Slegr: 'This is his group'
TORONTO -- Five days before the start of training camp for the World Cup of Hockey, old friends and neighbors Martin Rucinsky and Ivan Hlinka got together to chat about the coming tournament.
"He couldn't wait. He couldn't wait to be around the dressing room," Rucinsky recalled.
For North American hockey fans, Hlinka may be familiar for his brief NHL career (1981-83) and his even shorter tenure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2000-01. But in the Czech Republic Hlinka enjoyed a position of tremendous respect, even reverence.
"He was a big part of Czech hockey. He was a huge part of Czech hockey," said defenseman Jiri Slegr. "There's a legend who died. It's us who has to follow his path and kind of believe we are a good hockey country."
Added Robert Reichel: "He was like some idol for us."
Imagine that Herb Brooks had passed away on the eve of the Olympics or this World Cup of Hockey and one gets a sense of the feeling of loss that permeates the Czech dressing room. Hlinka was more than a coach to many of the players, he was an icon, a role model, a leader, even a father. Three members of the Czech team that will take on Canada in a semifinal match Saturday -- Slegr, Rucinsky and Reichel -- grew up in Hlinka's shadow, playing in his backyard, going to school with his son in Litvinov, northeast of Prague near the German border.
"His son is the same age as me. Same school. Same class. Everything," said Slegr. "We played hockey together so I was a lot in his backyard playing with him. I know Ivan for so many years. He was our hockey dad."
Not only was Hlinka instrumental in helping Rucinsky forge a hockey career, he was an advisor and friend when it came to personal matters.
"I was devastated to hear what happened," Rucinsky said.
"For us it was like we lost a dad," added Reichel who joined the Czech elite league as a 16-year-old under Hlinka's tutelage.
It was Hlinka's wish that Reichel be named team captain, a wish that has been honored in Hlinka's absence.
"I would rather have him on the bench and give the 'C' to somebody else," Reichel said.
Hlinka played in 11 World Championships and won two Olympic medals as a player. But it was as a coach that he would enjoy his greatest success by leading his country to its finest hockey moment.
He began coaching shortly after his playing career ended and served as national team coach from 1991-94, winning a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics. He returned to the team in 1997 setting the Czech's remarkable run to a gold medal at the 1998 Nagano games, the first time NHL players were invited to take part in the tournament. More than a million people crowded into downtown Prague to welcome home the victorious Czechs.
A year later, Hlinka was named an assistant coach in Pittsburg. The following season he joined Finnish-born Alpo Suhonen of the Chicago Blackhawks as the first two European head coaches in the NHL. After he was fired early in the 2001-02 season, Hlinka went on to coach in the Russian elite league. After a short hiatus, he returned to the national program following the 2004 World Championships.
"He gave us everything and we give him everything back when we have the chance. That's probably why he was so successful as a coach," Slegr said. "All of these players who grew up with him, any time they play for him they give everything they've got. It was a big loss for us. Huge loss. You cannot bring that back. You can just continue."
Emotion is such a crucial element to hockey, especially at this level where the world's best has gathered. The Czechs have not surprisingly, struggled to harness their emotion, their grief. They want to play to honor Hlinka but focus has been difficult to come by. Matters have been further complicated by the fact that new head coach Vladimir Ruzicka was a close friend and former teammate, and accepted the post only reluctantly.
"It was a tragedy and it happened two days before training camp with players Ivan picked not me," Ruzicka said.
The former NHLer and longtime Czech national player agonized over the decision to coach the squad.
"I decided quite a long time. I always make very quick decisions but it was very tough to decide. My head told me not to do it but my heart told me to do it," Ruzicka said.
Surprisingly flat, the Czechs were humbled by Finland in their first tournament game and then quickly fell behind Sweden in their second.
"No emotion, nothing," Rucinsky recalled. "We were just a dead team."
Players have chafed under Ruzicka's style, which had prominent players like Tomas Kaberle and Milan Hejduk rolled in and out of the lineup during the preliminary round. But in the third period against the Swedes, the Czechs exploded, scoring three times. Although they lost 4-3, a corner had been turned.
"We just said, forget about scoring and just win the period and see what happens. We needed something to build on," Rucinsky said.
They whipped Germany 7-2 and then humbled heavily-favored Sweden 6-1 in the quarterfinals. The discipline that had been lacking early on was restored. Now, having arrived in Toronto for the final elimination games, the Czechs must confront their loss once again as they prepare for a rematch of the 1998 Olympic semifinal that featured a Czech win over Canada in a shootout.
"What can you say about this? You have a tournament ahead of you. If you're going to think about he's dead, and you're going to be sad, and you're not going to think about anything else, it's not going to help you," said Slegr, who was a member of the gold medal team from 1998 along with Reichel and Rucinsky. "I would say you have to turn things around and think about more hockey and about what he was telling you when he was here and kind of fight through mentally. Find a way to achieve what he wants to achieve when he started this tournament, when he put this group together because this is his group."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.