The injustices that happened to Team Slovakia at the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics could be categorized as ‘sport crimes’. The snubs the Slovakians suffered at both these Olympic Games were shameful. At the time, a top-5 hockey nation on paper, Slovakia was left out of the field of 8 nations in the main tournament.
They were robbed a birth in the Olympics, twice in a row, during their country’s golden-age of hockey. At both these tournaments, especially in 2002, Team Slovakia would have been serious medal contenders had they been able to send their real team to international hockey’s grandest stage.
Event #3: The Screw-job at the Nagano Olympics
The tournament held at the 1998 Winter Olympics was hailed as the “tournament of the century” because the NHL would take a 2-week break and allow its players to compete for their national teams.
It was decided that the world’s ‘Super Six’ hockey nations would be able to bypass the preliminary round, and 8 other hockey nations would play for the remaining 2 spots in the real tournament.
Why was Team Slovakia excluded from getting this Bye?
There were only 7 nations comprised of almost entirely NHL players, and Slovakia was one of them- the only one that did not get the Bye. More importantly, the NHL decided that it would not release it players for the preliminary round, which put Slovakia in a brutal position.
Slovakia’s best team in 1998 could compete with any nation in the world, however they were not particularly deep beyond their team of NHL players. This would also be true of any of the elite nations, with the exception of Canada, Russia, and maybe Sweden. In the preliminary round, they were not able to use most of their NHL players. World-class players like Zigmund Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra, Josef Stumpel, Zdeno Chara, Richard Zednik, Michael Handzus, and Lubos Bartecko were not permitted to go play in the prelims to ensure Slovakia got the birth they deserved.
Despite that, Slovakia was able to bring a few key players with them to the prelims, but narrowly missed advancing, and certainly underachieved even without the players named above. Peter Bondra, Zdeno Ciger, Robert Svehla, Robert Petrovicky, Lubomir Sekeras, and Lubomir Visnovsky did play in the 1998 Olympic preliminary round. Instead of Slovakia being featured in the main tournament, it was Kazakhstan.
As any informed hockey fan can surmise from the 15 players listed above, this was not a ‘minnow’ of a hockey nation. This was a team that could have done real damage in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and it’s a crime they were forced to play in the preliminary round- without being able to use their NHL players. On paper they were just as good as a number of the ‘Big 6 Nations’ that got a Bye past the qualification tournament. A look at Kazakhstan’s roster compared to who the Slovaks would have sent shows how preposterous this format was.
Two years later at the 2000 IIHF World Championships, this Slovakian team won the Silver Medal.
Event #4- The Screw-Job at the 2002 Olympics
Yet again at the following Olympics in Salt Lake City, despite the preposterous snub of Slovakia 4 years earlier, the IIHF chose not to change the format of the tournament, and once again the NHL decided that they would not allow their players to partake in the preliminary round. Once again, this put Slovakia at a tremendous disadvantage.
For the second time they were the only team made up of almost entirely NHL players that would be forced to play in the prelims- without their real team.
The Slovaks failed to win their preliminary group to advance to the real tournament- yet again underachieving and having a few bad games at the worst time. Instead of the Slovaks getting the birth they deserved, this time it was Germany instead- who proceeded to get blown out in 3 of their 4 games- (except for an interesting 3-2 loss to Canada).
Only 3 months later, Slovakia who was not a participant in the Olympic Games, won the Gold Medal at the World Championships, proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that they were an elite hockey nation.
This result, coupled with unrest at the Olympics, were troubling to the IIHF, the NHL, and the entire hockey community.
How could the World Champion not have participated at the Olympics 3 months earlier?
This scenario caused a format change for the next Olympics. Sadly, that was too late as Slovakia’s golden generation of hockey talent had been snubbed out of competing in 2 Olympic Tournaments in which they clearly would have been medal contenders.
The Notable Players that would have comprised Team Slovakia at the 2002 Olympics were:
Peter Bondra, Zigmund Palffy, Miroslav Satan, Josef Stumpel, Lubomir Visnovsky, Lubomir Sekeras, Robert Svehla, Richard Zednik, Michael Handzus, Ladislav Nagy, Zdeno Ciger, Robert Petrovicky, Martin Strbak, Richard Lintner, Lubos Bartecko, and goaltender Jan Lasek.
Compare this mixture of elite and solid NHL talent with the rosters of Germany and Belarus who were the nations that joined the ‘Big 6’ at the 2002 Olympics.