SLOVAKIA was not able to repeat last year's gold-medal performance at the 2003 world ice-hockey championships in Finland, but that did not stop more than 10,000 fans thronging Bratislava's SNP square at midnight to welcome the players home.
Although Canada took the top prize after a 3-2 win against Sweden, team Slovakia won the bronze medal after a convincing 4-2 triumph over their erstwhile partners and hockey archrivals the Czech Republic, scoring their third world championships medal in four years and setting off jubilant celebrations across the country.
"Am I satisfied? Satisfaction is an understatement for the emotions I am again experiencing. One game didn't go well for us, but that happens. Against the Czech Republic, the team played brilliantly," said all-time hockey great and Slovak general manager Peter Šťastný to the daily Pravda.
Although the Slovak side was disappointed by their 4-1 loss to Sweden in the semi-final round, their only defeat in the tournament, the chance to play the Czechs for the final medal place brought special significance for the team.
In the ten years since the two countries split, Slovakia had been unable to defeat the Czech side in world championships or Olympic competition, and the last time the teams met in a decisive match was the gold medal game at the 2000 world championships in St Petersburg. Slovakia's thrilling late-game rally was not enough to overcome a heroic Czech defence, and the 5-3 result gave Slovakia silver, their first medal.
"It is always a big game for us when the Czechs play the Slovaks; its like Finland and Sweden games," said Slovak forward Branko Radivojevič, a rising young star with the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes.
Although the match was spirited from the beginning with both Slovak and Czech players displaying the speed, precision passing, and lightning counter strikes that characterise both countries' hockey styles, Slovakia soon emerged as the dominant side, more solidly controlling neutral ice and generating better chances on goal.
A power-play goal by Czech captain Robert Reichel tied the game at two just 37 seconds into the second period, but less than five minutes later a blistering slap shot from the face-off circle by Washington Capitals veteran Peter Bondra beat Czech keeper Tomaš Vokoun and put the Slovaks ahead for good. Bondra also scored the winning goal in last year's 4-3 gold medal win over Russia.
Victory was sealed in the 18th minute of the third period when a pass into the slot from team captain Miroslav Šatan found a wide-open Pavol Demitra, who performed a masterful feint on Vokoun and slid the puck home between the baffled Czech goalie's legs.
"It was a very difficult game because both teams lost hard games yesterday, and we both have excellent players," said Slovak coach František Hossa after the game.
"[The win] was due to the discipline of the players. I think the point rankings really show this team's offensive ability," he added.
Slovakia dominated the field offensively and netted 45 goals in nine games, 15 of which came from the tournament's top three points leaders - forwards Žigmund Pálffy (15) and Jozef Stümpel (15), and defenseman Ľubomír Višňovský (12), the only player named to the tournament all-star team who did not appear in the championship match.
Other names familiar to NHL fans made the leader board, including Buffalo Sabres points, goals and assists leader Miroslav Šatan with 10 points, Montreal Canadiens goals leader Richard Zedník with 8 points, and hot young Phoenix Coyotes wing Ladislav Nagy with 8 points.
The team's elder statesman, Washington Capitals all-time goals leader Peter Bondra, contributed 5 points, including the bronze-medal game-winner.
Goalkeeper Ján Lašák had another outstanding tournament, with a 1.84 goals against average, and a save percentage of 93.45.
Although Slovakia failed to repeat last year's gold medal, the 2003 side was the strongest and deepest the country has yet produced, and the debut of promising youngsters like Radivojevič and Peter Sejna, this year's top US collegiate scorer and recent St Louis Blues signing, means a bright future for Slovak hockey.
"After all that has happened with Slovak hockey in the past, after the division of Czech Republic and Slovakia, we can only be proud of our hockey players. People who don't know the history of Slovakia and Slovak hockey can't understand the value of this success," said Peter Šťastný, who has been integral in building the country's hockey machine.
Šťastný, the NHL's second-top scorer for the 1980s, behind only NHL all-time leader in just about everything, Wayne Gretsky, retired from professional hockey in 1993 to lead a Slovak side through an obscure tournament in Sheffield England and on to the country's first ever Olympic appearance, at Lillehammer in 1994.
When Czechoslovakia split in 1993, the Czech Republic kept the country's hockey programme and slot in the top tier of international competition, while Slovakia was forced to build a programme from scratch and fight their way up from the bottom 'C' bracket of the International Ice-Hockey Federation (IIHF).
After Šťastný led the team undefeated through the 'B' division tournament in 1995, earning the country a berth in the IIHF's top division, Šťastný retired from playing and joined the St Louis Blues front office, where he has been recruiting Slovak talent for the NHL ever since.
Šťastný's enthusiasm and dedication to the game have also been instrumental in motivating top Slovak stars to play for the national side after long and gruelling NHL seasons. Virtually every top Slovak professional who was able has skated for the national side, and the enthusiasm of players is also reflected in the exceptional support the team has among its fans.
Across the country, bars and restaurants with televisions were packed during Slovakia's tournament games, and the streets were virtually deserted during final round matches.
The small but vocal Slovak contingent at the past few tournaments will almost certainly be a lot larger and more vocal at next year's world championships, to take place in the neighbouring Czech Republic.
Head coach František Hossa will be back for that tournament, and many of the players also say they will return, if able, to build on the success of what is rapidly becoming a hockey dynasty.
"After the game with the Czechs, my brother Anton called me and told me what our father had said - that he had lived through another success and could now die in peace," said Šťastný.
"My brother told him not to hurry, because maybe next year we'll beat the Czechs in Prague," he said.
19. May 2003 at 0:00 | Dewey Smolka