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Slovakia limps into World Cup

9/1/2004

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.

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."

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.