at the tournament unfancied, relied on a core of DEL players, but went on to shock the hockey world.
Although it’s unlikely that Team Slovakia will repeat Germany’s heroics this time out, Ramsay’s squad has an opportunity to create new history. Slovakia was just one period away from winning bronze at Vancouver 2012, a run to the quarter-finals should be the least expected of them this time out.
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Luke is an award-winning freelance sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.