Havlát. Eliáš. Hašek. Holík. The names are as familiar as sometimes their spelling seems foreign. These are just a few of the many great hockey players the Czech Republic has sent to the NHL – and this only since becoming it’s own distinct nation, separating from it’s brother state in 1993. Not bad for a nation of only 10 million.
Washington and the Czech Republic have had an unusually close relationship over the years – at least when it comes to what goes down on the ice. A surprising number of Czechs have spent time right here with the Capitals: Robert Lang, Martin Erat, Tomáš Vokoun, Petr Nedvěd among them.
But of course, there’s one name missing. One name arguably at the top of the list of all-time Czech greats – heck, one of the best players ever. And one name that stirs conflicting emotions for Caps fans like no other: Jaromír Jágr.
As part of our on-going interview series with ambassadors who represent the great hockey nations, today we take a moment to contemplate the many great things the Czech Republic has contributed to this greatest of games. And also, Jaromír Jágr.
We were scheduled to meet with His Excellency Petr Gandalovič, Czech Ambassador to the US, but it fell on a day when snow blew through DC, airplane schedules were snarled, and we weren’t able to meet with the Ambassador face-to-face.
He was gracious enough, however, to share some thoughts with us via email, which we share after the jump. What role does hockey play in Czech culture – how important is it to people?
Hockey is one of the most favorite sports in the Czech Republic and plays a very important role in our culture.
For a relatively small nation, the Czech Republic has produced a huge number of very talented players. How would you explain that?
While our country may be small there always has been a very complex system of working with young talent. All of our players dream big and have their hearts set on the NHL.
Finland’s Amb. Koukku-Ronde told us she thought there was something about being a goalie – about fighting it out alone in the net – that felt very Finnish to her. Is there an aspect of Czech culture or the Czech soul that finds expression in the game do you think?
As I mentioned, we may be a small nation but our people are very talented and have lots of drive. I think our players have proven that on the ice worldwide.
When I think of dominating Czech players currently, I think of Tomas Vokoun, and Jaromir Jagr who’s still going great in his early 40s. Who are some of your favorite players, either currently or from the past, you enjoy watching? And do you keep your eye on any NHL teams in particular?
Yes, both players Tomas Vokoun and Jaromir Jagr are hockey legends in the Czech Republic. I always enjoy watching them.
It is undeniable that Jaromir Jagr is one of the best players in hockey history. Although he will turn 43 this year, he is not slowing down anytime soon and the NHL statistics reflect his amazing accomplishments. He just recently proved that he is a phenomenal player when he became the oldest NHL player ever to record a hat trick.
Tomas Vokoun is an awesome goalie. It is sad that he had to retired early due to his medical problems.
I further have to mention Dominik Hasek, who is also an outstanding goalie. He twice won the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings. Moreover, the Buffalo Sabers, the team for which he played the longest in his career, inducted him into their Hall of Fame and officially retired his number “39.”
When I have time, I keep up with the New Jersey Devils because we have four Czech players with them right now. I am still hoping that they will make it into the playoffs.
Slovakia’s Amb. Kmec told us that Peter Bondra did and still does play a sort of fatherly role, helping new players when they come to the States. Have there been Czech players who’ve served that role, or after retiring served as a sort of goodwill ambassador, working to build bridges between the US and Czech Republic?
Yes, we also have players who serve in that capacity. Petr Svoboda, who played 19 seasons in the NHL, works as a hockey agent and also as a mentor.
In addition, Czech hockey players, Milan Hejduk (Colorado Avalanche) and Jiri Fischer (Detroit Red Wings) were both significant personalities on their teams. After they retired from playing professionally, they were offered the opportunity to stay on with their teams to work as managers and coaches for young players so that they could pass on their experiences to the next generation.
Lastly, even though he is not retired, I would like to point out that Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils has been the Czech Republic’s Good Will Ambassador to UNICEF since 2006.
Are you, or were you, a hockey player, and if so, could you share some of your memories?
No, I have never been a hockey player.
Finally, how much good-natured competition do Czecks feel with Slovak, Finnish, Swedish or Russian teams, and is there any national squad in particular it’s always satisfying to defeat?
The tensest games are usually against Slovakia, Russia and Canada. These games are always very emotional and our fans have high expectations.