POPRAD, SLOVAKIA - APRIL 18: Igor Nemecek during preliminary round action between team Canada and team Finland at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. (Photo by Andrea Cardin/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Modelled on U.S., built for Europe
Igor Nemecek has devoted his life to hockey. He was a player, and after he retired he has done everything imaginable with the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation.
General Secretary for 12 years; president for half a dozen; IIHF Council member.
And now, today, he is CEO of a group tasked to focus on three events—the current U18, the Inline World Championships in Bratislava in June, and the 2019 World Championships which, like the first hosting in 2011, will be played in Bratislava and Kosice.
But for now, the focus is on the U18, and the most impressive feature of this year’s hosting is the incredible fan support, especially for the home side. Games are played in smaller arenas, perhaps, but the crowds have been fantastic and the atmosphere amazing.
“The last time the U18 was in Slovakia was 15 years ago,” Nemecek related, “and you can see the energy and enthusiasm from the crowds here in the east part of Slovakia, which has been terrific. The Slovakia-Canada game was sold out before the tournament started, and we lost only in overtime. After that, ticket interest has been even more amazing. We are a small country, but we are a hockey country.”
The Slovaks have been the surprise of the tournament so far this year. In their opening game, they trailed last year’s gold medallists Finland, 3-0, tied the game 3-3, trailed 4-3, and tied it 4-4, only to lose late, 5-4. In their second game, they took Canada to overtime. Then followed two wins.
This success is not accidental. The Slovaks adopted a similar program to the U.S. National Team Development Program for their U20s about a decade ago, and buoyed by that success have done something similar for the U18s the last three years.
“Our system now is similar to what the USA does,” Nemecek explained. “We’ve had it for the under-20 for ten years. It’s a national junior team where 70 per cent of the players stay together for the entire season and play games in the Extraliga.”
“We started with the under-20s because once you get demoted, it’s very, very difficult to come back up. And when you’re demoted, players leave and don’t come back, and that makes it worse.”
The U18 is a variation. “It’s another special project,” he continues. “The players stay together from July until February—the best under-18s in the country—in Bratislava. They’re together breakfast, lunch, and dinner and practice once or twice a day. They play in a junior league every weekend, which is a good level, and they play once a week against teams from the first division, one level below the extraleague. They also play games during all the international breaks in August, November, December. After, they go to their home teams for the playoffs, and then they return to the national team and are joined by a few players who have been playing in other countries like Canada, Sweden, Finland, wherever.”
Tryouts in July are competitive, and not binding, by any means. “We have a large talent pool trying out,” he explained, “but once you make it, there’s no guarantee. If someone is not playing well in November, we can replace him.”
“The under-20 program was successful,” he started, in explaining the genesis of the U18 program, “so when I was president my group suggested we try this with the U18. Our first year, they played against men in the top league, and this wasn’t a good idea, so we played in the junior league after that, and the results have been great. We also play a few games against the first division teams, which is extra experience.”
“Last year at the under-18, we were fifth, when the tournament was in the U.S., which is a good result, and this year, let’s see. We are in the quarter-finals, but I think we want to be in the semi-finals so that we can see progress.”
Slovakia, like the Czechs, have seen an incredible pendulum swing in the NHL. When these players were first allowed to play in North America, their numbers grew and grew, but as more and more tried to play major junior as a quick path to NHL glory, the number shrank.
In 2003-04, there were an incredible 35 Slovaks in the NHL. That number dwindled consistently to 12 by 2015-16.
The NHL Entry Draft reflects a parallel circumstance. In 2000, there were 16 Slovaks drafted. In 2016? ZERO.
“In the past, many Slovaks went to the NHL after developing at home, but in recent years, as more go to develop in North America, we have had poorer results. This isn’t good for Slovakia, and it’s not good for the NHL,” Nemecek plainly states.
“The problem for us has been that many players over the years have gone outside the country to develop, but they have chosen leagues not suited to them. It’s not good preparation for them,” Nemecek noted.
“After each year [of the U18] we analyze the results of the team and decide if we want to continue,” Nemecek added. “Our ambassador for the team is Lubomir Visnovsky, and it makes such a difference to have an NHL player speak to players and to go out on the ice with them to help coach.”
“This program will help send more players to the NHL, but through the Slovak system. I can say without a doubt, that without this program, we would not be in the top division in U20 or U18. No chance.”
Incredibly, every player on this current U18 team was not only born in 1999 but born within 280 days. Every one of them is NHL draft eligible this June, and that will be an important and telling weekend for Nemecek.
“This team has good potential in the draft,” he suggested. “It’s important that as many of these players as possible get drafted, but also that they will develop to help our U20 team. This is also important.”
Bottom line, games at the top level are so competitive that every country has to do its best to remain competitive. Slovakia, not wanting to fall behind, is doing a remarkable job.
“In the top division of every level,” Nemecek concludes, “the games are so close and so important. There’s not much of a difference between a good result and a bad one, so we have to do whatever we can to improve.”