The Man With the Golden Hockey Stick

Not so long ago, the Czech Republic named Patrik Elias the world’s greatest Czech hockey player, an award that Jaromir Jagr had been the recipient of for the four years prior.  A few months after he was awarded the coveted golden hockey stick, both players were selected to represent their country in the 2010 Olympics, with Elias being awarded the captaincy and Jagr the alternate captaincy.

It is a change in roles for those of us who follow the Czechs.  But perhaps it is the way things should be.

In the 2006 Olympic games in Torino, Italy, Jagr was very vocal about not wanting to represent his country ever again after they brought home the bronze medal.  He basically ‘retired’ from the role of representing his country.  He went so far as to make an official announcement that he was retiring from representing his country in any major contest.

He then headed to the KHL after the New York Rangers signed Markus Naslund, thinking that he wasn’t wanted anymore.  Since then, he has promoted the Russian league to a bizarre place where anyone that has followed his career questions if he remembers why he still wears the number 68 on his back.

1968 was the year that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia.  It was also the year that Jagr’s grandfather was killed in the hostile invasion.  Since then he has worn the number 68 on his back.

In the last Olympics, the Czechs made sure to put Jagr in front of the cameras to talk about why wearing the number 68 was so important.  It was his way of remembering that dreadful day in Czech history.

Now, he’s not at the forefront of Czech hockey.  Elias is the one that the Czechs have selected as the citizen to represent them in the biggest international tournament in the world.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the KHL,” he said of the changes in Jagr’s representation of his country.  “I think that he was pretty vocal that he doesn’t like to be put in that position.” 

But this is typical of Jagr.  He makes rash decisions at the height of emotion.  The pressure to bring home the gold was too much for him to handle back in 2006, and he was very vocal about it to the world.  Thus, the torch to represent the Czech Republic has been passed on to a much worthier captain, one who doesn’t want to talk about individual accomplishments.  He wants to talk about the team and what they plan on accomplishing together, not individually.

“You have the captaincy, [Jagr]’s still going to be looked up to as a leader,” Elias said.  “It doesn’t matter who has it.  We’re going there to achieve one goal.  Just because you have a letter on the outside doesn’t make it any more important than the other guys.”

Elias, who represented the Czech Republic in both the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics, has been brought to the forefront after given the honor of representing his country for a third time in the Olympics, as well as to being awarded the title of the world’s greatest Czech hockey player.

“It’s a great honor, especially in such a big tournament,” he said.  “Olympics is always the highest competition out of the international tournaments.  It’s going to be exciting, especially in Canada.”

Even though Elias was there to represent his country in both Salt Lake City and Torino, his second tour of duty was cut short due to a rib injury sustained early on in the preliminaries.

“Salt Lake was a great experience because I was part of it the whole time,” he said.  “It is the best players to play against each other and you have the experience of being in the Olympic village.  That’s great. 

“In Torino, it was just unfortunate I got hurt right away so I wasn’t really part of it much.”

The Olympics are a very important tournament for the Czech Republic.  It’s a series of games that they take very seriously.  There’s a lot of pressure that is placed onto the men’s Olympic hockey team to bring home the gold, just like they did in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.  Being selected to the team is one of the greatest honors for the Czech players.

“I think that every guy is excited to have the opportunity,” he said of his fellow Czech teammates.  “They take it very serious[ly].  They’re trying to get the invitation.  They’re very proud of themselves.”

But there are others that were former Olympians that were not selected.  Names such as Martin Straka (HC Lasselsberger Plzen), Vaclav Prospal (New York Rangers) and even Roman Hamrlik (Montreal Canadiens) were not selected to the squad this time around.

“The Czech league is obviously not the top league,” Elias said of the selection process.  “You want to get your top players in there.  Most of the guys are competitive.  They either play here or in Russia.  Maybe Marty Straka, coming from the Czech Leagues, expressed his willingness not to go.”

With the majority of the club consisting of NHLers and a few KHLers, the club still has its challenges ahead.  Luckily for the Czechs, they are starting off against countries that spark the biggest rivalry for their country.

“For us, it’s obviously Slovakia and Russia,” he said.  “We have both teams in our group, so it’s going to be pretty exciting.”

With many players seeing their last Olympic games, this is also a time for making memories with old friends and new friends.

Elias has a few things he’s looking forward to in Vancouver, “The whole experience again, being in the Olympic Village, and just the opportunity again to represent my country and enjoy the company of the guys that are going to be there.”

Fortunately for Patrik, he’ll be able to share the memories with a couple of family members.

“My wife and sister-in-law are coming,” he said.  “It’s a little too far for our parents and everybody to travel from home.”

The Czechs start the Olympic games off in Vancouver against their biggest rivals: Team Slovakia.  Slovakia is led by Zdeno Chara and several other big names in hockey: Marian Gaborik, the Hossa brothers (Marian and Marcel), Miroslav Satan and Richard Zednik.  Game time begins at 9PM PST Thursday night (midnight on the East Coast).

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