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Bratislava, the host city of the 2019 World Championships, is international hockey’s answer to the American Rust Belt.
In a previous century, it turned out gleaming products, the flashiest in the world. Today, it is a hockey town whose fans are willing to abandon its local skaters at a moment’s notice.
Flash back to the late 20th century; Bratislava was part of a different country—Czechoslovakia— a hockey nation whose only rival was the USSR’s Big Red Machine. Immortals like the three Stastny brothers and the irrepressible “Big Ned,” Vaclav Nedomansky, all IIHF Hall of Famers, called Bratislava home. It was considered hockey town 1A to Prague’s 1 in the former hockey super nation.
But in 1993 the country was split in two, leaving the Slovaks and the Czech Republic as two distinct countries. Bratislava lost its hockey cache, and has never recovered. In 2012 it gained a team in the world’s second richest league, the KHL, but has only made their playoffs twice in seven years, both times busted in the first round. Not a single Bratislava native has made the preliminary roster of the 2019 Slovakian national team. This would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
On Monday, the majority of the Czech national team arrived by train to Bratislava Central Station, and they received a warm greeting from the local fans. That may seem counterintuitive, enemy fans greeting their rivals from two hours north of the border. But to Bratislava hockey fans, it’s 1993 all over again. That January, the combined nation of Czechoslovakia, defeated World Junior Gold Medalist Canada in the World Junior Championship in Gavle Sweden to steal the bronze medal from Team USA. It was the final game for the former hockey empire.
Unlike the Slovak national team, there is a lot to like with the Czechs, sporting a host of NHL studs, guys like the Flyers veteran Jakub Voracek and his 639 career NHL points, or Jakub Vrana of the Caps, who potted 24 goals for the reigning Stanley Cup Champs. Michael Frolik of the Calgary Flames has played 12 NHL Seasons for 4 different squads, racking up 370 career points. The Czechs also have sex appeal, 19-year-old heartthrob Filip Chytil of the New York Rangers a, centerman who popped in 11 goals during his Broadway debut.
Unless the Slovaks stun the Americans and the Finns straight out of the gate, the Czechs should enjoy a home ice advantage due to the long memories of a proud hockey town. Everyone older than 40 remembers when it was a city of champions, and based on the reception the Czechs received at the train station on Monday, they will embrace their old comrades with open arms. Their former hockey brothers have won six gold medals since the breakup of the two nations, the most recent in 2010. Precious medal has a long history of changing hearts and minds.
Most North American hockey “insiders” who are handicapping the World Championship have the Czechs as an afterthought after Canada, USA, Russia and Nordic powers Finland and Sweden. The Czech team that pulled in Monday is a wagon brimming with NHL pedigree. Give them home cooking in Bratislava, and you have a legitimate dark horse.
Special Thanks to Pavel Barta of the Czech News Center for his contributions to this report.