The Czechs and Slovaks play tonight for a spot in the men’s ice hockey quarterfinals at the Sochi Winter Games, as the countries attempt to regain some of their glory in what could be the last Olympics for top players.
The clash will probably mark the last Olympic showdown for a generation of players trained in the communist-era sports system of Czechoslovakia, a former Soviet satellite that split amicably in 1993. The Czechs are led by forward Jaromir Jagr, 42, the top-scoring European to skate in the National Hockey League. The Slovaks are pinning hopes on Zdeno Chara, 36, who captained the Boston Bruins to their 2011 Stanley Cup victory.
“It will be a very difficult, maybe fratricidal match,” Tomas Tatar, a Detroit Red Wings forward who was born in 1990, the same year that Jagr began playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, told Czech news website Idnes.cz. Still, “it’s possible to play the Czechs.”
The battle for regional hockey supremacy masks the waning fortunes of the sport in the two countries after their separation. The pool of professional players used to stock both national teams has been dwindling after the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia ended the state-dominated sports system that subsidized teams across all age groups in the former federation.
The number of Czech and Slovak players in the NHL has also been declining. The Czechs have 33 players in the league this year, compared with 71 in the 2001-2002 season. Slovakia’s number has fallen to 12 players from a peak of 37 in 2003.
Since the split, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with a combined population of 15.9 million, have have won a total of seven world championships in hockey, with the Czechs capturing the gold medal in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, the first Olympics to feature NHL players.
Their feats in hockey have mirrored the economic paths taken by the two countries. The Czech Republic’s 12 medals in world championships, including six golds, dwarfed Slovakia’s four awards just as the bigger of the two former federation partners remained richer in terms of output per capita.
Slovakia, the former mainly rural part of Czechoslovakia created after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire following World War I, began closing the wealth gap after the two post-communist states joined the European Union in 2004. Slovakia adopted the euro in 2009, while the euro-skeptic Czech Republic continues to champion its own currency, the koruna.
Apart from common history, the two countries also share similar economic structure, with car and auto parts manufacturing dominating their industries and the euro area remaining the primary destination for most of their exports.
Tonight may be the last game at the Olympics for Jagr, who’s tied with Mark Messier on the NHL list for career goals. Even so, the match against Slovakia is as much about what the nations have in common as what separates them, he said.
“There are many mixed families, more than in other countries -- Slovaks live in the Czech Republic and vice versa,” Jagr told the Slovak newspaper Sme in an interview. “If somebody feels any rivalry from the past, it’s their problem. I think that if we get knocked out, many people at home will root for the Slovaks.”