Slovakia limps into World Cup

Updated: September 1, 2004, 7:06 PM ET
By Chris Stevenson | Special to ESPN.com

The Slovakian national team sweater is a nice red, white and blue number with a striking logo incorporating a white cross design.

Right now, it should be a red cross.

Marian Hossa
Marian Hossa, of the Ottawa Senators, is one of Slovakia's many talented forwards.
The Slovakians have been ravaged by injuries since their World Cup training camp started, the latest to veteran Peter Bondra, who had his thumb broken during what should have been an uplifting 2-2 tie with Canada in a pre-tournament game last weekend.

Bondra now joins big center Michal Handzus (torn biceps muscle) and defenseman Ivan Majesky (broken finger) on the outside looking in for the World Cup. Handzus was injured during an exhibition game before the Slovakians left Europe, and Majesky was hurt in practice in Ottawa, where the Slovakians have been training leading into their opener Wednesday against Canada.

The losses of two top forwards and arguably their second-best defenseman after big Zdeno Chara make things much more difficult for a Slovakian team that already had it tough in a strong North American pool with Canada, the USA and Russia.

They were already without high-scoring star Ziggy Palffy, still recovering from shoulder surgery, and Richard Zednik of the Montreal Canadiens is with the team but still isn't ready to play as he comes back from hernia surgery.

"It's on my mind almost every day, every minute," said Slovakian general manager Peter Stastny, "trying to find a reason, to make some sense of it. It takes years for this to happen to one team, and it's happened to us in a couple of weeks. Two or three fractures, a ruptured muscle; it's very weird. They are not hockey injuries. You expect a pulled groin. Two fractures? We've had so much bad luck in a short period of time."

Stastny said he still believes there is enough character and talent in the Slovakian dressing room to make them a contender in their pool.

"This is the first year we have had a dilemma when it comes to picking our team," said the Slovakian hockey legend. "At one time, anybody in the NHL could play on our team. Now we have over 30 players. Just because you're in the NHL doesn't mean you fit our team."

The depth of Slovakian hockey has been improving since it separated from the old Czechoslovakia in 1993. It has the fewest registered players of any country in the tournament (12,375) out of its population of just over 5 million.

Canada, by comparison, has a population of 32.2 million and 574,125 registered players. The USA? A population of 290 million and 485,017 registered players.

"It is a bit of a paradox," Stastny said. "The size of your base affects the height of the peak, but we have one of the smallest bases and one of the highest peaks. But when you lose one significant player, you feel it, and we've lost four."

After just six years of independence, the Slovaks became a world-class hockey country in 1999 when they won bronze in both the World Junior Championships and the World Under-18 championship. A year later, they won silver at the World Championships.

After having to try to qualify for the 2002 Olympics without their best players, they won gold at the 2002 World Championships.

Team Canada director of player personnel Steve Tambellini isn't buying the "Slovakia is a darkhorse" line some people are selling.

"How can they be a darkhorse when they have as much firepower as anybody?" he asked. "Any goalie can get hot. How can you not think they can be a contender?"

"We kind of like being the underdog," said winger Marian Hossa of the Ottawa Senators. "We know we have great forwards. If we play a patient game and play well defensively, we might make some surprises."

We kind of like being the underdog. We know we have great forwards. If we play a patient game and play well defensively, we might make some surprises.
Slovakian forward Marian Hossa
The Slovaks might be as offensively talented as any team in the tournament with forwards such as Hossa, Miro Satan of the Buffalo Sabres, Pavol Demitra of the St. Louis Blues, Marian Gaborik of the Minnesota Wild and Jozef Stumpel of the Los Angeles Kings.

They'll also get good minutes from Ladislav Nagy of the Phoenix Coyotes, Vladimir Orszagh of the Nashville Predators and Branko Radivojevic and Radovan Somik of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Chara, the Norris Trophy runner-up as top defenseman, is clearly the best defender on a blue line that is below average in this tournament. Chara will be asked to carry a big load.

Goaltending was the big issue for the Slovaks coming into this World Cup, at least as far as North American observers were concerned. But the Slovakians have gotten some world-class goaltending from Jan Lasak, who backed them to the gold in 2002 and the silver in 2000. Slovakia lost to Canada in the semifinals last spring at the World Championships on a controversial goal.

A draft pick of the Predators, Lasak, 25, is a former East Coast Hockey League rookie of the year (2000), but after playing just six NHL games over three years, he played last season in Russia.

"To be honest, it doesn't matter how many games you've played," he said. "If you feel good, you can go out in your first game and be the first star."

Lasak is being pushed by Rastislav Stana, 24, his backup at the World Championships the last three years, who turned in a strong effort in the tie with Canada. Stana spent most of last year with Portland of the American Hockey League and went 1-2 with a 3.13 goals-against average in six games with the Washington Capitals. He got his win in his first NHL start, a victory over the Detroit Red Wings in which he stopped 38 of 39 shots.

"We don't have big names, so we have to make names for ourselves," Stana said.

The Slovakians, clearly, are good at making the most out of what they've got. They face that challenge again Wednesday in Montreal.

Chris Stevenson covers the NHL for the Ottawa Sun and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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