By Mike Halford
Zdeno Chara — Slovakia’s flag bearer at the opening ceremonies — is leaving the Games on a sour note.
Slovakia was eliminated on Tuesday with a 5-3 loss to the Czechs, ending Chara’s shot at a medal in what might be his last Winter Olympics.
“You never know. We’ll see how it’s going to play out,” he said of future participation. “As of right now, I don’t look that much ahead. Right now I’m just disappointed we didn’t perform better.”
After a captivating effort in Vancouver that saw the Slovaks place fourth — their highest-ever finish — the team was unable to capture similar magic in Sochi. Slovakia was routed 7-1 by the Americans in the tournament opener, lost 3-1 to Slovenia in a massive upset, then rallied to take the Russians to a shootout… before losing that, too.
In the playoff game against the Czechs, Slovakia fell behind 4-0 before a late rally cut the deficit to one. Chara and company were unable to come any closer, though, and finished the Olympics in 11th place.
“We were not able, besides the game against Russia, to put 60 minutes together,” Chara explained. “This game, we lost the beginning of the game. They got ahead 3-0 (in the first period); obviously it’s a tough game to come back from, being behind three goals.”
Chara turns 37 in March and would be nearing his 41st birthday by the time the Pyeongchang Olympics roll around in 2018. His age, plus the uncertainty of future NHL participation, mean Sochi could’ve been his last kick at the can.
Chara’s been to the Olympics three times — 2006, ’10 and ’14 — and is one of his country’s greatest players. Once he’s done competing internationally, though, the future of Slovakian hockey gets murky; he, along with veterans Marian Hossa, Michal Handzus, Tomas Kopecky and Peter Budaj are all on the wrong side of 30 and there’s a dearth of young prospects on the horizon. Tomas Tatar, Richard Panik, Martin Marincin and Tomas Jurco essentially represent the best current Slovak youngsters in the NHL; Columbus’ Marko Dano (27th overall, ’13) is one to watch for the future but, in 2012, not a single Slovak prospect was drafted.
As such, Chara recognized Sochi as a missed opportunity for one final shot at international glory.
“We had a really rough game against the U.S. and that put us down a bit mentally, the confidence wasn’t there,” he said, per IIHF.com. “But we bounced back against Russia in probably our best game of the tournament.
“We thought we would follow that up tonight, but we didn’t really do it.”