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Team Czech Republic positive despite tough stretch

Long shot to make World Cup semifinals, assistant coach Vinny Prospal says country still playing for pride

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Team Czech Republic assistant coach Vinny Prospal plans to be at Air Canada Centre to root for Team USA in its World Cup of Hockey 2016 preliminary round game against Team Canada on Tuesday.

Prospal played for Team USA coach John Tortorella and assistant Mike Sullivan with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers, so that has a little to do with his interest, but it's mostly about Team Czech needing help to stay alive in the World Cup. If Team Canada loses to Team USA on Tuesday and to Team Europe on Wednesday, Team Czech Republic will have a chance to reach the semifinals with a win over Team USA on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, TVA Sports).

Prospal knows the odds are heavily against Team Czech Republic advancing after it lost its first two games to Team Canada (6-0) and Team Europe (3-2 in overtime), but he's still clinging to the slimmest hope. Otherwise, Team Czech Republic won't have anything competitive to play for in its final game of this World Cup.

"It's about pride," Prospal said. "Any time you put on the jersey with the Czech logo, no matter what the results or what the outcome will be, you should always play to your max effort and that's what we would hope. I can tell you right now for the entire coaching staff, we're going to do everything possible to prepare our players to come up with the best effort and win the hockey game Thursday night."

Hoping for a miracle and playing for pride is all Team Czech Republic has left at this World Cup, but Prospal, 41, remembers a time when his country was a hockey power. He was on the Czech team that took Team Canada to overtime before losing in the 2004 World Cup semifinals.

The Czech Republic was on the top of the hockey world when it won the gold medal in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first to include NHL players, but has fallen on hard times of late. There were 35 Czech-born players in the NHL last season compared to 68 in 2003-04.

Only Team Finland had fewer NHL players to choose from for this World Cup with 28. Team Czech Republic's talent pool was further depleted by injuries to David Krejci, Tomas Hertl and Radko Gudas and Jaromir Jagr declining an invitation to play. That Jagr led all Czech players with 66 points last season at age 44 also says something about the state of country's national hockey program.

"The depth is obviously not there," Prospal said. "If you go back 10, 15 years ago, we could probably put together two or three teams that could compete. Right now, we are not in that position anymore and I am not sure why that is, but that's the way it is. That's the reality, so you have to play with what you've got. But I do believe all those players want to win, they want to be successful, but maybe other players or countries are a little bit better and we have to find out how to get back to the level that we can compete with anyone."

Team Czech Republic was blown out by Team Canada in its World Cup opener on Saturday, but was in position to pull out a victory against Team Europe on Monday. That only made the overtime loss more frustrating.

"I thought we were close," defenseman Andrej Sustr said. "It was a pretty equal game. Team Europe maybe had a few more shots and dominated in some parts of the game. But when you get to OT, anything can happen. You know how that goes. … A little small mistake that can decide the game and that's what happened [Monday]." 

Even Team Europe, which is comprised of players from eight countries, had a bigger talent pool to choose from than Team Czech Republic, but Prospal said, 'I wouldn't hide behind that."

"We are a hockey country," Prospal said. "We always had good hockey players, hockey players that were very successful at the international level. They were successful at the NHL level, the top league in the world. That's the way it is. I'm not going to say it's like being on a rollercoaster, but we definitely not as high as we could be."

The Czech Republic's most recent positive result on the international stage ended with a loss to the United States in the bronze medal game at 2015 World Championship in Prague. Its last medal in that tournament was a bronze in 2012.

The Czech Republic won the silver medal in the 2014 Under-18 World Championship with a team that included Boston Bruins' 2014 first-round pick David Pastrnak, who is on its World Cup team, Bruins' 2015 first-round pick Jakub Zboril, New Jersey Devils' 2015 first-round pick Pavel Zacha and the Washington Capitals' 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana. That provides some hope for the future of Czech hockey but as Prospal noted, "You need to do this on a consistent basis, right?"

"You look at a country like Canada and hockey is like a religion here," Prospal said. "Czech was pretty much the same way. I don't want to go back in time, but in 2000 we were the team to beat at any international competition and it has changed. So, it's a process and right now we are in the process of getting back to the level that we can compete on any given night against anybody."

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