By Allan Muir
It turns out that Canada isn’t the only country suffering a crisis of hockey confidence.
Just weeks after the Canadian Hockey League drew scorn for its decision to block European goaltenders from the circuit as a means of creating additional opportunities and, hopefully, developing the next generation of elite stoppers, the Czech Republic’s Extraliga is following suit.
According to a piece on iihf.com, the Extraliga is ready to enact strict roster restrictions, starting with the 2013-14 season.
All 14 teams will be limited to six “import licenses” that they can use throughout the season. As soon as a non-Czech player is added to the roster, he uses up a license whether or not he actually plays.
If there’s a Czech version of Don Cherry, he’s probably smiling. At least in principle. The truth is, the Extraliga doesn’t draw a lot of foreign players. You’ll see the occasional Slovak or Russian, but this isn’t about repelling the infidels. This is about taking a stand.
Despite earning three medals at the last four World Championships — including gold in 2010 — the Czech program is headed for trouble. Its stars are aging and it isn’t developing young players at the same rate it was as a decade ago. The Czechs’ last medal of any color at the World Juniors was a bronze in 2005. They haven’t won gold since 2001.
And the future isn’t looking any brighter if the NHL Draft is any indication. Just three Czech players were selected in all of 2013′s seven rounds, but what’s more troubling is how they were developed: they came out of the CHL. Back in 2004, four first round picks came directly from the Czech league: winger Rusty Olesz (No. 7, Florida), defenseman Ladislav Smid (No. 9, Anaheim), goalie Marek Schwarz (No. 17, St. Louis), and winger Lukas Kaspar (No. 22, San Jose). In 2012, there was only one (forward Tomas Hertl, No. 17, San Jose), none from 2007 through 2011, one in 2006 (winger Michael Frolik, No. 10, Florida) and none in 2005 (though center Martin Hanzal was taken by Phoenix at No. 17 out of Czech juniors).
That trend raises a similar question to the one Canada faced with goaltenders: are there enough opportunities for the country’s young players?
Apparently not. And so, along with the foreign restrictions, the Czechs are implementing a series of roster requirements that will open up slots for younger players. Among the highlights:
* A maximum of 15 players born in 1990 or earlier are allowed in a game for each team.
* A team should have at least three players born between 1991 and 1993 on its game roster.
* A team should have at least one player born in 1994 or later on its game roster.
* Both goaltenders are exempt from any of the above rules.
The target here? The CHL. But it’s not about retaliation. It’s about preserving Czech hockey.
“We realize there’s no such thing as a perfect solution, nor is ours,” said Sparta Praha chairman Petr Briza. “But it does offer a better chance for young players to get a roster spot and thus get Extraliga ice time. As a result we think that with this stimulus in place we can persuade players to not leave the league at a young age already.”
Opportunity isn’t the only problem, but it’s the only one that can easily be addressed. The Czech league is bleeding players as much because of money as anything. It’s the least financially secure of any league based in one of the elite hockey-playing countries, so when the KHL or the Swedish or German leagues come calling, the Czechs don’t have the resources to keep their top players.
That’s not a battle that’s turning their way any time soon. But by focusing on development and creating situations where their top young players might advance their skills at home, the Czechs are taking a step in the right direction.
And it probably won’t be long before other countries follow.