Cajanek not singing the Blues about Czech hockey

Originally published on IHWC.NET in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

How often do you see an NHLer achieve single-season highs in goals, assists, and points, and also get placed on waivers that year? That’s the strange fate that befell St. Louis forward Petr Cajanek on February 26, as the club was apparently displeased with his lack of consistency.

But the versatile 31-year-old Czech bounced back, and down the stretch, he showed more of the playmaking savvy that earned him a place on the national team at two Olympics (2002, 2006) and four IIHF World Championships (2000, 2001, 2002, 2005), among other international tournaments.

This three-time gold medal-winner, who spoke with IHWC.NET before being named to the Czech team for Moscow, actually traces his 2007 resurgence to an earlier point in February: “I think I started playing better after they scratched me for a couple of games [on the 6th and 8th]. After that, Coach Andy Murray put me on left wing with Dougie [Weight] and Billy [Guerin, now with San Jose], and that helped my game get better.”

The 180-cm, 80-pound Zlin product hasn’t harbored any bitterness toward Murray about the waivers incident. He views Murray’s December 11, 2006 hiring as a major plus for the Blues, which won nearly twice as many games as they lost thereafter, despite a dreadful start under Mike Kitchen.

“It’s been huge,” Cajanek said. “You see the guys are more confident overall. We’ve got a young group of guys who have played great for us, too: David Backes, Lee Stempniak, Jay McClement, Roman Polak. We believe in ourselves, and it’s a great stepping stone for the future.”

Murray, of course, coached Canada to two of its last four IIHF World Championship gold medals (1997, 2003), and is hoping to repeat that magic in Moscow. Cajanek has plenty to cherish from his own participation in the IIHF’s annual spring showcase. He scored a goal and three assists in his tournament debut in 2000 as the Czechs took top spot in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“It was a great time,” Cajanek said. “It was my first tournament, and you don’t know how lucky you are when you win the first time. I have nothing but great memories.”

How would he account for the Czech Republic’s run of golden success that began at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and ended with David Moravec’s overtime winner in Germany 2001 (where Cajanek added eight points in nine games)?

“I think we had a great generation of players at that time, with guys like Robert Reichel, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Rucinsky, Dominik Hasek, and Jiri Dopita. We kind of clicked, and we knew where we had to be on the ice. Guys were working hard, and the feeling was great. Right now, we’ve also got a great group of guys and an experienced team. So hopefully we will keep on winning.”

Ironically, Cajanek cites the 4-3 overtime loss to Canada in the 2004 World Cup semi-finals as “probably the best game I’ve ever played in.” There, the Czech coach was Vladimir Ruzicka, who took over after the tragic death of 54-year-old Ivan Hlinka in a car accident near Karlovy Vary prior to the tournament. Ruzicka resigned his post after leading the Czechs to gold in Austria 2005. His successor, Alois Hadamczik, has performed creditably, but it will be tough for any Czech bench boss to live up to the legacy of Hlinka, the architect of ’98 Olympic gold.

“Nobody can match Ivan,” Cajanek said candidly. “He was something special, and we all know that. We had great respect for him as a person. We all miss him. In a way, that puts Hadamczik in a tough spot, but he was able to win the bronze at the last Olympics and the silver at the World Championship. He’s doing quite well.”

While skilled Czech forwards and defensemen abound in the NHL, some might question whether the country’s development of talented netminders is keeping pace. For instance, the rotation at the Turin Olympics began with a 41-year-old Dominik Hasek, who injured his groin in the first 10 minutes versus Germany, and then switched back and forth between 29-year-old Tomas Vokoun and 32-year-old Milan Hnilicka. Is there enough depth at that position?

“We’ve got some great young Czech goalies coming up,” Cajanek said. “Look at Marek Schwarz, who is playing in Peoria for our farm team. We’ve also got a bunch of guys coming up in the ExtraLeague, so I think we’re pretty strong in that spot.”

With respected veterans like Jagr and Rucinsky retiring from the national team, players like Petr Cajanek will need to step up and deliver strong leadership to ensure their nation of 10 million celebrates more IIHF World Championships in the years ahead. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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