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Czech Hockey Proving Themselves

February 10, 2002

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WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (AP) _ They are the reigning world and Olympic champions, led by arguably the sport’s best player in goalie Dominik Hasek, and driven by a deep-rooted determination to retain their cherished status as the best in the game.

Yet as the Czech Republic’s gold medal hockey team arrives in Salt Lake City this week, it will find most of the talk centering not on their chances of repeating, but on the favored-as-always Canadians, the home-ice Americans and the dangerous Russians.

It’s almost as if the Czechs must do it all over again to prove they aren’t one-Olympic wonders, that their 1998 victory in Nagano wasn’t an anomaly on ice.

Winning again is something they are certain they can do, too. Just as in Nagano, they intend to play their game, put aside their NHL loyalties to embrace season-long opponents as teammates _ and give their countrymen another reason to stay up until the middle of the night and rejoice.

``I’m very, very strong, very positive going to the tournament because we have lots of players who play on winning teams, who can play on the big ice,″ said forward Robert Reichel, one of those ’98 stars. ``They just want to win one more time.″

But the Czechs understand it will be harder this time away from the neutral ice of Nagano, where they quickly became fan favorites. They also won’t have the surprise factor going for them inside Salt Lake City’s two relatively small rinks, which will be spilling over with noisy, banner-waving Americans and Canadians who don’t really care that nearly the entire Czech team earns its living playing professionally in North America.

``It will be more difficult this time,″ said Hasek, who almost single-handedly willed the Czechs to victory in 1998. ``The Americans are at home, the Canadians are almost home, and they have prepared like never before.″

The Czechs could be even stronger than they were in 1998, when there were 40-plus of them in the NHL; now there are more than 70. They have added star forwards Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, who have won the Stanley Cup.

Hasek, at age 37, seemingly has lost nothing from his game since he allowed an average of less than a goal per game in Nagano, stopping all five Canadian shooters during a memorable semifinal shootout. Given a lead, the Czechs can play the suffocating neutral zone trap in front of Hasek better than any team in the world.

But there also are negatives that complicate the Czech Republic’s chances of winning.

Jaromir Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champion and the Czechs’ second biggest star, has often seemed lost and disconcerted since being traded from Pittsburgh to Washington, no longer the scorer and playmaker he was as recently as last season. The Czech defensemen are not as physical or as talented as the Canadians or Americans, and their forwards _ Jagr most of all _ are prone to exasperating bouts of inconsistency.

And in the Olympics, with low-scoring games played at a much faster pace than in the NHL, one fluke goal or one skittish puck off a skate blade can rapidly turn victory into defeat. Given the compressed schedule, Russia’s Nikolai Khabibulin or Mike Richter of the U.S. could just as easily be the hot goaltender of these games that Hasek was in Nagano.

``The Olympics are like the seventh game in the Stanley Cup finals each and every night out, and even the pros understand that,″ said Herb Brooks, who returns as the United States coach. ``Nobody is exempt from being upset.″

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