After the week Team Czechia put together during the World Para Hockey Championship, it seemed only fitting that they found themselves playing for a medal on Sunday afternoon at the Moose Jaw Events Centre.
And even more fitting that they’d come away with a win in the bronze medal game.
Captain Radek Zelinka scored on a shot from the point with 2:14 to play in the third period, and Czechia would go on to pick up the first medal in their country’s history with a 3-2 victory over Team China.
“We are extremely happy, but we put a lot of work into this championship and the preparation, the whole season was very tough for us and we’re really grateful to the whole of Czech hockey for this medal,” said Czechia veteran Michal Geier. “It’s our first-ever medal and we’re so happy, it’s overwhelming.”
The contest was as close as could be from start to finish.
China’s Cui Yu Tao opened scoring only 1:27 into the contest, but Geier would get that one back before the period was out.
Geier then gave his team the lead 2:05 into the second, only to have China respond as time ran down in the frame. Shen Yi Feng tied the game 2-2 with 12 seconds remaining, and there things would remain until Zelinka’s game-winner.
That things were so close wasn’t a surprise given how the teams had played throughout the week.
“It was a hard game for us, we expected the tight result because we saw them the whole championship and they had a great team,” Geier said. “But we played a great game and it was a huge win.”
Czechia coach Jakub Novotny was at a loss for words when trying to fully describe what the win meant to his crew.
“It was nervewracking for us, but we told our players it was the best western movie we ever saw after the game,” he said. “He shoots he scores (a last-minute goal)? It’s amazing and we feel so much satisfaction, the players put in so much work and we love this result. It’s extremely… yeah, it’s extremely.”
China had hoped to at least match their third-place showing from the 2022 Paralympics, but largely took the loss in stride given how close things were between the two teams.
“Team Czechia has a great team, they were executing their strategies and seemed to be very disciplined,” said China defenceman Zhu Zhan Fu. “We have a young team, there were a lot of things we learned and we’ll try our best to win a medal next time.”
China coach Yin Jiwu pointed to that youth as a factor in how things played out, especially given the high-pressure situation.
“For our team today, we were competing for the bronze medal and everyone was really nervous and we made quite few mistakes ourselves that gave our opponent opportunities,” Yin said. “The important thing is learning to deal with pressure, the pressure caused by travelling to a foreign country to compete and everything about a world championship. So we will try our best to improve in those areas in the future.”
Ji Yan Zhao finished the game with seven saves, while Martin Kudela had 13 stops for Czechia in yet another stellar performance.
“Our goalie was just a wall the entire tournament and we knew we could count on him this game as well,” Novotny said. “So it all came together, and after the first period we started to shoot more and create more pressure on them and it all worked out.”
The medal was a long time coming for Czechia and one they hope will be the first of many.
“Everyone on our team staff were extremely happy,” Novotny said. “We’ve been working as a team for a long time, and it’s the guys in the past who built this team, they built the base for us and we’re satisfied with what we did here.
“I’m very proud of our players not just for this medal but for how they played the whole tournament and hopefully this is a sign of things to come.”