There were moments during the final of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey two months ago when I could not believe where I was standing or what I was seeing. I could not believe it at all.
You see, as a goalie, it is very important to know what is going on around me. And standing in my crease, do you know what I could see when I observed my surroundings? I saw my Team Europe teammates: my five fellow Slovaks, the six Germans, the four Swiss, the three Danes, the one Austrian, the one Frenchman, the one Norwegian and the one Slovenian. I saw them all with the same colors on. All these different nationalities, and there we were, playing against Team Canada for the championship.
Of course, these moments of thought had to be brief. I had to keep all my attention on Canada because there was no fourth line on that team. The Canadians could make you pay for any mistake, so I had to be sharp.
But I did think a lot about who we were and where we came from during stoppages in play, when I would look down through the bars in my mask at the front of my jersey. It had a big E on it. And all I could think was, I am participating in a final … against Canada, and we have a chance to win the game! This doesn’t happen too often for players from our countries!
For the majority of guys on Team Europe, we were not familiar with being in this position. In Vancouver in 2010, my fellow Slovakians and I played very well and finished in fourth place — our best ever result in the Olympics. Finishing 11th at the 2014 Olympics was a big disappointment.
But this was different. Team Europe was made up of many players from eight different nations. Each country produces some amazing hockey players, but not nearly as many as Sweden, Russia or Canada. For us to play against Canada in a final … this almost never happens for any of us. So this time, we were happy. No, we did not win the championship, but we should be proud of our team effort. Our success made the process even better and brought us very, very close as a team. It is cool what we did accomplish.
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The North American team was really fast. They were made up of young stars — a lot of skill.
Prior to the tournament, there was no way that you could have predicted our success. I arrived in Quebec City only a few days before our first exhibition match. There were only 10 players on the ice at our first practice. The rest were in Europe playing for their respective countries in Olympic qualifiers.
Even after everybody else arrived the next day, nobody really talked to each other. But it was not because we did not like each other. It was because we didn’t know each other well enough yet.
We would go on the bus to the arena and many of us would sit with other players of our own nationality. We would go to dinner and eat with our friends. For Team Europe, we were a team, but it did not look like it at first.
You see, in the beginning, we spoke our own languages. But quickly, we all started to speak our common language: hockey. It really is amazing how hockey can bring people together.
And then the exhibition games started.
I was asked by numerous reporters about what I thought happened against Team North America in our first two games. My answer was that we learned how we needed to play as a team in order to succeed. We knew that there weren’t going to be any easy games going into the tournament, even the exhibitions. We knew we had to get better. Everybody had to pick it up. The North American team was really fast. They were made up of young NHL stars — a lot of skill.
Our improvement started with our coaches: Ralph Krueger. Paul Maurice. Brad Shaw. After the North Americans won 4–0 in the first exhibition, the coaches asked us to come into the video room. We did not know how the coaches would react. But the coaches did something very good. They brought out the positives in the game. They did not pick on guys. They showed us the system that they wanted us to play so that we could be successful.
Quickly, we learned. We scored four more goals in the second game against North America … but we let in seven. Another bad loss. But you would not have thought we lost. The leadership of our team in the room after that game was great and kept everyone positive. You probably couldn’t see it then, but those losses brought us all closer together and made us play better moving forward.
In our third exhibition game, against Sweden, we proved to ourselves that we could play well together. We won 6–2. The room after the game was so much fun. Lots of laughs and smiles.
I must say, Mats Zuccarello was the funniest person on the team. I am laughing right now thinking of the things he would say and do. The stuff that came out of his mouth sometimes … it was so funny. Just looking over and seeing Zucc, who is 5’7”, stand there next to my countryman Zdeno Chára, who is 6’9”, was hilarious.
Many people may look at Zdeno and think, Oh, this man must be mean or a tough guy because he is so tall. But that is not true. I have known Zdeno for a long time, and the man is very easy going. He doesn’t have the superstar behavior. I remember my first world championships when I was 21 and Zdeno was on the team. He was a great leader even back then.
In spite of how things began throughout the couple of weeks we were together, I became close with all my teammates, not just my fellow Slovakians. On the whole team, a lot of friendships were formed.
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When the round-robin games began, we kept the momentum from our last exhibition game against Sweden. We surprised lots of people by beating the U.S. 3–0. Then we beat the Czech Republic 3–2 in overtime. And even though we lost to Canada 4–1 in the last game of the group play, we had already advanced to the semifinals. Eight small little countries had come together to achieve something many people had said was impossible. Nobody thought we could get this far outside of the guys we had in that room.
Our 3–2 comeback win over Sweden in the semifinals was a memorable game. Thank goodness that the puck bounced in off Tomáš Tatar’s skate in overtime. The locker room afterward was crazy. It was unbelievable. And then it was off to the finals.
People are always asking now, “How did this happen? How did it work? How did you make it to the finals?” And I say, “We just played hockey and we had a lot of fun doing it.” We had the flag of our country on our shoulders, but we had the European E on our chest. We were one team and that was all that mattered.
Yes, Canada won the tournament. But what we did … it was a fun ride, let me tell you that. I still think that we should be proud of ourselves for what we achieved.
So if someone ever says to you, “That is not possible,” do not listen to them. Because a couple of hockey players from eight small little countries made the final of the World Cup. For goodness sakes, our head coach is the chairman of Southampton F.C.! You look at this and you have to say, Anything is possible.
I don’t think I will be getting rid of my goalie mask or any of my Team Europe gear from the World Cup any time soon. I made sure to cherish every moment because Team Europe may only be a one-time thing.
As we continue along through the NHL regular season and as I play games for the Islanders, I am taking everything I learned with me. The experience from the World Cup was unbelievable because it took our individual games to another level. I will always remember the World Cup of Hockey. It was an incredible honor, and an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.