Slovaks take historic hockey medal

Although the Slovak national hockey team had just lost the gold medal match of the Ice Hockey World Championships, 5-3 to the Czech Republic, thousands of elated fans celebrated on Bratislava's SNP námestie after the game on May 14. Revellers danced, sang, drank and partied until sunrise in celebration of the fact that Slovakia had won the silver, marking the all-time best finish in a major international hockey competition by the Slovaks.
The team's surprise success sparked celebrations around the country among Slovaks of every walk of life. Soňa Szomolányi, the head of Comenius University's political science department, said that Slovakia's triumph represented an unprecedented national success which had united the citizenry and boosted the country's morale to a level healthier than at any other time in recent history.


About 30,000 hockey fans jammed SNP Square to see Slovakia lose an exciting gold medal match to the Czechs.
photo: TASR

Although the Slovak national hockey team had just lost the gold medal match of the Ice Hockey World Championships, 5-3 to the Czech Republic, thousands of elated fans celebrated on Bratislava's SNP námestie after the game on May 14. Revellers danced, sang, drank and partied until sunrise in celebration of the fact that Slovakia had won the silver, marking the all-time best finish in a major international hockey competition by the Slovaks.

The team's surprise success sparked celebrations around the country among Slovaks of every walk of life. Soňa Szomolányi, the head of Comenius University's political science department, said that Slovakia's triumph represented an unprecedented national success which had united the citizenry and boosted the country's morale to a level healthier than at any other time in recent history.

"Finally something positive has happened in connection with Slovakia," she said. "This success has been tremendously helpful in building national pride - it reminds me of how the Austrians built their sense of national identity through the gold medal triumphs of their skiers in the 1950's."

Róbert Fico, the head of the most popular non-parliamentary party Smer ('direction'), admitted that hockey fever had even gripped parliament, as MPs banded together to pass initiatives at breakneck pace on the day the country was scheduled to play Finland in the quarter finals.

On May 12 in a four hour session from 9:00 till 13:00, parliament voted on 58 laws and procedural matters without a break, then knocked off early in time for the 14:30 start of the Slovakia-Finland match, even though the session was slated to last until 16:00. Asked if MPs had been in a hurry to catch the game, said: "It's tough to say, but it would be natural. The entire nation was watching the game, and deputies are no different [where sports and patriotism are concerned]."

The excitement over the silver was heightened by the feeling that Slovakia, which had never finished higher than eighth in the World Championships let alone win a medal, had established itself as an international contender. Long in the shadow of their former national partner the Czech Republic, which won Olympic Gold in 1998 and the World Championships last year, Team Slovakia members and supporters were unable to contain their delight at finally having cause for optimism.

"We made a huge historical step forward and the feeling is truly super," said Igor Němeček, the manager of the Slovak Ice Hockey Federation. "Everything is now possible and we can maintain this success in the future if the stars are properly aligned for us. Now we are focusing on the 2002 Olympic Games - we believe that we can scale new heights in Slovak history."

As the party on SNP námestie continued with an impressive fireworks show over the Old Town at 3:00 in the morning, perhaps the only feeling casting a damper on people's mood was the question 'what if?'

Given that NHL star Miroslav Šatan, the tournament's leading scorer, pulled the squad to within a goal of the Czechs in the 58th minute, people asked, what if a jittery Slovakia had not surrendered a three goal lead in the first period? And what if more of Slovakia's NHLers - such as Ziggy Pálffy, Jozef Štumpel and Peter Bondra - had suited up?

Bondra, for his part, told The Slovak Spectator on May 17 that a roster spot had been saved for him, but that a nagging shoulder injury prevented him from joining the club at the championships held in St. Petersburg, Russia. "You know, every one of us [Slovaks in the NHL] would like to play, but it's tough after an exhausting season and you have injuries. It's understandable why some players decide not to play," Bondra said. "Also, it's not really fair to the players who play for the team all year long [since national team members have to be bumped from the roster to make room for NHL players]."

"But I'll definitely play next year," he added. "I'll always support my country."

Bondra's resolve may result in an even bigger Slovak celebration next year. But until dreams of gold are realised, the silver medal in the World Championships will remain a proud and unifying moment for all Slovaks. As 22 year-old Katka Kamiáčová said while dancing after the game on SNP námestie with an empty bottle of champagne and a toothy smile, "Slovakia is not yet golden, but we are now silver!"


Additional reporting by Tom Nicholson and Peter Barecz

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