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Czech Republic vs. Slovakia: Beer trumps civil war

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Olympic Hockey: Czech Republic vs. Slovakia
Freaking midnight EST (
CNBC/SNET/RDS)

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The flag of Czechoslovakia (ca. 1920-1992)

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The flag of the Czech Republic after the Slovaks took their puck and went home.

If you have a brother, you guys probably did your share of fighting, right? But at the end of the day, you're on the same side? Now suppose your parents neglected both of you and the rest of the world typically tramples over you -- then your fraternal rivalry would take a rather peaceful back seat in the face of external forces, no?

That's sort of what this Czech Republic vs. Slovakia deal is. Depending on your engagement with Central European history, you might see the split of Czechoslovakia as "just another one of those frighteningly bloody Slavic powder keg things, some fight over scraps and a goat." But it's quite a bit more peaceful than that. Their formal post-Soviet split in 1993 was more a manner of redecorating and moving one spouse to the guest house rather than a bloody divorce. Good beer and common enemies have a way of softening your rivalry.

It irks Slovaks to be referred to as the "little brother" in this relationship, but that's really the most apt description. It's the Czechs' 10 million (population virtually unchanged since 1990 -- Czechs are good at hockey, soccer, beer and birth control) vs. the Slovaks' 5 million (also unchanged). That hardly means little brother can't win, though; in fact, this past summer Slovakia qualified for soccer's World Cup at the expense of big brother.

Though longtime neighbors, Czechs -- or Bohemians, if you prefer -- and Slovaks were thrown together by their common fear of vowels. (Go ahead, try to pronounce "King Přemysl" -- I dare you. Tip: It helps if you fill your mouth with marshmallows first.) They were joined as one state after World War I through one of those forced mergers caused by greater historical forces, but that's not important right now.

Traditionally, the region -- with the classic, better-visit-before-you-die city of Prague at its center -- has been a crossroads for other empires seeking bigger things, save for a glorious period oh, just 700 years ago, when Prague-born Charles IV (a.k.a. Vaclav, or Wenceslaus, if you must) was rocking the helm of the (neither) Holy (nor) Roman (nor an) Empire (discuss). Yes, the prime was 700 years ago. In Europe, this sometimes happens. Otherwise, whether Romans or Austro-Hungarians or Napoleonites or Germans or Russians, the area has served as a weigh station of those who think world domination is some sort of desirable, achievable and manageable goal.

Typical invader greeting being:

"We're just stopping by on our way to plunder and pillage places with more raw resources, but we must say you have some terrific beer. So thanks for that, and sorry about the mess."

I claim that this fate at the mercy of others is what helped fuel the fatalistic Czech sense of humor, a sense of humor that produces works of mischievous genius like this. And beer. Let's be honest: If you can brew the best beer in the world, the unbearable lightness of being gets a little more bearable, no matter who's ransacking the beet garden. So, all ye empires with your illusions of glory: Go ahead and pass through; just leave us our beer. And hockey.

P.S. If you don't remember what defenestration is, you should reacquaint yourself with this wonderful term -- and thank the Czechs for putting it in your history class.

 

The Part of the Post that's actually about Hockey

But that's also neither here nor there. Since I occasionally reference my own part-Czech background (grandfather was executed by the Nazis, father was exiled by the Soviet occupation ... See! Fate at the mercy of invaders!), I figured I owed regular readers this post.

There is a rivalry here, it's just not what many picture as a bloody Slavic rivalry. Despite the contributions of Slovak hockey players -- together they made some sweet Soviet-beating music together -- when the Slovaks split, the larger Czech Republic laid claim to the medals and championships earned under the Czechoslovakia banner. The IIHF also required Slovakia to work its way from the bottom back to the "A" pool of international hockey, while the Czechs held on to the existing Czechoslovak spot with the other big dogs. Being little brother sucks sometimes, no?

In part thanks to the work of the legendary Peter Stastny, Slovak hockey continued to grow. But it was in the shadow of the Czechs, who claimed gold in the 1998 Nagano Olympics and also took three world championship titles at the turn of the millenium. In the 2006 Olympics, Slovakia looked to have its biggest and most symbolic solo hockey moment yet, only to fall in the elimination round to ... the Czech Republic.

 

Vokoun vs. Halak and Damaged Marians

So now we come to tonight: While all but the minnows advance to the qualifying round in this Olympic tournament, tonight is a very big deal not just for rivalry purposes, but because the other non-minnow in this very tough Group B is Russia. Since seeding in the next round depends on points (and possibly goal differential), whoever takes tonight's game takes a major seeding advantage over the other.

I'm counting on Tomas Vokoun's near-Hasek-like heroics, but the bad news for the Czechs is now Slovakia has a decent "priceless" (heh) goaltender in Jaroslav Halak. While the Czechs return Jaromir Jagr from KHL exile to the land of smaller rinks, the Slovaks have towering Zdeno Chara to remind him what hockey on a smaller rink is like.

Both teams, you may have noticed, are lighter on superstar talent than in recent years -- neither is producing NHL talent like they once routinely did -- and worse for Slovakia, Marian Gaborik is still injured (shock!) and Marian Hossa is coming off a concussion. Islanders fans will be tickled to see Ziggy Palffy and Miro Satan return to this stage, but the presence of both is a sign of how this generation of Czechs and Slovaks needs some replenishing.

Regardless, when brothers battle, it's always fun. If you watch, you can treat this post as your game thread. I won't be able to watch it live, though. Why? Because I'll be playing some late-night hockey and then ... why, drinking beer, of course.