“Maybe Czechia is the underdog who could surprise us”: Commentator ahead of the Ice Hockey World Championships

Czech national ice hockey team

The 2024 Ice Hockey World Championships are set to begin this Friday in host cities Prague and Ostrava. The tournament, which brings together 16 teams, will take place over the course of two weeks. But how is the Czech team expected to perform on home ice? I put that question and more to Czech Television Sports commentator, Michal Dimitrov.

Just to start off, can you walk me through the roster of this year’s Czech team? Are there any new standout players or familiar faces who are expected to make a bit of a splash at this tournament?

“The Czech trainers really tried to get the best players possible. We have eight players from the NHL this year, maybe the biggest star being Ondřej Palát, a Stanley Cup winner with the Tampa Bay Lightning. We have three goalies who have all performed really well this NHL season – Petr Mrázek, Lukáš Dostál, and Karel Vejmelka. These goalies should be the strongest part of our team.

Ondřej Palát | Photo: Michael Miller,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

"Regarding the skaters, there are only five players who have played in the NHL this season. David Kämpf will be arriving at the last minute, Palát, and then three other players – two defencemen, Radko Gudas and Jakub Čutta. It’s really more of a European team.

“There are a bunch of players from the Czech Extraliga, and there is also one skater who played for the NCAA in the United States who made the cut. But there are also a couple of players who did not make the cut from the NHL like Tomáš Nosek and Filip Zadina from the San Jose Sharks. There were a lot of surprises, and the Czech hockey public was really discussing and debating the final roster.

“When we compare the team to others like Sweden, who have twice as many players from the NHL as Czechia, or to the very strong United States, or to Finland who do not have many NHL players, but players who had success under the great Finnish coach Jukka Jalonen, there are many questions regarding the prospects of Czechia at the World Championships this year.”

I’m thinking of 1998 at the Nagano games, Czechia did not have many players from the NHL that year, but they still managed to pull through and win gold. Are you seeing any parallels in the design of the team this year?

“The coach Radim Rulík said that he wants his players to play this tournament with heart. This is definitely what the case was in Nagano. Despite the fact that there were some players from the Czech Extraliga back in 1998 during the Nagano journey, there were still players like Jaromír Jágr and Dominik Hašek, so the team back then was definitely much stronger than today’s team.

Nagano Olympics in 1998,  Czech Republic - Russia | Photo: Canadaolympic989,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“Of course, people who know Czech hockey know that there are not as many Czech players in the NHL as there were back in the 1990s. So this team is less experienced and a bit weaker on paper compared to the Nagano roster. It’s a matter of creating a good team, and if you can do that, you have a good chance. Of course they will be supported by the Czech people if they are playing with heart, just like the Germans and Latvians did last year to gain a medal – then anything is possible for Czechia.”

Switching gears, what about the other teams? The Canadians are the reigning champions from last year, Germany and Latvia following. But are there any other teams that we should be looking out for in this tournament?

“The tournament last year showed us that underdogs can really surprise us – it was Germany and Latvia. There are many hungry teams who have not had success recently. If there was a big favourite, I would maybe pick Sweden, because they haven’t gotten a medal since 2018. Of course we need to count Finland, Canada, and the United States.

"If we compare the roster of the United States and Canada, I would say that the US has a much stronger roster. The United States is also a team that is really hungry for a gold medal, they haven’t won gold in this tournament since 1960. There are a lot of stories that make this tournament really interesting from the very beginning.”

O2 arena in Prague will host the tournament | Photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio

It’s been nine years since Czechia hosted this tournament. Do you think there is even more pressure on Czechia this year to bring home a gold medal on home ice?

“The pressure is definitely on – the question is about the expectation regarding the roster when we compare it to other teams. The team is different, and the expectations are maybe different, and this could eventually be an advantage. We saw what home ice advantage did for Latvia last year, so I think Czechia could hope for a similar outcome. The pressure is there, and the expectations are there.

"Maybe Czechia is the underdog who could eventually surprise us, and get a medal higher than bronze. Or maybe not, and it might be another team. This is the really great thing about hockey today, it’s getting more even and teams with smaller numbers can also surprise us and pick up a medal.”