International Ice Hockey Federation

Time to shine

Time to shine

Zacha wants to lead Czechs to new heights

Published 22.12.2015 13:22 GMT+2 | Author Jeremy Darke
Time to shine
Pavel Zacha during the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
It has been 11 years since the Czech Republic have been able to place in the medals in the IIHF World Junior Championship.

They were always falling short behind the more powerhouse nations such as Canada, USA, Russia and Sweden.

The 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki is a year of optimism for the Czech hopefuls, with a generation of players that have proven that they can match it with the top teams of their age group.

Just two short years ago the Czech Republic put together a similar group of under-18 players, as they have in this years under 20’s, that performed out of their skin and took themselves to the final of the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship, eventually losing gallantly 5-2 to a USA team that boasted two of the NHL’s best current rookies Dylan Larkin and Jack Eichel, and prospective 2016 number-one pick Auston Matthews.

Although this year’s Czech U20 team is missing a couple of their top players due to injury, the unfortunate circumstances will bring into the light a few players that may have been hiding in the shadows. They will now have to step up and bring together this talented group of guys to put Czech junior hockey back onto the map.

“I think it is a really good squad. This team, we have been second in the U18 World Championship,” recalls Czech Republic forward, Pavel Zacha. “I am really excited for the tournament.”

“We are missing Jakub Vrana and David Pastrnak, who are key players for our championship, so I think it will be hard,” explains Zacha. “We need to play our game like we did in the under 18, but it will be a little bit harder than two years ago. There are not big expectations from us this year like there was before, but I think that we have a lot of talented players from the Czech Republic and that play in the CHL (Canadian Hockey League) this year.”

Pavel Zacha is one of those players that new head coach Jakub Petr will be looking for to step up in the absence of Vrana and Pastrnak, as the 18-year-old will be returning to his third consecutive World Junior Championship. Zacha’s role in the Czech junior national team has obviously grown since his debut in 2014, especially now that he will be the most senior player on the team.

Zacha, born in Brno, puts a lot of onus on himself heading into the tournament in Helsinki. He believes that now is the time for him to shine for his country and lead his team long into the distance of this tournament.

“The first year I was the youngest player in the team and it was in Sweden. I was a fourth-line player there, so it was a different style that I was playing there,” says Pavel Zacha. “Now it is on me, I should be a leader on this team. I will try and do my best. For me the expectation is high for this team. I need to score goals and try to win games for my team. That is my job here. It is my third year here and that is what I‘m going to try and do.”

On ice performance during the tournament is a big part of Zacha’s role at the 2016 World Juniors, but as a leader of the Czechs his job this year will expand much wider than the walls of the Hartwall Arena in Helsinki. His job outside of game time, at practices and off the ice will be just as important for his team and is something that he is fully aware of, showing maturity far beyond his years.

“I will try and do the things like the guys did the first time I was here. The best thing you can do is show them what to do on the ice and give one hundred per cent because all the guys are looking to see you on the ice and watch what you are doing.

“I will try and do my best while I am on the ice to show them what to do, and off the ice I will just try to talk to them. I really appreciated it when I was younger when the older guys that had been there before talk to me and try to help me off the ice too. So that is what I will try to do and hopefully it will help my team.”

The Czech Republic are lucky enough to avoid Canada, USA and Sweden in the preliminary round of the tournament, which begins on the 26 December, but will have two very decisive games against 2015 finalist Russia and 2014 champions Finland.

If the Czechs can take a win against at least one of their most dangerous opponents, and all other results go as planned against Slovakia and Belarus, they should find themselves against a bottom-two quarter final qualifier from the other group and a better chance of a semi-final berth, which may just get them a shot to playoff for a medal.

“We need to come first or second in our division so we can go against a good team that we can play against in the quarter-finals and then we will see what happens,” says a hopeful Pavel Zacha.


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