August 26, 2018

Sharing a wealth of experience – Patrik Elias wants to give back to Czech hockey

Patrik Elias. Photo: Uffe Bodin

The U20 Four Nations’ Tournament in Örnsköldsvik features some prominent talent. Finland has Montréal Canadiens’ third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the roster while Russia has New York Rangers’ first-rounder Vitali Kravtsov in their line-up. But with all due respect to these up and coming prospects, it’s behind the Czech bench that the biggest celebrity of the tournament can be found.

Legendary New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias amassed 1.025 points over 1.240 games, making him the only Czech player outside of Jaromir Jagr to reach 1 000 points in the NHL, while also winning the Stanley Cup 2000 and 2003. This season, two and a half years removed from his last NHL game, he’s on the verge of starting a new hockey career.

After moving back home to the Czech Republic last year, he’s now serving as the assistant coach of his native country’s U20 national team, working alongside long-time friend and former NHL:er Vaclav Varada.
“(Varada) approached me about three or four months ago”, Patrik Elias says when meets him after the Czech’s 1–3 loss to Russia. “Since I have the personal relationship with him and I know that he has done a really good job last two, three years as a coach, I felt that if I wanted to start up with someone, it’s good to start with someone that you trust and that can help you out. He’s been great.”

When asked if a coaching career is something that he had planned to pursue, the 42-year-old chuckles.
“Not at all. Everyone has been asking me and telling me that it would be something that would be a good fit for me, but when you have played professional hockey for many, many years you want to give yourself a break and stay away from the game for a bit”, he explains. “I didn’t expect to get back this quickly, but at the same time it is something that is good for me, just to see if I like doing it.  Here, you are involved for a week to ten days and then you get a break and get time for yourself and the family. It’s a good balance.”

The big highlight of the season will be the World Juniors in Vancouver and Victoria at Christmas time. To Patrik Elias it’s a chance to get the thrill of competition that’s been missing since he finished his NHL career.  He sees it as an honor to be a part of a tournament of that significance.
“I obviously know the importance of the tournament and what it means, especially to the guys as a chance to showcase themselves”, Elias says. “It’s a great privilege to be a part of something like that. To me, after the World Cup and the Olympics, it’s probably probably the biggest tournament.”

It’s also a tournament he himself never got the chance to participate in.
“The first year I got hurt in camp when we were in Canada right before the tournament. The second year I was in Albany (River Rats) in the minors and Lou (Lamoriello, New Jersey’s former GM) didn’t like the idea of me going. So I remember driving to Boston to watch my friends play.”

Patrik Elias at his jersey retirement ceremony in February. 
Photo: Noah K. Murray-USA ​TODAY Sports/IBL

The Czech Republic hasn’t been very successful at neither the junior or the senior level for the past ten years. After winning back-to-back gold medals at the WJC in 2000 and 2001, the only medal they’ve captured was a bronze back in 2005.

Last season, however, they broke a trend by qualifying for the semifinals before bowing out against Canada and losing the bronze medal game against the US. A step in the right direction for a hockey program under re-construction.
“We haven’t gotten any results for the last few years”, Elias notes. “We have talented guys, no doubt about it, but in the late 90s and early 2000s, Czech hockey was very successful, winning the Olympics and the World Championships several times. We almost had 80 guys playing in NHL every year, which is a pretty good number. Now when you look around, there’s like 15-20 Czech guys in the league and we’re still looking for some good results at the international level. But to me, it’s like life… You go through ups and downs. I know Swedish and Finnish hockey went through the same thing a few years ago and look where they are now.  They started some things, made changes and got results. It all started with the young kids and the programs they had for them. The Czech federation is aware of this and they’re trying to come up with something that would take the hockey back to where we’d like it to be.”

When it comes to player development, the Czechs really seem to have turned a corner. After not having any first-rounders in the draft between 2008 and 2011, there’s been several intriguing prospects coming from the country the last few years. Last season’s WJC team features players like Martin Necas, Filip Zadina, Filip Chytil and Martin Kaut, all of them first-rounders the past two years.

Patrik Elias likes what he sees from some of the younger guys, but in his mind it’s not the lack of top players that’s the problem, it’s the lack of depth.
“The players you refer to, that’s  just a handful of guys”, he says. “Look at the Swedes and the Finns, they have more players and that makes a difference.”

Learning from the success of those countries will be a key for Czech hockey going forward. But Patrik Elias also thinks that having former NHL players involved in the process could de a difference maker.
“We’re looking around to see what we can do differently and hopefully a lot of the guys that have played in the NHL and have that kind of experience can come back and help out”, he says. “That doesn’t mean we will be good at it or get results, but at least it’s good if guys can share their experiences. knowledge and maybe offer a different perspective, explain how things are done overseas, give more information and create a change for the better. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Sharing his own wealth of experience seems like a good start.


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