On Thursday in Prague the Czech national team announced its new head coach, Milos Riha, and its new general manager, Petr Nedved.
“I am extremely honoured by this opportunity, even though I wasn’t the first choice,” Riha told the gathered media. “It is a great honour for me and I’m ready to do everything necessary to succeed.”
The first two choices for the post were Martin Straka and Libor Zabransky. Straka, a former NHLer, is now general manager and part owner of HC Plzen, while Zabransky is head coach, general manager and owner of Kometa Brno, the two-time defending champion of the Czech Extraliga. Both men declined due to the lack of time they had to commit to the national team.
“We talked about Zabransky for a long time, and he was really interested,” said Tomas Kral, president of the Czech Ice Hockey Association. “In fact, we discussed it at length, got down to some of the finer details, but it came down to a personal and family decision. He had to decline.”
As for Straka, Kral said: “He seriously thought about it. Eventually, he decided against it, and he had family reasons as well.”
Other names mentioned were Filip Pesan, who coached the Czech team at last year’s World Junior Championship, and Vaclav Varada, who will do so this upcoming season. One of the main factors in the decision is that coaching the Czech national team will be Riha’s only job this season, whereas the others all have other duties.
Riha, 58, retired as a player in 1991 and has coached continually since then in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Russia. His most recent job was with Slovan Bratislava of the KHL, where he was relieved of his duties part way through last season. He was the KHL’s coach of the Year in 2010/11 and spent most of the last years in the Russian-based league.
Riha takes over for Josef Jandac, who in each of the last two seasons guided the Czechs to good finishes in the group stages of the World Championships before falling in the quarter-finals each year.
“We want to maintain that success in the group stage right through to the final game,” Kral insisted. “This also influenced the people who make the decision: Milos Riha is perceived as a motivator. Even with teams without stars, he is able to win big games. We are expecting that too.”
As for the other position announced, Kral said: “We spoke to Petr Nedved in the spring, he said he was thinking about it a lot and that he would be interested in the post of manager. We talked about our ideas and we agreed.”
Nedved, of course, is a name that needs no introduction to the hockey world. The long-time NHL player is a dual citizen of the Czech Republic and Canada, and played for both countries in the Olympics. This past February, he made news by coming out of retirement to play one game in the Czech second division against Jaromir Jagr, and impressively recorded two points in the game. Now 46, this is Nedved’s first off-ice job in hockey.
“I think it makes sense,” Kral said of the combination of Riha and Nedved. “Riha has contacts from the KHL and Petr from overseas. How they coordinate that is up to them, but I believe this will work.”
On working with Nedved, Riha said: “It’s always better to discuss everything, to cooperate. It will not be given strictly that I’ll say something and that will be that.”
Riha also said that either he or Nedved will try to speak personally with every Czech player in the NHL, in an attempt to attract the best team possible to the World Championship and have everybody on one page.
“There’s not a lot of time for practising,” he emphasized.
From 1996 to 2001, the Czechs were a powerhouse on the international scene, winning four World Championships and one Olympic title under the tutelage of Ludek Bukac, Ivan Hlinka and Josef Augusta. They added titles in 2005 and 2010 under Vladimir Ruzicka, and then a pair of bronzes in 2011 and 2012 under Alois Hadamczik, but have failed to medal at the six tournaments since. Riha will be the team’s fifth bench boss since then.
When the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship will open in Slovakia, the Czechs may feel like at home as they play close to the border in Bratislava while the actual host Slovakia decided to play the group stage in Kosice. In Bratislava they will play the preliminary round against Sweden, Russia, Switzerland, Norway, Latvia, Austria and Italy. Tickets will go on sale in September on 2019.iihfworlds.com.