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Olympic hockey dream dashed at Salt Lake

TEAM captain Róbert Petrovický's voice trembled as he described the Slovak Olympic hockey squad's elimination from competition at the Salt Lake City Winter Games.
"This was supposed to be the high point of my career," he said. "I was really emotional when I was carrying the flag of the Slovak Olympic delegation into the stadium. Unfortunately, the powers that be in the National Hockey League decided, for the sake of a few days' business receipts, that the world was not going to see some of the best hockey players on the planet, such as [Slovak forward] Peter Bondra."
Speaking after a 6:6 tie with Latvia on February 10, Petrovický expressed bitterness at an Olympic system that required Slovakia to play three preliminary round games without many of the 29 Slovak nationals who play in the NHL, the world's premiere league.


Team members faulted the decision of NHL brass not to release Slovaks.
photo:TASR

TEAM captain Róbert Petrovický's voice trembled as he described the Slovak Olympic hockey squad's elimination from competition at the Salt Lake City Winter Games.

"This was supposed to be the high point of my career," he said. "I was really emotional when I was carrying the flag of the Slovak Olympic delegation into the stadium. Unfortunately, the powers that be in the National Hockey League decided, for the sake of a few days' business receipts, that the world was not going to see some of the best hockey players on the planet, such as [Slovak forward] Peter Bondra."

Speaking after a 6:6 tie with Latvia on February 10, Petrovický expressed bitterness at an Olympic system that required Slovakia to play three preliminary round games without many of the 29 Slovak nationals who play in the NHL, the world's premiere league.

Many NHL clubs refused to release their Slovak players before the league took an official break for the main round of the Olympic hockey tournament. Slovakia, which had brought few European league players to Salt Lake in the hope that more of its top stars would be added to the lineup, was left shorthanded and was effectively out of contention after a 3-0 loss to Germany in the opening game on February 9.

At home, Slovaks united in an outpouring of dismay at what many called the nation's most disappointing hockey performance ever in international competition.

"I was really looking forward to seeing our top guys in the NHL," said weather forecaster Jozef Iľko. "I didn't think our players moved well in the game against Germany."

"I'm disappointed," said church official Jozef Hrtus who watched the games with an equally unhappy Bishop Rudolf Baláž.

"This is a fiasco," said member of parliament František Halmeš. "Slovakia doesn't have talented enough people either in hockey or in football."

After being technically eliminated the Slovak team lost again on February 12 to Austria, 3-2, to finish at the bottom of its group. The Slovaks had only nine forwards against 12 for Austria, and even then had to bring two defencemen forward leaving only four on the blueline.

The team was scheduled to play France on February 15 in a battle to decide 13th and last places in the tournament overall.

Sociologists have long noted the strong connection Slovaks feel for their national teams, particularly for their hockey players, regarded as among the best in the world.

"Hockey for this country is a symbol of national identity," said sociologist Zuzana Kusá.

But with the mood around the country already depressed by difficult economic conditions and record unemployment, psychologist Dušan Fabian said the hockey result was in many ways a reflection of the state of the nation as a whole.

"In 2000 our hockey players went to the final of the World Championships. That was a period when people still believed things would improve, and still had hopes of a change.

"But I go around this country working with groups of people, and I see that a bad mood and apathy is ruling society, cutting across all social groups," the doctor continued.

"Our players are a part of this society too, and probably this mood is reflected in them as well."

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