One final shot for fading Slovaks

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VANCOUVER - This is it for Slovak hockey.

This is probably one last, great chance — maybe for a generation — to do something special on the world stage.

To do it, they are going to have to beat Canada in Friday’s Olympic semifinal.

The Slovaks have something special going here in the quest for their first Olympic medal in hockey. They have an aging team with 14 players born in 1980 or earlier. Those older players and, maybe more importantly, the younger ones, too, know Slovak hockey won’t have many more chances like this.

This is the fading tail-end of a generation of proud and accomplished Slovak hockey players, the group that suffered the insult of having to qualify for the Olympics after the breakup of Czechoslovakia (the Czechs were grandfathered into the A Pool) and won the world championship in 2002.

The group that upset the defending gold-medal champions from Sweden Wednesday night to advance against Canada.

A group that recognizes there is not much reason for optimism beyond the promise of another two games here.

These are lean times for hockey in Slovakia, with few prospects on the horizon.

“Within two or three years, Slovakia will be hanging on to stay alive in the A Pool,” said one agent who specializes in analyzing European prospects. “There’s a real chance they are going to become like Norway or Belarus, no disrespect to those countries. They’re motivated. This could be their one and only shot left.”

Before the tournament began, the Slovaks had a meeting.

“Our age group, this is the last huge tournament for us,” said 35-year-old Pavol Demitra. “We want to play another couple of games together because we are totally enjoying each other and we showed that (against Sweden).”

Added Richard Zednik, 34: “You can feel it on the bench during games. Everyone’s blocking shots. We want to do something special.”

The younger players on the team want to do something for the players who were their heroes, the guys who were their idols.

“I feel really high because this is my first Olympics and this team probably won’t be together anymore because we’ve got some older guys and everybody knows we’re probably playing for the last time like this,” said 25-year-old goaltender Jaroslav Halak, one of the few young Slovak stars.

“Everybody wants to do their best,”

They want to do it for themselves, too, since no one knows how long it will be before another wave of world-class players arrives.

“We’ve got to believe. We were underdogs going in against Sweden, but we’ve got to believe. Everybody believed in our locker room and that’s why we came out with the victory,” said Halak, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender.

“Everybody knew this is our best chance to do some damage. So far, so good.”

They beat Sweden Wednesday night with suffocating play in the neutral zone and another solid performance by Halak, who made 26 saves, including a big one with about three seconds to go to preserve the win.

“He’s the biggest player for our hockey team. He plays unbelievable,” said winger Marian Hossa. “Hopefully he can keep his form and we can help him out.”

The Slovaks have desperation on their side. But can they win gold? Team captain Zdeno Chara has no doubt.

“We know we can do it.”

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca


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