JUBILANT celebrations erupted across the country in May.
Slovakia's 4-3 victory over Russia on May 11 brought the first major sports title for the small, young country, fulfilling long-held dreams of glory in what is the country's most popular sport.
Marking what one political scientist called "the birth of a new nation", hundreds of thousands of Slovaks spilled from bars, restaurants and homes to fill public squares across the country after the win, in an outbreak of public rejoicing the likes of which had not been seen since the 1989 revolution.
For the Slovak team's general manager and one of hockey's all time greats, Peter Šťastný, the victory is the result of years of hard work and proof of what he had been saying all along - that Slovakia belongs among the top teams in international hockey, a group they have been fighting nine years to join.
"This is, without a doubt, the greatest success of the country," said Šťastný shortly after the championship win.
"We have shown the whole world that when we have fair, equal conditions we can play at the top level and we can beat the best teams."
"IT IS an example worth following not only in sports, but also in politics, economics, in different areas. When there's a team, when everyone is pulling the same rope, that's when you achieve success. What you need is patience and sacrifice."
Peter Šťastný, after the May 11 gold medal win.
Born in Bratislava in 1956 and a rising star with the local Slovan club in the late '70s, Šťastný was given the Czechoslovak Player of the Year award in 1980, in part for his 14 points in six Olympic matches at Lake Placid.
Later that year, however, Šťastný fled Czechoslovakia to join the NHL's Quebec Nordiques, where he and brothers Anton and Marián would soon form one of hockey's most dangerous front threes.
NHL Rookie of the Year in 1981, Šťastný went on to score more than 100 points for six consecutive seasons, a feat matched only by Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Over the decade, only Gretzky totalled more points.
During his most productive period, however, Šťastný and his accomplishments were forbidden topics in communist Czechoslovakia, where he and his brothers had been declared enemies of the state for defecting.
Nevertheless, word of the Šťastný brothers' exploits got out and they soon became heroes to a new generation of players in Slovak youth leagues, some of whom are pictured on this page.
In 1993, Šťastný retired from the NHL to lead the newly born Slovak team's qualifying drive to their first Olympic appearance, at the 1994 Lillehammer games.
The fact that the country had to go through a qualifying process to reach the games rankled many in Slovak hockey, as Czechoslovakia had been a dominant hockey power since the 1947 origin of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) world championships.
By 1992, the country had won six titles, and except for a fifth-place finish at the 1980 Olympics, Czechoslovakia brought medals home from every world ice hockey championship between 1968 and 1985.
However, with the country's split in 1993, the IIHF decided that Czechoslovakia's slot in the top 'A' division of international hockey would go to the Czech Republic, whose players and coaches had long outnumbered Slovaks on national teams.
As a new country, Slovakia would have to start at the bottom of international competition, in the IIHF C group, and they would have to qualify for the 1994 winter games.
At an obscure 1993 tournament in Sheffield, England, former NHL great Šťastný led a Slovak team that included then-unknowns Žigmund Pálffy and Miroslav Šatan to the group title and the country's first-ever Olympic appearance, where he carried Slovakia's flag at the games' opening ceremony.
Šťastný's swan song as a player came in 1995 when he led Slovakia undefeated through the seven-game IIHF B league tournament. Šťastný himself potted 16 of Slovakia's 60 tournament goals; the team gave up only 15.
By the time Šťastný hung up his skates for the last time, Slovakia had risen to the top international division faster than any other country in history. But his involvement with Slovak hockey did not end there.
After his retirement, Šťastný joined the St. Louis Blues NHL organisation, where he was responsible for putting together that team's deadly Slovak front three - Ľuboš Bartečko, Michal Handzuš and Pavol Demitra - that put the stamp of Slovak hockey on the world's top league.
Šťastný was also an outspoken critic of NHL and IIHF policies that prevented top Slovak stars from playing in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, when play was open to professionals for the first time.
Although hockey's 'Super Six' - Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and the US - were all given byes into the final round of the tournament, Slovakia and other countries had to qualify.
However, rules on team rosters meant that some Slovak professionals, like Bartečko and Peter Bondra, were unable to dress for preliminary round games despite having arrived at the tournament early.
They watched from the grandstand as Slovakia lost the round to Kazakhstan; the team returned home long before the Czech Republic beat Canada for gold.
Only a handful of Slovaks were in the NHL in 1998, but by 2002 there were 28 in the league, and the country's national side had taken silver at the 2000 championships in St Petersburg, behind the Czech Republic.
But at the 2002 Salt Lake City games, the Super Six system was still in place, and GM Šťastný spent frantic weeks trying to get NHL managers to release Slovak players for preliminary matches before the league's Olympic break.
With many of the team's limited roster spots reserved for NHL players who would be free only for a final-round appearance, Slovakia had to field a rotating squad of core members and whichever top professionals had been given leave for that night's match.
Although Olympic hockey insiders were viewing the Slovak side as a real medal threat, the team played some preliminary games with only half a side, failed to qualify and finished second to last in the tournament.
The bitter exit from Salt Lake City, however, only further motivated Šťastný and the Slovak team to excel in the 2002 IIHF championships in Göteborg. With the NHL already in the playoff stages, every Slovak player who was able headed to Sweden for the tournament.
It took Slovakia's best to make it to the final, but with everybody playing to the limit of their abilities, says Šťastný, the team was able to prove that they had arrived.
"Our team showed enormous inner strength - when we came back from a two-goal deficit to beat Canada 3-2 in the quarter finals, when we had the same situation in the semi-finals with the home-side Sweden and in the critical situation when Russia tied the game. But nothing could break us," said Šťastný.
"There's a special camaraderie on this team, a special chemistry. This is a small group. They understand each other. They have the same background. They made the sacrifices that you need to make in order to succeed.
"The guys were ready to stop shots with their teeth, and that was felt by everyone. We have 26 hockey heroes," said Šťastný.
When the victorious team returned to Slovakia on May 12, they were greeted at the airport by hundreds of fans and escorted to Bratislava's SNP square, where an estimated 50,000 turned out to give them a hero's welcome.
Slovakia had produced its first championship team, and no one had worked longer, harder or had faced more obstacles than Peter Šťastný to make that dream a reality.
"If a person doesn't have great ideals, he can't reach [this success]. We made what every coach and manager dreams about - a solid, unified, disciplined collective built of individuals ready to give everything to the team.
"These guys came with the taste to play. They wanted to repair what happened in Salt Lake City, where there was a great injustice against Slovakia. There is no better answer than what we have given," said Šťastný.
23. Dec 2002 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka