A golden opportunity at home
by Lucas AYKROYD|26 MAY 2024
From the ecstatic fans to the energized team, the Czechs are united in their desire to win the 2024 gold medal on home ice in Prague. Here, Dominik Kubalik (#81) celebrates with David Kampf (#64) after scoring on Sweden.
It’s hard to overstate how jacked-up Czech fans are about their national team’s chance to make history in the 2024 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship final.

Saturday’s 7-3 semi-final rout of Sweden took place in front of an ecstatic, literally hopping Prague crowd of 17,413.

“I'm really overwhelmed right now and want to celebrate with the boys,” said Matej Stransky, who was part of the 2022 team that earned Czechia’s last medal, a bronze on Tampere ice. The 30-year-old forward, who won a Spengler Cup last year with HC Davos, will battle a swath of familiar faces on Sunday.

Even if Stransky isn’t as big of a name as 110-point man David Pastrnak of the Boston Bruins, it scarcely matters as the host nation unites in search of a golden dream. The greats of the “golden generation” of 1996 to 2005 – from Jaromir Jagr to Robert Reichel to Martin Rucinsky – are here to cheer the current team on.

For the Czechs, it is more than a chance to end a title drought stretching back to 2010.

It is a gateway to joining some truly elite company. Only four nations have won home-ice gold at a World Championship tournament, and only two of them still exist. Czechoslovakia did it in 1947, 1972, and 1985; the Soviet Union in 1973, 1979, and 1986; Sweden in 2013; and Finland in 2022.

Of course, coach Radim Rulik’s 2024 players don’t want to speculate about whether they might have statues erected in their honour in Wenceslas Square.

Radko Gudas can play the role of on-ice enforcer and post-game philosopher. Yet when asked to contemplate the big-picture implications for Czech hockey, the 33-year-old Anaheim Ducks veteran demurred: “You know what? I’m going to check out the newspaper on Monday and think about that on Monday. For me, it's about trying to get my legs for tomorrow and to get the biggest regeneration, so I can perform tomorrow the way I can, and focus on tomorrow more than anything else.”

Whether they win gold or settle for silver, these Czechs have already exceeded expectations on so many levels.

This tournament has gone even better than the last two times in Prague – and that extends beyond the new attendance record of close to 800,000. In 2004, the host team lost 4-3 in a quarter-final shootout to the Americans. In 2015, the Czechs lost 2-0 to Canada in the semis and 3-0 to the U.S. in the bronze-medal game. Yet this year, a medal is guaranteed.

Saturday’s semi-final was utterly unlike 2015. Czechia scored the most goals it has ever scored in a World Championship game versus Sweden. It was a remarkable feat against the tournament’s stingiest preliminary-round defence, featuring Norris Trophy winners in Victor Hedman (2018) and captain Erik Karlsson (2012, 2015, 2023)

Czech captain Roman Cervenka is the lone remaining skater from the 2010 gold-medal team in Cologne. He was 24 when the Czechs triumphed 2-1 – on Tomas Rolinek’s second-period goal – over a deep Russian squad boasting 14 returnees from their Vancouver Olympic team. Another Swiss NLA veteran (Rapperswill-Jona), the nifty attacker sees few parallels between the 2010 team and the current edition.

“That's a different team,” said Cervenka, who leads Czechia with 11 points. “Fourteen years ago, we went through a really tough time. We had to win our last [two] games in the group stage. Nobody expected [us to win]. The media said we were the worst team in the World Championship and then we won the cup. I think this team is better, stronger. But you have to prove it on the ice.”

That maxim also holds true between the pipes. No Czech goalie has been named Best Goaltender or a tournament MVP since Tomas Vokoun posted a 1.08 GAA and 95.3 save percentage en route to gold in Vienna in 2005. In today’s more offensive climate, Lukas Dostal, Gudas’ Anaheim teammate and the 2024 starter, is making an IIHF name for himself with a 1.80 GAA and 92.8 save percentage.

Will Dostal add himself to the storied list of World Championship-winning Czech netminders that includes the likes of Jiri Holecek, Roman Turek, and Roman Cechmanek? To do so, the 23-year-old Brno native will need good offensive support versus Switzerland.

Lukas Sedlak, who hails from the 2025 IIHF Women’s World Championship host city of Ceske Budejovice, scored two identical breakaway goals with backhand dekes against Sweden. However, you can bank on this year’s gold medal game not being a carbon copy of the deciding game when Prague last celebrated a title in 1985.

For one thing, there was no final back then (the IIHF instituted the playoff system in 1992). Instead, it came down to Czechoslovakia’s last game of the final round against Canada, a 5-3 win for the hosts. Slovak players featured heavily, from Jiri Sejba, who led the way with a hat trick, to captain Darius Rusnak, who exchanged jerseys with Canadian star Ron Francis afterwards. And of course, should Czechia win it all in 2024, there will be more leeway celebrations-wise than in the olden days of the Communist regime.

This is truly a golden opportunity for Czechia. Now it is up to the players to determine whether it will be about simply rejoining the perennial contenders, as in a silver medal, or securing a monumental gold-medal victory that could spawn a new “golden generation” and an irresistible wave of enthusiasm for hosting future tournaments.