International Ice Hockey Federation

Aiming return to glory

Aiming return to glory

Team manager Hnilicka works with Czech U20 team

Published 04.08.2015 15:13 GMT+3 | Author Chris Jurewicz
Aiming return to glory
Filip Chlapik (left) and Jakub Zboril (right) are part of the Czech Republic under-20 team that is taking part in a development camp this week in Calgary. Photo: Chris Jurewicz
There’s a glimmer in Milan Hnilicka’s eyes when the subject comes up, almost 25 years later.

The scene: Saskatoon, Canada.

Hnilicka, then a 17-year-old goaltender, suited up for Czechslovakia at the 1991 IIHF World Junior Championship, a tournament that kick-started his international and professional career.

“Saskatoon, you can’t forget. It was great,” says Hnilicka, now 42 and general manager of the Czech Republic under-20 team that will compete at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki. “We won the bronze medal. It was a great experience for me. I still remember the atmosphere, a huge game against Canada (Czechslovakia defeated Canada 6-5 on Jan. 2, 1991) and just my first big international games in Canada. Like I say, it’s a hockey nation. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where people can make such a great atmosphere.”

Hnilicka went on to play another World Junior Championship in 1992, six IIHF World Championships and two Winter Olympics, including the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, where the Czechs won gold. He also had a stellar professional career, playing parts of five seasons in the National Hockey League and several more in Czech and Russian pro leagues.

Today, Hnilicka is the general manager of the under-20 Czech program, having graduated to this team following time spent with the under-18 squad.

The Czech team is in Calgary, Canada this week for a summer development camp. The team will practise several times throughout the week and also play four exhibition games, two each against Russia and Canada.

The mini-tournament is the first of three times the Czech management and coaches will see their players in action. The Czechs will play in a couple of 4 Nations tournaments, one at the end of August in Russia and one in November in Finland.

The Czechs are looking to return to their former glory on the international stage. The Czech Republic won back-to-back gold medals at the World Juniors in 2000 and 2001 and then took the bronze medal at the 2005 tournament. Since then, the country has failed to reach the podium.

Hnilicka, though, feels the tide turning. He says the Czech federation is investing more in the grassroots of the game and points to a silver medal at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship as proof that the investment is paying off.

“A lot of it is coaching seminars, different kinds of skill camps and the amount of the skill camps,” says Hnilicka, who was manager of the 2014 silver medal-winning team. “Our federation is spending a lot of money now on the youth teams, starting with the regional coaches throughout the Czech Republic. We are spending a lot of money sending professional coaches into small clubs. That’s where it starts. We believe that it’s going to show in five-plus years that we’re developing more competition, more players. It should show internationally.”

This week will be a good test for the Czechs. They opened the week with a 5-2 loss to the Russians on Aug. 2 and face Canada on Aug. 4 and Aug. 6. Those games will likely be played before near-capacity crowds at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary.

The Czechs conclude their development camp on Aug. 8 with a second game against Russia.

Filip Chlapik, a centreman who is part of the 22-player Czech squad this week, says he’s excited for the competition.

“It’s always a special moment to be part of the Czech team, represent your country and play against Russia and Canada,” says Chlapik, a member of the Canadian Hockey League’s Charlottetown Islanders and draft pick of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. “It’s always something special. I’m really excited for the games and the fans and everything. It will be a lot of fun.”

Adds teammate Jakub Zboril, a Boston Bruins draft pick: “Canada and Russia both play a very fancy style of game and I think Canada is more physical too. We skate well and we can play that offensive style too.”


Back to Overview