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The Demise of Slovakian Hockey

There was a lot of hubbub over the summer about the World Cup returning to hockey, the new reality of NHL free agency, Connor McDavid, and NHL expansion. Which makes sense. These topics are intriguing, exciting and definitely noteworthy. They’re also North-American-centric, and even though technological advances have made access to global information available at the click of a button, the reality is that at the end of the day, people will pay more attention to topics that will affect themselves, first and foremost. We might love the English Premier League, but the local media isn’t about to have a beat reporter covering them from across the Atlantic.

With all due respect, however, there’s one topic in particular that flew under the radar within most North American hockey publications, which really did not get the press it deserved. There were some fair reasons for it. Trying to convince the average hockey fan to care about a small European nation is like trying to tell a fish to breathe out of water. But the death knell of Slovakian hockey, for at least the next 4 years, should be given the just attention it deserves.

The concise version is this: for nearly 2 decades, the Slovakian Ice Hockey Federation has been run by a group of corrupt politicians (gee, that’s a new take). Through the use of an iron fist and business connections, the group that is currently being headed by Igor Nemecek has been maintaining its stranglehold on the system. Rumours of money laundering and fraud have run rampant for years.

Like many good stories, when all hope was lost a hero rose up. Ex-national team member Richard Lintner managed to sway the support of the players and fans with his refreshing attitude on sport development. He managed to get support for his proposed plans from a number of current and former NHLers, including the likes of Peter Bondra. Change seemed to be on the horizon.

Unfortunately, this is where the good vibes end. In the actual election, Lintner lost to Nemecek, by a count of 58 votes to 45. While Lintner may have swayed public opinion to his side, Nemecek’s group managed to pass laws that enabled existing members of the federation to have a vote. As you might have guessed, Nemecek and his team did not pass this law in order to vote for Lintner. In fact, had the vote tally just included Slovakian league team representatives and other stakeholders, Lintner would have won. The extra 20 or so votes from the incumbents swung the pendulum in Nemecek’s favor.

Fans and players were understandably outraged. Thus, the boycott is on. When dozens of Slovakian hockey players, including every current Slovak NHL player, refuse to represent their own native countries in defiance of the establishment, it makes for juicy cover stories. When fans are purposefully ignoring games and letting attendance drop, and sponsors are deliberately dropping Slovak hockey from their plans, you’ve got the makings of a hockey revolution of epic proportions. And very few people seem to know or care (well, besides Redditof course).

The one shining light is this: the pressure of having 50 or so top player refuse to associate with the Slovakian Ice Hockey Federation seems to have finally forced some change. With the chance for reformation looming, there’s still hope for the country’s national team that there will be a resolution that saves Slovakian hockey from itself. Considering the corruption, it remains to be seen whether these efforts will bear fruit, but it’s better than the alternative.

Alright, we got the boring stuff out of the way. Surely, you’re wondering why the hell you should care. What difference does it make if one hockey has-been falls into the abyss or not? Canadian hockey is still producing players, the U.S. has turned into a powerhouse of the hockey world, and Scandinavia has continued to produce elite NHL talent in numbers.

I’ll tell you why it matters. What’s happening in Slovakia is basically a microcosm of what happens in corrupt sport organizations around the globe. Groups of people, most of them never being involved in the sport itself, use it as a political tool to fund their own machinations. Look at FIFA. Look at the IOC. If you care about those topics, then care about Slovakian hockey too.

Hockey, as much as it tries to be a global sport, really isn’t. You’ve got 5 countries who have a reasonable chance of competing at the international level on a consistent basis. You’ve got another 3 who have a chance to surprise at the Olympics or World Championships, but never really challenge for gold. And then you’ve got a bunch of countries, like Norway, Slovenia and France, that quite simply are just happy to be here.

This is a sport that is very much an elitist sport, in more ways than one. If you aren’t a Canada or a Sweden, you’re basically ****ed at the international level. And the gap between haves and have-nots is growing. The Czech Republic, which was once considered a top contender for Gold at every international event, has quickly become an also-ran. Russia used to be the dominant power in global hockey events. For whatever reason, it looks like they’re on the downswing. It isn’t an issue now, thanks to talents like Datsyuk, Ovechkin and Malkin still populating the NHL. But the backend, once a strength with the likes of Konstantinov and Zubov, is incredibly thin compared to the other members of the big 5 and it doesn’t look to be improving. What happens when the likes of Ovechkin retire? Who’s available to replace them? Right now, it’s hard to see anyone on the horizon who could possibly replace their talent (besides Tarasenko, who’s already in the NHL and thriving).

It’s quickly becoming Canada vs. the world in any major competition. Don’t get me wrong, I cheer for Canada just like anyone else. But it’s not good for the game to have one country so singularly dominant that the gold medal may as well be awarded before the games are even played. People watch sports because it’s predictably unpredictable. The most exciting games are not the blowout victories, they’re the nailbiters, the ones decided in the final seconds of play.

The level of talent coming out of the old Eastern European countries is on the decline. Slovakian players in particular have dropped from a high of 30 in the early ’00s to just 13. More alarmingly, the only young players of note right now are Tomas Tatar of the Detroit Red Wings and Marko Dano of the Chicago Blackhawks. Dano wasn’t even completely developed as a Slovakian product, he had to play in the KHL in order to do so.

Not to be a negative nancy, but this is a far cry from the likes of Hossa, Gaborik, Bondra, Demitra, Visnovsky, and Chara. There is a legitimate talent epidemic in the country, no doubt in part due to a national hockey system that is more focused on maintaining power for the brass than it is on producing elite hockey players. The Slovaks haven’t produced a bluechip prospect since Marian Gaborik in 2000. That’s a long time.

Fans in North America want to see the best and brightest face off. They want to watch international competitions where the games being played are competitive affairs. In order to do so, we need more nations that are rising up to the challenge, not less. There are a lot of criticisms that I have of football (the European kind, not the American kind), but if there’s one thing that the sport has, it’s international parity.

Slovakia’s hockey system is dying, and people need to care. I want to see more Demitras, more Nagys, more Sekeras. And I doubt any hockey fan would disagree.

So keep your eyes out, and support the hockey revolution that’s going on in Slovakia right now.

-Evan

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